When “The Newsroom” debuted on HBO last summer, it was greeted with a flurry of disdain. But I suspect that the people who will be most disappointed when Aaron Sorkin’s drama starts its second season Sunday night will be the haters: All of its most irritatingly Sorkin-y tendencies have been shaved down.
I counted only one reference to musical theater in the four episodes made available to critics. Only once does Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels) self-importantly declare, “We’re trying to do the news” and only once does he tell us that “snark is the idiot's version of wit, and we’re being polluted by it.” The worst gender joke is more bizarre than offensive (“This is what I’m talking about, women and closets,” which, I’m sorry, but nobody knows what you’re talking about) and the worst gender stereotyping is only mildly egregious (a woman reporter is rightly offended when a man seeks to define “women’s issues” as “abortion,” and then makes it clear that the issue she cares most about is—abortion). Sorkin is still a slave to his little tropes: Alison Pill’s Maggie Jordan joins Dan Rydell and Josh Lyman in the canon of Sorkin characters who blame themselves for a younger innocent’s death. It is still annoyingly self-righteous of Sorkin to make Will a moderate Republican, as though he were competing in the good-faith Olympics, but at least this season Will actively disagrees with the liberals who surround him at the nightly news show he anchors, as an actual Republican presumably would.
But the most important change Sorkin has made is to the show’s structure, using its episodes to tell one ongoing story. And so the story—and the season—is told in flashback, as network lawyers interview various staffers at a gigantic conference-room table in preparation for a wrongful termination lawsuit surrounding a blockbuster story that the show-within-the-show, “News Night,” has had to retract. (The device would remind you of The Social Network even if you didn’t know Sorkin had written it.) The result is a cross between one of those six-hour BBC series—an association further suggested by the new, slicker opening credits—and a sitcom. The overarching storyline gradually unfolds, while the episode-specific subplots come fast and furious, and with a discipline that didn’t exist on the one actual sitcom Sorkin did, ABC’s “Sports Night.”
Making the season-long arc about a faked news story solves another of the haters’ complaints. It no longer seems so absurd to watch a show intimately tied to two-year-old current events when the dramatic weight is placed overwhelmingly on a fabrication and the actual news pegs are relegated to comedy or, at least, decidedly minor drama. No doubt denizens of the Internet will have fun with the ham-fisted treatment of Occupy Wall Street, which re-enacts the debate over the virtues and demerits of a “leaderless” movement on the off-chance you were hungry for more of that. But unlike those tiresome discussions of the Tea Party last season, this stuff happily stays in the background.
The plot still tends to rely on absurdly unlikely developments. But this is tempered by one of the most unlikely developments of all: Aaron Sorkin—up until now the least self-aware television auteur this side of the solar system Matthew Weiner thinks revolves around himself—seems to have located a capacity for self-awareness.
For example: In last season’s finale, Maggie storms out of a West Village restaurant after getting into a fight with her roommate, Lisa Lambert (Kelen Coleman), who had been dating Maggie’s boss, Jim Harper (John Gallagher, Jr.), whom Maggie is in love with, even though she is dating an even more senior producer, Don Keefer (Thomas Sadoski). Your average Shakespeare comedy plot, in other words. Encountering a Sex and the City-themed tour bus, Maggie begins yelling about how being a single girl in the big city isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, particularly when you are dating one guy but are in love with someone else. After her tirade, Jim pops up from the top of the tour bus—he wants to learn more about SATC to get closer to Lisa (silly girls and their 30-minute HBO shows!)—and chases Maggie down. They kiss, then part, and there are no larger consequences. Exit, pursued by ridiculousness.
But in season two (mild spoiler), the love quadrangle is mercifully blown up when reality invades: An intrepid iPhone cinematographer recorded the whole scene and posted it on YouTube, where both Don and Lisa see it. It is a clever booster rocket to the show’s romantic storyline that doubles as cheeky self-critique and expiation.
Elsewhere, Sorkin still relies on improbably lucky plot twists, but he has developed the maturity to leaven them with self-conscious humor. When three reporters on the Mitt Romney campaign trail, two of whom are bound by Article III of the Television Constitution to eventually be naked with each other, are told there is only one room left at the hotel, the young lady (whose visual and aural resemblance to Meryl Streep would be odder were she not played by Streep’s daughter, Grace Gummer) rolls her eyes and says, “That was a predictable plot twist.” It does not change the fact that it is, indeed, a predictable plot twist, but it does make it go down more easily.
And: the show is funny, dammit! Sorkin’s still got a handle on his “well-crafted amalgam of comedy and menschy melodrama,” which The New Yorker’s Tad Friend identified 15 years ago. Mr. Skinner (Sam Waterston), would you please be my uncle? Mortimer’s feline Mackenzie is a pleasure to spend time with. One character, having taken medicine with potential psychological side effects, worries, “How are you even suppose to know if you're delusional?”—a vintage Sorkin line destined for a thousand Gchat away messages.
Rewatching the end of last season reminded me that its major dramatic plotline involved a source leaking evidence of warrantless wiretapping by the N.S.A. It is telling that I had forgotten this, and even more telling that, during the Snowden Saga of the past month, nobody credited Sorkin for being prescient or having his finger on the country’s pulse—credit he deserves. The reason we all forgot, I think, speaks to the ultimate weakness of “The Newsroom,” the thing that distinguishes it from the far better “Sports Night”and “The West Wing.”1
Particularly post-“The West Wing,” Sorkin gets the most attention for his subject matter and his politics. But at his best, that stuff is secondary to the characters. (Or as ABC’s “Sports Night” tag line put it, “It’s about sports. The same way ‘Charlie’s Angels’ was about law enforcement.”) The pleasure of a great Sorkin story is in watching talented people, operating in laboratories of excellence, passionately expressing their individual personalities and values through their work. This was most obviously true in “Sports Night,” because the subject was sports: A deliberately low-stakes endeavor where any additional meaning must be supplied by the characters. But even in “The West Wing,” where the characters’ task was literally to run the world, the upsides of ameliorative liberalism took a backseat to fleshing out the harried operatives and grandly troubled president.
By contrast, there are no characters on “The Newsroom” to rival the aloof, uber-talented sports anchor Casey McCall or the insecure, driven deputy chief-of-staff Josh Lyman. I was never one of the haters. But nor was I one of the ostensible fans—a group that, judging from the 2.3 million who tuned in for last season’s finale (roughly four times the number who watched the last “Girls” finale), presumably includes more people than my father. If it really wants to suck me in, the show is going to have to step it up and give me a character I can really get to know. I suspect the best candidate is not Will (although he is vulnerable this season in more interesting ways) or Mackenzie (although in one of my favorite scenes, in which she dresses down Jim, we get to see her be an authority in a completely new way) or Olivia Munn’s financial reporter Sloan Sabbith (who is just a completely uninteresting character). My money’s on Maggie. Her arc this season is the most obviously dramatic, but what I enjoyed most—and in fairness, this stretches back to last season, too—is her slow climb up the rungs of journalism. She is the least professionally excellent major character Sorkin has ever written, and therefore, along with President Jed Bartlet, the only one we could watch grow into a job.
It is possible we expected too much of “The Newsroom”; being HBO’s Sunday night drama does carry weighty expectations. But though “The Newsroom” will never be one-fiftieth as good as “The Sopranos” (or one-tenth as funny), it is light, it is easy, and it is fun. HBO’s executives have been wise to air it during July and August. It is warm-weather viewing.
Marc Tracy is a staff writer at The New Republic.
I really like Sorkin, and therefore pretend that “Studio 60 on Sunset Strip” was just some weird recurrent dream I had back in 2006 rather than an hour-long show that was actually beamed out on public airwaves 22 times.