Throughout the second season première of The Newsroom, it’s evident that Aaron Sorkin is desperate to get this one right. To his credit, he seems to have listened to many of the criticisms of season one, and he’s attempting to fix them. In most cases, this would amount to mainly cosmetic fixes, in hopes of giving the series a newer, shinier surface. Sorkin has done that, to be sure. (The title sequence, for instance, is new, with a new version of the main title music, and it feels less insufferably self-important as a consequence.) But he’s also dug down a bit and tried to find ways to address other problems people had with the show last season, more systemic ones. The opening scene—with Will at a deposition—indicates that at some point in the story of this season, the NewsNight team is going to get something horribly, horribly wrong (some sort of military operation named Genoa), and that promises to at least be different from the 20/20 hindsight that dominated season one. We get to see Mackenzie have those moments of competency at her job that were too infrequent in season one. The way Will is written has been subtly tweaked so it’s obvious more often what an asshole he can be.
Yet the show remains beautiful poison. Its surface is so easy to watch and goes down so well that it’s easy to miss all of the horrible things the series is feeding you. Sorkin is engaging in a kind of quixotic utopian dialogue with reality, an attempt to show how the world should run and should work, but he’s constantly let down by his need to make that somehow entertaining. This forces him to turn toward storylines and character arcs that just aren’t working, over and over again, and those reinforce the show’s worst tendencies. In tonight’s episode, for instance, the ongoing adventures of the Maggie/Jim/Don/Sloan/everybody love nonagon continue to drag down all they touch. Is anyone invested in this storyline? Is there anybody out there—even among the program’s diehard fans—who still really cares about Maggie and Jim finding their way into each other’s arms?
As a première, “First Thing We Do, Let’s Kill All The Lawyers” mostly takes its time getting the season’s storylines in place. This is fine, so far as these things go. The blowback from Will calling the Tea Party the American Taliban has caused Reese (a very wet Chris Messina, who presumably ran right back to the set of The Mindy Project) to be barred from the writing of SOPA legislation, and it also keeps Jim off the Mitt Romney campaign bus he tries to board in New Hampshire. (In the show’s chronology, it’s August of 2011, and Rick Perry is riding high.) Neal is convinced there’s something to this “Occupy Wall Street” thing he’s read about on Reddit and Twitter, and he gets Mackenzie’s permission to look into it, though not yet to report on it. (This fixes two season one problems in and of itself: Neal does actual legwork for reporting, instead of knowing a guy who knows a guy, and Mackenzie gets to be wrong about this big, upcoming story, but in a way that is believable and doesn’t play into the show’s oft-sexist portrayal of her.) And new producer Jerry (the always welcome Hamish Linklater) tosses a panel on drone strikes into one of the NewsNight segments, which brings a man named Cyrus West (Benjamin Koldyke) into the newsroom where he first utters the words “Operation Genoa.” Meanwhile, the deposition plays out in the future, which is actually our past, and I’m going to give myself a migraine.
Furthermore, the première doesn’t do much with the first season’s constant problem of centering episodes on actual news events that happened, revealing how they would have been covered in Sorkin’s Utopia. This had a bad habit of both undercutting the drama and making it seem like Sorkin was constantly lecturing the audience, and the show is at least somewhat smoother for it. As frequently happened in season one, for instance, the most interesting stuff is happening behind the scenes, as when Mackenzie seamlessly prompts a reporter over the phone to sub in a bit of language that will cover for something that was wrong in the original report, then figures out a way to overcome a mechanical mishap, also on the fly. And the stories the team is working on are mostly things that have long since receded into memory, like Steve Jobs resigning from Apple. The episode is roughly structured around the Libyan Civil War, but ACN doesn’t report on the event remarkably differently from anybody else.
So there’s good, legitimately engaging stuff here, and I’m intrigued to see where this Genoa stuff (which sure seems like a riff on the Tailwind controversy) is headed. The problem, as always with The Newsroom, comes in the details, in things like Mackenzie not having her purse and, thus, having to beg Will for money, which comes across less like someone making a mistake and more like a terrifying co-dependence (maybe that’s what Sorkin is peddling, but it sure doesn’t feel like it), or in Maggie’s rant from the season finale ending up on YouTube (how goofy!), or in a random mention from Leona—in the scene where she laments not getting her hand at writing that SOPA legislation—of “pajama people.” The series’ relationship with technology has always been weird and strained, and it gets even weirder here, with the SOPA scene seeming to at once be pro- and anti-piracy (or, more likely, that Sorkin seems to find harsh punishments for piracy unnecessary but also doesn’t want to bite the hand that feeds) and the Occupy scene never able to decide if it agrees with the protesters or is lecturing them from the future about not effecting enough change because they somehow allowed the news media coverage to get too easily derailed from their central message. (I honestly don’t know what’s going on here; I’m just relieved Neal is not talking about Bigfoot.)
The characters on The Newsroom are all professional adults, who can handle themselves in a journalistic crisis, but the show also has a bad habit of portraying them as insufferable children in their personal lives. That hasn’t changed—not nearly enough—even if Will and Mackenzie talking about an old Who song seems to at least acknowledge that Will has realized his own failings in their past relationship. What the first season was lacking was consequences in the professional storylines, leaving all of them for the far weaker personal storylines. That balance has been flipped this season, with consequences affecting Will personally and professionally in past and “present.” He’s not going to be on ACN’s Sept. 11 10th anniversary coverage because of his remarks, and it’s obvious the effect his “American Taliban” comment has had. And even when the consequences trickle down to the personal storylines, they’re at least hit-and-miss instead of all miss (though everything with Maggie continues to be dire). This isn’t a bad première, but there’s enough shakiness in it to make me worry for what’s to come.
- Hey, folks! I’ll be here every week for this season of The Newsroom, though David Sims will sub in next week because I’m being punished by The A.V. Club for calling Justin Bieber “Canada’s Gaddafi.” Oh, and I’ll be at Comic-Con.
- A fun joke: Will sings Rebecca Black’s “Friday” at his desk while a reporter from Libya is doing her story. He also blabs at Mackenzie about how many people are killed by bullets that fall to Earth after being shot into the sky. This whole sequence, really, is a lot of fun, and if the show were more like this, I doubt it would have such mixed reviews.
- Sorkin still has a way with words, and there are passages of dialogue here that are mesmerizing in their structure and rhythm. I just wish they had something to say beyond, “Agree with me! I am right!”
- I am already dreading the contours of the storyline that ends with Maggie cutting off all her hair and dying it red because of something that happens in Uganda. While we’re on the subject, can someone on the show figure out how to light Alison Pill? She’s a beautiful woman, but the show’s lighting too often washes out her face. It was borderline indecipherable in the breakup scene. (This might be an issue for the show’s makeup department, actually.)
- Also a positive: I liked the last couple of scenes, with Mackenzie accepting blame for Genoa and then the camera panning back to show Will and Maggie sitting in the hall, well after midnight. And Sorkin’s way with patter really makes Marcia Gay Harden’s character’s “Fifteen hundred an hour” sing.
- Sloan was probably my favorite character in season one, but she stumbles out of the gate here, getting too easily flustered around both Jerry and Don. Why do all of the women on this show utterly fall apart when confronted with the men they like? That said, I did enjoy her walking in with a blank sheet of paper because she needed a prop.
- I like Aya Cash of the late, lamented (by me, anyway) Traffic Light, but her character, Shelley Wexler, seems to really embrace all of the show’s confused, conflicting attitudes about Occupy in one person. Here’s hoping this all gets sorted out and a better character than Neal is placed on this story.
- I like the redo of the theme song, which has more of a staccato feel.
- Weird thing Will is teaching a woman (preferably younger) about this week, for reasons that are not immediately apparent: His new intern is forced to recite the names of all of the musicals that have won the Pulitzer for drama, as well as their composers and book authors. Is Will me?!