20 July 2013
The second season of HBO’s loved and loathed Aaron Sorkin drama The Newsroom begins with a toned-down, piano-heavy version of last year’s rousing theme song. Instead of the reverent images of broadcast icons that accompanied last year’s intro, this year we have a slightly more abstract portrait of modern life in the trenches of Atlantis Cable News. The move is a fairly arbitrary one that will likely only matter to the people who miss the original opening’s West Wing-like orchestral optimism, but by toning down the grandiose style and pulling nostalgia out of it completely, the new intro gets to a telling point right off the bat: they heard your complaints and, this season, The Newsroom wants to be liked.
A famous Henry VI quote as an episode title tells us we’re dealing with legal trouble as a framing device and in we go; Season Two Has Begun.
It kicks off with Marcia Gay Harden (sadly in the place of the great Rosemarie Dewitt) as an as-little-nonsense-as-possible attorney throwing out clunky exposition and grilling Will about some mysterious cock-up that’s going to haunt the whole season. The format recalls some of the greatest storytelling triumphs of Sorkin’s tenure on The West Wing. The interview structure of “Celestial Navigation”, the psychiatrist setup from “Noel” (which also made a successful appearance in last year’s “Bullies”) and, the most direct comparison, Leo’s flashback-inducing testimony in “Bartlet for America” all seem to lay groundwork for this season-long non-traditional narrative (which also strongly recalls the structure of The Social Network, come to think of it). This first deposition scene includes some hints at what the legal kerfuffle is all about (vague and confusing points about an as-yet-unclear project called Genoa) and sets up an upcoming dramatic arc for Maggie that looks to redeem her for a past season marred in boy trouble and boy trouble alone. It also drives us back in time to the aftermath of the season one finale, starting with the prices being paid for Will’s thoughtless comparison of the Tea Party to the Taliban.
Some of these prices are unfair and far-fetched, like ACN President Reese Lansing (Chris Messina, holla!) being excluded from a House meeting on SOPA or an ACN reporter being kicked off Romney’s press bus when trying to cover the Presidential primaries (more on this in a moment). But, as Jane Fonda’s newly-Emmy-nominated Leona Lansing put it, “chips are falling” and I’m very glad that they are. Will deserves to have chips falling after making such a dangerously hyperbolic assertion under the title of newsman, but consequences like his banishment from the network’s 9/11 anniversary coverage have both a stronger ring of truth and the right emotional as well as professional reverberations.
The other lingering stories in need of some housekeeping are all personal, and they’re all addressed to varying degrees of success in the season two premiere. Mack and Will handle their insufferably dramatic dynamic quite well, actually, letting it simmer complicatedly, refreshingly Under the surface as they deal with matters of actual importance. They share plenty of screentime in the premiere and a balance seems to have finally been hit wherein it’s constantly clear that there is plenty between them (from chemistry to devastation to deep and lasting loyalty) but we don’t have to talk about it All The Time. Only the late-night phone call scene feels like arbitrary relationship-pushing.
Mackenzie in general has already seemed to make giant leaps forward in the wake of season one’s wildly negative feedback. Her problem in season one (apart from the whining-to-yelling range that seems to be Emily Mortimer’s favourite vocal area) was that Sorkin failed to show the audience her brilliance instead of just telling us, making her vulnerable to looking like an idiot anytime she needed to make a mistake to move the plot. In a move I wouldn’t have expected from a man generally so self-assured, Sorkin course-corrected on Mack the first chance he got. The first thing we see Mack do in season two is absolutely kill two on-air crises in a matter of minutes with the sort of high-functioning competence that the character failed to adequately demonstrate throughout season one. She still kind of annoys me, but at least I’m finally starting to believe that Mack might be the badass other characters like Jim and Will have been telling us that she is.
Speaking of Jim, he actually got a scene with Mack for the first time in what feels like a year. It might actually be a year since the last time I remember noting how wonderful that particular relationship is was in my review of the pilot. Back then, I called Jim and Mack my favourite dynamic on the show. The mutual respect and longstanding relationship was intriguing, their back and forth amusing, their shorthand endearing. Then they never spoke to each other again. Until this week, when Jim asks Mack to send him to New Hampshire or fire him (landing him in the aforementioned Romney press bus predicament). She sees straight through to his broken heart and Mack took another giant leap forward in my estimation. Let’s hope that relationship doesn’t get pushed to the side yet again because it brings out the best in both characters, even in just everyday exchanges and not massive acting moments for the subtle and heartbreaking John Gallagher Jr.
For the most part- with the exception of one useless and obvious scene filled with cliches like “it’s only awkward because you want it to be”- the Jim/Maggie/Don stuff is dispensed with through amazing things like good acting in small moments and something called subtext. Between Gallagher and My TV Award-winner Thomas Sadoski, the acting caliber of this subplot is too good to be as disparaged as it’s been, so the efficient way it is handled with just a quick, sweet scene between Don and Maggie (“romantic bowling- what would that look like?”) with Jim looking on is right on the money. I’m not sure that I would have brought the triangle to a crashing halt quite so early in the season (and a scene certainly seems to be missing between Don’s conversation with Sloan and his packing his bags) but the real-world irony of Maggie’s cinematic confessional in the season finale appearing in the premiere as a youtube video and, more importantly, the so-very-Don-like way Don handles it, is the perfect anti-climatic resolution, hinting at good things to come for the characters because Sorkin seems to have finally figured out exactly who they are.
Regular readers know how strongly I feel about Don. With his inner struggle to not be the bad guy, his un-Sorkin-like tendency to say the wrong thing at the wrong time (actually, that’s very Sorkin-like, it’s just not very Sorkin-character-like), his adherence to a moral compass that points a little differently than everyone else’s but might actually be stronger, his blunt intelligence and over-developed sense of irony, his easily overlooked kindness- these things are all beautifully on subtle display in how he handles breaking up with Maggie. He calmly packs to leave, he’s as fair as one could ever imagine for a man who’s been fighting this very inevitability since the day Jim walked into the office, he calls Lisa to make sure Maggie has somewhere to go, he spares Lisa’s feelings by not telling her what happened even though almost anyone else in his position likely would have, and he laughs inappropriately with a sense of perspective that could seem cold if you don’t know Don. But we do know Don, and it’s because of character-perfect moments like this that we do.
The other reason we know Don is because we’ve gotten to glimpse him through Sloan’s eyes. She’s been building from quirky eye candy to legitimate badass since about mid-season one, earning My TV’s Best Supporting Actress award along the way for the amazing Olivia Munn, but what the second season premiere makes clear is that somewhere along the line Sorkin fell hard for Sloan Sabbith. He loves her and you can tell. He loves her like he loved Josh Lyman, giving her not only one of the show’s strongest points of view but almost all of the episode’s best lines. He’s also developing her intriguing relationship with Charlie, a move that’s both unexpected and wonderfully welcome. I don’t like Charlie one little bit but when standing next to Sloan- a rare character unafraid to call him on his crap, who has never placed him on a pedestal- I respect him for the common ground and respect he’s been able to find with her. Sloan is currently “filling in” for Elliot at 10pm but the great fun of watching Don EP her as anchor (“Benjamin Franklin! nailed it”.) might soon push Elliot out of a job. The fantastic tension between Sloan and Don, courtesy of her finale confession that she’s still single “because [he] never asked [her] out”, makes Elliot’s absence even more delicious. When Charlie tells Sloan to talk to her EP, she goes to Mack first (why? no one needs to tell us, because Don is her EP and she’d really rather talk to anyone but the guy she’s mortified to be around). When she finally brings up the awkward confession, he claims that he took it as a joke (hint: he did not take it as a joke, this is Don being the good guy somehow my father still doesn’t think that he is). I could watch these two dance around each other and talk exclusively about work all day (see what I did there? I pointed out why they’re So Much Better than every other personal drama on the show- subtlety! Sorkin’s, not mine).
Amidst the wrapping up or spurring on of season one’s dangling threads (though some have been dropped completely- the death threats? Neal’s hacker story?), two new major stories have begun (in addition to the gradual development of the pilot’s “sorority girl” as a recurring character). The first is the Neal arc that I can only presume will play out alongside the Genoa story as a centerpiece of the season- his ground floor investigation of a grassroots movement called Occupy Wall Street. While I appreciate the multi-perspective approach the introduction of the story took, this is looking like another example of the show’s “hindsight is 20/20” tendencies. I like the idea of examining recent history- there being no period so remote and unexaminable- but the writers don’t have enough perspective themselves to be able to examine it with much more than shouldas and couldas (and certainly the audience is still too emotionally involved in many of the stories for historical distance to not offend). Ongoing controversies that honestly have multiple sides to each argument seem to be serving the show best, like the premiere’s drone debate which saw Sloan bring the hurt and Will show his often latent Republican side.
The Genoa story, on the other hand, (I gleaned from Sorkin’s Daily Show appearance since The Newsroom has yet to devulge this much) is a fictionalization of a CNN scandal from 1998 about events during the Vietnam War. Now there is a ripped-from-the-headlines story one can tell with perspective. Like he did with the invention of the television in The Farnsworth Invention and controversially but successfully with the Facebook creation myth in The Social Network, Sorkin can use reality as a jumping off point for an at least semi-fictional story full of complicated greyness, dealing with events of the less-recent past through invented characters. Especially with the incomparable Hamish Linklater on board in a key role (a brilliant stage and screen vet who can absolutely nail Sorkin’s eloquent speed with the casual and often comic intensity of his best drawn characters), Genoa has all the promise of a storyline that might just lead The Newsroom to the promised land of TV shows that get their due.
I’m cautiously optimistic that all signs point to Sorkin having solved the puzzle. I think season two might just make The Newsroom the show that his fans always thought that maybe it could be.
What do you say, Greater Fools- want to hope with me?