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Seitz: The Newsroom’s Dour Second Season Is an Improvement, Though Only Slightly

In season one, The Newsroom was the most insufferable good show on TV: so expertly acted, shot, directed, and edited that its flaws were all the more maddening. My colleague Tim Goodman put it nicely in his Hollywood Reporter review, arguing that the term “hate-watching” was the wrong one to apply to Aaron Sorkin's TV journalism drama. “Don’t kid yourself – you were ‘disappointment-watching.’”

The cutesy sexism that The Newsroom displayed towards its women would have been irritating in any context, but it was doubly so on a show with screwball comedy rhythms. (In true screwball, men and women are equally matched; that's what makes their banter exciting.) Head anchor Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels) was a blowhard and prone to petty behavior and self-pity, but he and the show's other men were never made to seem like trivial people, as the women sometimes were. The show's main female character, producer MacKenzie McHale (Emily Mortimer), was so clumsy and technically inept that her backstory as a veteran of international hot spots was hard to swallow. The other women were borderline hysterical a lot of the time, or at least less reliable in a crisis than their male colleagues. And the ratio of scenes of men explaining things to women versus women explaining things to men was, by my count, 5 to 1. I kept waiting for this to get better during season one, and it really never did. 

Less bothersome, to me anyway, was the spectacle of the show's creator and main writer Aaron Sorkin appearing to lecture the press corps on how they should have covered recent stories, while writing plots that were hugely dependent upon hindsight and coincidence. He used to do pretty much the same thing on Sports Night and The West Wing, but this time he was writing about a business that TV critics knew well, or at somewhat better than they knew cable sports coverage or White House politics, and I think that's why my peers hauled out the mallet when rapping his knuckles for implausibility. There were other charges lodged against Sorkin, too, including overall smugness and condescension, and a tendency to needlessly stack the deck when tweaking right-wingers, a group whose national leaders make Tom Tomorrow's cartoons seem like finely nuanced portraits. And there were complaints that while much was made of Will being a lone Republican in an otherwise liberal newsroom, he was a Republican in Name Only, his affiliation merely an unconvincing fig leaf for Sorkin's continual attacks on the American right, using the show's hero as his mouthpiece.

But here, too, Sorkin was just being Sorkin. There was always more David E. Kelley (The Practice, Ally McBeal) in the guy's writing than his fans cared to admit: the grandstanding left-wing monologues that were eloquent fact-dumps, the ping-pong arguments that were sometimes more speedy than truly witty, the relationships that amounted to little conclaves of adolescent pathology. Have you re-watched episodes of Sports Night or The West Wing recently? They're both altogether finer entertainments than The Newsroom, but they have a lot of the same flaws. Sorkin didn't suddenly "lose it" when he started working for HBO. More likely, the creative power concentrated exclusively in his hands made flaws that had always been present loom larger.  

I wouldn't say season two of The Newsroom is a big improvement over season one, but the show's definitely more measured and confident—and now that we've accepted that certain tics, such as setting the stories in a recent, real past, aren't going away, it's easier to appreciate what Sorkin and company do well. 

Sometime in the near-present, Will and other network staffers are being deposed in advance of a lawsuit. The network's $1,500-an-hour lawyer is played by Marcia Gay Harden, a welcome addition to the show's cast. Apparently the show aired an investigative report accusing the U.S. military of using Sarin nerve gas in a top secret military operation in Pakistan. (Sorkin's reaching deeper into the past for this storyline — remember CNN's "Operation Tailwind" scandal from 2000? — but by a fluke of timing, France's government was recently accused of using Sarin gas in Syria.) Margaret Jordan (Alison Pill) briefly appears in the deposition room, looking haunted and sporting a chopped-up orange hairdo that Will says is a reaction to being traumatized during an overseas assignment; the attentive news junkie will instantly think of the Lara Logan incident.

The show flashes back to August, 2011, to show the domino-like chain of events that led them to this bad place. Things weren't good then, either. The whole network is in the political doghouse because Will referred to the Tea Party as "the American Taliban" in a news report. He's forced to sit out 9/11 anniversary coverage for fear that conservatives will squawk about him being unpatriotic. One staffer has a broken leg, which leads another (John Gallagher Jr.'s Jim) to take over covering the Mitt Romney campaign. Jim is excluded from the campaign bus, just as ACN president Reese Lansing (Chris Messina) is shut out of a Capitol Hill hearing on the Stop Online Piracy Act. The plotline about Neal (Dev Patel) covering the beginnings of Occupy Wall Street initially seems like an obligatory recent-history detour, but it ties in with the stuff happening at the top of ACN's corporate ladder, and as the season winds onward, all the stories intertwine in ways that make both dramatic and rhetorical sense, even if you're not on board with every single scene or line. 

Certain touches rubbed me the wrong way — I really wish, for example, that they'd had a regular character draw the network into the Sarin gas screwup, rather than pinning it on a new character, Jerry Dantana (Hamish Linklater), who is brought in to cover for Jim when he goes out on the campaign trail. And the show's portrait of male-female relations is as annoying as ever; is there any major character who isn't emotionally stuck in junior high? 

Nevertheless, the slightly dour tone is a nice break from season one's inspirational cheerleading and manic rushing-about. It's compelling to see these characters suffer, struggle, fail, and be punished for both unjust and just reasons; it makes for better drama than watching them get into a little trouble each week and then magically extract victory from defeat's jaws. The spectacle of a whipped, exhausted Will is especially appealing. As Daniels proved in The Squid and the Whale, when he plays bitter intellectuals who believe they've failed in some basic way, he becomes a deeper, more fascinating actor than when he's playing the know-it-all or nice-guy sides of Will. "Do you want to lead, or do you want to follow?" Charlie Skinner (Sam Waterston) asks Will. "He wants to follow," MacKenzie answers for him. "And barely that," Will says, resigned. 

Photo: HBO