The Newsroom Episode 2.1 “First Thing We Do, Let’s Kill All the Lawyers”
Welcome back for season two of The Newsroom, Aaron Sorkin’s pay cable magnum opus. Last season I was admittedly a bit hard on The Newsroom. While I see this show as an improvment over Sorkin’s deservedly maligned Studio 60, The Newsroom’s first season often mistook ripped from the headline fact for character, and simplistic moralizing for profundity. Plus none of the romantic subplots clicked. Ever. Well, having watched the first four episodes of season two (I’ll only be discussing episode one, “First Thing We Do, Let’s Kill All The Lawyers,” here) I am happy to report that Sorkin seems to have fixed many of the problems that plagued season one… and in a few cases replaced them with all new problems.
When last we left our verbose heroes, News Night anchor Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels) had called out the Tea Party as being “the American Taliban,” a label which seems more appropriate for a Reddit comment thread than as the apex of a season of grown-up television, but whatever. When we pick up with Will two weeks later, he has started to feel the consequences of his accusation, at first in easily dismissible ways like the ACN network brass being shut out of Congressional hearings. Soon however, Will is quietly forced out of the network’s 10th anniversary 9-11 coverage, amidst fears that his presence will prove too inflammatory. To me this proves a believable setback for McAvoy, who is too often portrayed as perched loftily above the reach of the petty disputes that surround him. This also seems a slight mea culpa on Sorkin’s part, admitting that while calling the Tea Party the American Taliban may have felt righteously cathartic, it was a tad hyperbolic, and would likely invite blowback.
Meanwhile, MacKenzie McHale (Emily Mortimer) plays a largely supporting role in this first episode, though a sharper focus seems to have been brought to her role within the Newsroom world. Gone is the MacKenzie who awkwardly blurts out romantic confessions in professional settings, leaving us with a character seemingly more in line with the one we were introduced to in the pilot. In the season’s opening hour we see MacKenzie deftly navigate and solve a potentially actionable error during a live broadcast; firmly yet fairly voice objections to Neal’s proposed coverage of a protest, only to come around to tentatively trust him; and confront Will on a blown opportunity following a challenging interview. This is the MacKenzie McHale who is believable as one of the toughest, smartest Executive Producers in network news, and Mortimer acquits herself nicely, showing an ease and tenacity that were so often missing in the writing last season.
As for the remaining supporting players, we pick up just where we left off with the often insufferable Jim-Maggie-Don love triangle. Jim (John Gallagher Jr.) continues to pine after Maggie (Alison Pill), who is happily reunited with Don (Thomas Sadoski)… though she is obviously in love with Jim. Except then, as if to answer my prayers… Don is sent a link to a YouTube video, featuring Maggie’s screamed confession of love for Jim from last year’s season finale. While the idea of Maggie happening to infodump her entire romantic feelings for Jim onto the Sex and the City tour bus (ugh…) which Jim coincidentally happened to be on seemed preposterous last season, I personally found the idea of the video eventually making it’s way online believable. And if it gets into the hands of Don and ends their insufferable relationship and advances the story past the holding pattern we spent season one in, I’m all for it!
Earlier I mentioned Reddit, and that thankfully seems to be something that The Newsroom seems to have course corrected over it’s hiatus. Whereas the first season often relied on the characters having a cartoonishly limited understanding of the internet (23-year-old intern Maggie actually claimed to have thought LOL stood for “lots of love”) for season two someone seems to be sitting Sorkin down and explaining to him how human beings actually interact with the internet. This growth is most notable in the difference between where we left News Night blogger Neal Sanpat (Dev Patel), and where we find him last week. In the season one finale we last saw him infiltrating that most dangerous internet cabal known to man… a group of forum trolls. Aaron Sorkin’s disdain for angry and anonymous online commenters is well-documented, and he depicted Neal’s descent into their ranks as a Donnie Brasco-level undercover operation.
Mercifully, this plotline is not mentioned once in the season premiere (spoiler: it’s never referenced again in the next three episodes either). Instead, Neal has evolved from insisting Bigfoot is real to advocating for a more tangible news story – in a rundown meeting he shares online rumblings he’s read of a mass demonstration in Wall Street’s Zuccotti Park, which we the viewer recognize as the beginnings of Occupy Wall Street. This seems a much smarter use of Neal’s online research skills, and sets up a promising storyline when he seeks out the nascent leadership of the OWS movement. Patel is a strong actor, and it’s gratifying to see his character evolve from a geek blogger running joke into a credible member of the News Night team.
Oh, and Sam Waterston continues to play everything delightfully drunk. Meanwhile, Olivia Munn’s Sloan Sabbath is written alternately as a smart-as-a-whip hyper-articulate quip machine, and then as a bumbling caricature so incapable of reading social situations that I’m concerned she has an undiagnosed learning disability – but either way she plays the dialogue effectively. So not much news to report there.
All of this brings us up to date on our characters, but I’ve neglected to mention the most notable addition – Marcia Gay Harden (Pollock, Into The Wild) playing an ACN lawyer deposing our lead characters in wrap-around scenes familiar from Sorkin’s The Social Network and every fifth episode of The West Wing. When I say that The Newsroom has fixed many problems only to introduce new ones, this is what I mean – from what we gather it appears that later in the season the News Night team will run afoul of the law by airing a story about a botched US military operation called “Genoa,” possibly involving war crimes, which may or may not have actually happened. The things is, we as viewers know that this story never happened, because we never read about in the newspaper.
In my review of last year’s series premiere of The Newsroom, I predicted that Sorkin’s “ripped from yesterday’s headlines” storytelling could prove to be a trap, as his characters are forced to only react to the news and never shape it. Nor could they really have any dramatic tension as to the outcomes since the audience already knows them all, having read the news. The West Wing worked largely because it took place in a world reminiscent of but not the same as ours, where a fictional president could negotiate Middle East peace treaties or declare war on made-up nations. Here, Sorkin seems to have conceded the limitations of his current show’s original conceit, but I’m not quite sure how effective this “Genoa” storyline will prove to be as the season unfolds. The implication seems to be that McAvoy and the News Night team were misled into reporting a false story, and once again Sorkin seems to have given the audience knowledge that places them ahead of the characters. Time will tell if this opens the storytelling possibilities up, or proves another dead end.
The Newsroom is to pay cable drama as 24-hour network news is to The News. Like CNN or Fox, The Newsroom give the appearance of being a complex and challenging HBO drama, offering rich characters and compelling stories. But upon closer examination, much like the cable news they seek to indict, Sorkin’s show reveals itself to be a shakier construct that merely apes the rhythms and urgency of better shows while only occasionally cohering into something of substance. I believe that this second season premiere represent a bold step forward in terms of the show finding itself, and honing a voice that works. Here’s to a second season that’s less about “missions to civilize”, and more about the characters who would seek to do so.