“The Newsroom”: S2E1 Review

Ken AshfordPopular CultureLeave a Comment


Pity Aaron Sorkin.  People expected so much from "The Newsroom" and many didn't get what they wanted.  Critics found the show preachy.  Others, like my girlfriend, found the women characters especially vapid.  We were told they were brilliant and/or "the best in the business" although we didn't really SEE them being particularly brilliant.  And in relationships, these women were comeplete washouts.

My girlfriends' criticism was correct, although to be fair, when it came to relationships, the men were equally inept.  That's just Sorkin.  He knows about awkward social relationships.  He couldn't write about a healthy relationship if a gun was held to his head.  On the other hand, the women did tend to wig out more often than men (Will's opening show rant notwithstanding), and Season One was notorious for its constasnt "mansplaining" (men explaining things to women).

Still, whatever its flaws, most were drawn to the snappy dialogue and smartness of the show, and HBO greenlighted Season Two.

What changes would be made??

Well, the critical consensus is that this season of "The Newsroom" improves on the flaws of season one.  A few reviews said it gears back on some of the frenzy and pretentiousness and moralizing about the proper way to conduct the news. 

Right from the start, we could see that the show was revamped.  The theme music, while the same tune, is now a staccato piano-and-brass arrangement.  Gone are the soaring strings.  And gone are the faded images of Murrow and Cronkite.

And suddenly we find Will, much more mellowed out (or beaten out?), 14 months into the future from where Season One left off.  He's talking with a team of ACN lawyers, headed by Marcia Gay Hardin (Jeff Daniel's co-star from "God of Carnage", and why not, since we had Hope Davis last season).  The "interview with the lawyer" framework is typical Sorkin (he used it in "The Social Network").  Like the "psychiatrist session", it allows him to have his characters narrate past events.

So we have Will McAvoy, presumably at the middle or end of Season Two (timeline-wise), explaining what happened following the time period where we last saw the group.  That's fine, until Maggie walks in to the conference room and asks Will a question.  Her hair is short, cropped and orange.  She leaves.  Even the lawyer asks what happened to her hair.  Will explains that she went to Uganda, and saw some real horrible things.  Yikes.  We're put on notice that this season is not going to be fun, especially for Maggie.

But this episode is only teasing about what is to come.  And most of what is to come — at least one major plot thread — will involve something called GENOA, a black ops operation of Obama.  We don't learn much about GENOA in this episode, except that is (or will be) the equivalent of the Pentagon Papers, that the news show reported on it, and then had to retract it.  Now there is some sort of legal battle — that's why we have lawyers in the loop.

How did GENOA come about?  A series of events that fell like dominoes. 

A young ACN reporter on the campaign trail with Romney apparently tried to jump out a hotel window in Nashua into the pool.  He missed and broke his ankle.  So Jim had to find a replacement.  He chooses himself, because he needs to get out of the office.  Why?  Because he can't stand to see Maggie and Don together.  Mackenzie allows this; after all, she did the same thing when she and Will had problems years ago.  Of course, Mackenzie fled all the way to Afghanistan; Jim is only going to New Hampshire ("There are no Taliban fighters in Concord")

So off goes Jim.

Who will take Jim's job while he's out?  A new character named Jerry Dantana, from ACN's Washington bureau.  Dantana comes up to New York and, wanting to make an impression, he books his own guest for a panel discussion on drone strikes, rather than using the regular go-to guy that Jim would have used.  Dantana's guest, an ex-CIA guy named Cyrus West, impresses Will, but not so much Mackenzie.  Desparate to make amends, Cyrus offers Dantana a story — a top secret story "that can make careers and end presidencies".  This is no doubt the GENOA we've heard about, and will hear about all season.

But the loose threads from Season One are still there.  For example, a comment that Will made during Season One is having severe backlash.  Remember when he called the tea party "the American Taliban"?  Yeah, that didn't go over well.  ACN President Reese Lansing finds himself shut out of a House conference where SOPA was to be discussed.  Jim is shunned out of the Romney press bus.  And Charlie pulls Will from appearing on ACN's 9/11 Ten Year Anniversary special. All this Will takes in stride.  It's what is expected in response to Newsroom 2.0.

But what of the relationships?  Sorkin left Season One with everything a mess.  Jim and Maggie acknowledged their affection for each other, but Maggie moved in with Don anyway, determined to make that work.  And Sloan, when asked by Don why she didn't have a boyfriend, answered, "Because you never asked me out."  Oy, a messy love triangle became a messy quadrangle.

With Jim in New Hampshire, one would have thought things would go somewhat smoothly.  But no.  Don learns of a Youtube video, shot by a tourist on a "Sex in the City" tour bus, showing Maggie in the rain, yelling at the bus and professing her desire for her "best friend's boyfriend".  Don was feeling guilty for not loving Maggie, but, through the video, he learns that she didn't love him.  Youtube saves the day where regular communication can't.

So Don and Maggie are splitsville, for good it seems.  And that's for the best in my view.  It was frustrating to watch them the first season, knowing (as the viewers did) that neither one particularly loved the other.

But that doesn't mean the door is open for Don and Sloan — apparently, he took her "because you never asked me" as a joke.  "Uh, yes, a joke, " she says.  

Anyway, this leaves Maggie without Don AND Jim, which (we assume) is why she is going to go to Uganda in some future episode.  Probably that, and probably because of the YouTube video.

On the Will-Mackenzie front, it's all the status quo.  The last scene of last night's episode has Will at the karaoke bar pondering the lyrics of the Who's "You Better".  You know, the one that goes, "When I say I love you, you say 'You better' (You better, you better, you bet)".  Well, Will thinks that describes his relationship with his audience.  Mackenzie thinks it describes the relationship between the two of them.  I don't know.  I never understood that song myself.  I'm not sure what Sorkin was trying to say with that scene.  I suspect that sonw was an earworm, and he used it.

What else?  There's some nice non-romantic chemistry developing between Charlie and Sloan.  After reeming her out last season, they now spar and tease each other professionaly.  He calls her "moneyskirt".  She asks him why things have to be this way; he says "Because I'm a nerd and you're a nerd and you give nerds a bad name".  "Oh, no," she replies. "I give nerds a goooood name."

Sorkin hasn't forgotten his appreciation of Boradway musicals.  In fact, Jenna Johnson (the "sorority girl" who asked "What makes America great?" in the show's premiere episode) is now an intern at ACN, and Will — just to br ornery — makes her go research all the musicals that have won Pulitzer Prizes (there are eight — can YOU name them?)

And Sorkin seems to address the Mackenzie-as-incompetent criticism in one scene where, as executive producer, she handles a wrongly-fact-checked voiceover by calling the reporter at a Benihana's and getting to fix the voiceover live(!).  Immediately after that, a hugh technical glitch shorts out the system, but Mackenzie saves the broadcast so adeptly that Will at the anchor desk isn't even aware there are problems.

Okay, Aaron.  We get it.  Mackenzie is good at her job.  

Sorkin also writes her as more stable — less likely to freak out.  In fact, I sense we will see less freaking out from everybody this season.

Another sub-story emerges as well.  Neil, with his ear close to the social network, has heard rumblings about a group that calls itself "Occupy Wall Street".  Mackenzie doesn't think it will become a story, but she allows Neil to check it out.  He does, although he is dismayed that the group, which initially had one demand (calling for a presidential commission to get money out of politics) seems to have about fourteen demands, and its message is ultimately going to get diluted.  I'm sure we will hear more about that.

So is Season Two better?  Well, the Sorkin elements are still there.  If the first episode is any example, he seems to like his charactors more and give them more dignity.  I've read that by episode four of this season, it will be clear that this is quite different from Season One.  It will still be political, with a bit more left-bashing (Occupy Wall Street), and involving the characters more directly in serious events (genocide in Uganda), giving them and their characters more gravitas.  We'll see.