Friday, September 27, 2013

Build-up To Catastrophe, The Newsroom Season Two Is Good, Not Exceptional!

The Good: Good writing, Great acting, Interesting plots and characters, Engaging plot construction
The Bad: Dramatic tension hinges on forgetting how the season begins?!
The Basics: When The Newsroom returns for Season 2, Aaron Sorkin tries something new, but the season’s sense of dramatic tension builds on something of a folly.

As a big fan of the works of Aaron Sorkin, when I reviewed the first season of The Newsroom (reviewed here!), my biggest criticism of the new Aaron Sorkin series was how much Sorkin recycled from the other works he wrote. The Newsroom proved that Aaron Sorkin either does not understand just how much of a fanbase he has or that he is the biggest pro-recycling advocate working in entertainment today. The second season of The Newsroom starts out appearing to buck that trend, though the astute fans will find a lot in the nine episodes of the second season that is familiar.

In fact, the new concept season for The Newsroom actually appears on the surface to be the freshest thing Aaron Sorkin has done in years (though fans of his works will be utterly unsurprised by the prevalence of lawyers in this season – Sorkin has legal entanglements and depositions in virtually all of his major projects), though it has two fundamental flaws. The minor flaw is that the first season made a big deal of Jenna Johnson (the former student who set off the firestorm that began the series) joining the ACN team as a new intern. The second season finds Jenna in a background role in only a few of the episodes; the nearly-absent Lisa (Maggie’s roommate) ends up having a vastly more significant role in the season than the new ACN intern! So, there is the feeling that the bloated cast is not even using the supporting talent it had when it loaded up with two to three new recurring characters for the second season.

The far more significant issue with the second season of The Newsroom is that the nine episode season has a continuous arc that hinges almost entirely on the viewer forgetting the first five minutes of the season. The concept of the second season of The Newsroom is that ACN reported a story on the air that was quickly debunked. Given that the season starts with lawyers taking depositions from the key staff, the viewer knows what is coming, so there is a distinct lack of dramatic tension that the season seems to be trying to build. As the pieces of the story begin to come together, only the inattentive viewer (which is not, traditionally, the HBO audience) forgets where the story is going.

Opening with most of the senior staff of ACN being interviewed by Rebecca Halliday, a wrongful termination lawyer, the season flashes back to the beginning of the 2012 Presidential Primary season. In the wake of Maggie confessing her feelings (inadvertently) to Jim and the footage of her rant making it onto YouTube, Jim flees New York for the Romney Campaign’s tour bus. Aboard the Romney tour bus, Jim becomes frustrated that his role there is largely to provide the candidate with good press and he becomes a malcontent, even as he starts a relationship with Hallie, a reporter who is on the assignment that is likely to be her last.

Back at ACN, Jim’s replacement Jerry Dantana shops a story that instantly troubles Mac and Charlie. Dantana has a source that claims that during a black op in Pakistan, the United States military used sarin gas on civilians while extracting U.S. Marines. Slowly, Jerry, MacKenzie, and Charlie follow the thin leads surrounding Operation Genoa. Long before the final betrayal that leads to the onslaught of lawyers turning on ACN and a huge rift forming between Will and MacKenzie, the staff of ACN becomes troubled by the leads surrounding Genoa and the appearance that the story might be valid.

The Newsroom is a season with severe tension among the main characters. Fans of Sorkin’s works will be unsurprised that Will develops a relationship with Nina Howard (anyone who knows of the saga of Casey and Sally will see this coming a mile away) and there is something refreshing in how quickly it dissolves. But most of the season’s emotional melodrama comes from Will McAvoy and MacKenzie McHale rehashing how their relationship dissolved before the series began. To fill the gap left by the rising sexual tension between Maggie and Jim, The Newsroom slowly builds the romance insinuated at the very end of the first season between Sloan Sabbith and Don Keefer. The romantic aspects of the Sloan and Don subplot is almost enough to overlook just how dark Sorkin goes with Maggie’s character.

Like all great dramas, The Newsroom Season 2 is about great characters. In the second season, the essential characters are:

Will McAvoy – A Republican cable news anchor, he starts calling out candidates during the Republican primary. As ACN takes fire because of Will’s scathing commentary on the Tea Party, Will pushes for a more conservative approach to presenting the news, hinging all his hopes on presenting a real debate for the Republican candidates. Pulling his punches and kept out of the loop on Genoa until the last possible moment, he becomes the public face of ACN’s scandal leading into Election Night coverage,

MacKenzie McHale – As executive producer of News Night, she feels the loss of Jim most acutely. Not quite trusting Jerry, she still feels compelled to investigate Genoa, while at the same time being frustrated by how Will keeps her at arm’s length,

Jim Harper – The News Night producer goes rogue to work well beneath pay grade and position to try to get coverage on Mitt Romney that will expose the contradictions in his campaign. Jim is deeply interested in bringing to public attention the public policies Governor Romney changed once he began running for President. He returns after a fumble on the campaign bus to discover the distance between him and Maggie has grown insurmountable, especially as he continues to grow his relationship with fellow reporter Hallie,

Maggie Jordan – An Associate Producer on News Night, she pushes for a story in Africa. There, she has a traumatic experience that leads her to cut off almost all her hair and dye what was left. Maggie begins engaging in risk behaviors including drinking and promiscuous sex with strangers in the wake of the incident in Africa,

Don Keefer – The ex-producer of News Night, he is now the executive producer on the ten o’clock show. After the fallout with Maggie, he becomes a pretty harsh critic of Jerry Dantana and the Genoa story. He starts to let his attraction to Sloan and she becomes one of the people who counsels him more than anyone else,

Sloan Sabbith – An economist with two Ph.ds, she starts to act as Will’s “big sister.” She is horrified when a book she did not actually autograph sells in a charity auction,

Neal Sampat – The writer of Will’s blog, he finds a serious lead in the Genoa story using Twitter. He becomes obsessed with the idea of Occupy Wall Street and works to bring that story to the attention of ACN, with somewhat disastrous results. He works to control the negative Tweets surrounding Will and News Night. He also tries to get MacKenzie’s Wikipedia page updated as a gift to her,

and Charlie Skinner – The head of the news division, he continues to go head to head with the corporate owners of ACN. Despite drinking quite a bit, he remains highly ethical and serious about keeping ACN focused and delivering hard-hitting news. As the Genoa story becomes more and more of a reality, he remains one of the longest holdouts to airing the story.

In the second season of The Newsroom, the acting remains exceptional. Led by Jeff Daniels and Emily Mortimer (who, despite all the teasing on the first season’s commentary tracks, does not appear naked in the season!), The Newsroom provides its performers with the opportunity to play triumph and heartbreak in almost every episode. Sam Waterston is tragically underused as Charlie, though he has some wonderful moments he provides both gravitas to go head to head with Jane Fonda’s Leona Lansing and goofy humor to deliver some of the season’s most memorable lines.

Thomas Sadoski almost entirely removes the bastardly qualities from Don Keefer to make him a surprisingly watchable and interesting character for the second season. The attention paid to Magge Jordan in the first season in The Newsroom is gone in the second season. Alison Pill surrenders most of her acting talent and substance for the season in exchange for a brutal haircut and a scared look in her eyes. She is easily outshined by recurring guest star Marcia Gay Harden, who starts out as efficient and sarcastic in the role of Rebecca Halliday (the lawyer) before degenerating into a pretty typical Sorkin female character who craves male attention.

Still, The Newsroom is worth watching in its second season. The show looks good and despite the structural issue, the season goes a decent distance to assuring fans that Sorkin still has some new tricks up his sleeve, even if they do not entirely land.

For other works by Aaron Sorkin, please check out my reviews of:
The Social Network
Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip
Charlie Wilson's War
The West Wing
Sports Night
The American President


For other television reviews, please check out my Television Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2013 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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