From the first note of the punchier, less reverential theme song of The Newsroom in Season Two, it feels like Aaron Sorkin has heard his critics. Just as the laugh track was dropped between the first and second seasons of Sports Night, some of the theatrical overacting, pedantic speeches and absurdity of Season One – like all that Don Quixote stuff – has been cut. In its place is a more nuanced, compelling and believable window into the world of a cable news show. But will we ultimately care about these characters? That remains to be seen.
Episode One, “The First Thing We Do, Let’s Kill All the Lawyers,” written by Sorkin and directed by Alan Poul, takes its title from Henry VI. The reference sets us up for Will McAvoy’s (Jeff Daniels) latest pickle by suggesting that his revolutionary vision is being muddled by pesky things like consequences. At the episode’s opening, it’s 2012. Will is petulantly avoiding questions at a $1,500 an hour deposition led by his lawyer Rebecca Halliday (Marcia Gay Harden). Looking over her school-marmish glasses, she’s trying to get Will, who deals with problems by ignoring them entirely, to answer a straight question. His show News Night has alleged that the U.S. committed a war crime by using nerve gas on foreign targets. At stake is not that the News Night staff will lose their jobs and be forced to sing gospel for money on the subway, but that their grand mission to do the news will be obstructed.
We also learn that Maggie Jordan (Allison Pill) now “looks like the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.“ She went to Uganda and came back a little screwy, as indicated by her bad dye job and combat boots. Which on the upside means that over the course of the season, her character should now have more on her plate than boy problems. It also suggests that her development will continue to shadow that of MacKenzie McHale (Emily Mortimer).
To understand how we ended up in this mess, Sorkin flashes back to 2011, two weeks after season one ended. Jim (John Gallagher Jr.) is understandably bummed and grossed out by Maggie and Don’s (Thomas Sadowski) recent cohabitation decision and lame high-fives, and sends himself to New Hampshire to trail the Romney campaign. This sets off a chain of events that brings young gun producer Jerry Dantana (Hamish Linklater) up from Washington. He and Sloan (Oliva Munn) have a terrific nerd-meet-cute centering on a shared indignation for the Obama administration’s use of drone strikes.
Will has taken major heat for calling the Tea Party the “American Taliban,” and that’s still rippling through the ranks of ACN, a cable news network in the model of CNN or MSNBC. Network president Reese Lansing (Chris Messina) is shut out of a SOPA hearing on the Hill, and Jim is kept off the Romney campaign bus. Will is told he can’t do the 9/11 anniversary coverage and is slowly losing it. He’s smoking pot and listening to Van Morrison’s “Into the Mystic” – and again trying to pretend nothing is wrong. Don, meanwhile, is becoming less of a bad guy. On day 13 of “being a good boyfriend,” he gets a link to a deus ex machina YouTube video of Maggie’s season finale speech to a busload of Sex in the City tourists in which she confesses she’s fallen for Jim.
But I remain most curious about what MSNBC’s Chris Matthews (whose son Thomas has a recurring part) and the team of consultants including CNN anchor Ashleigh Banfield and former Time editor Jim Kelly told Sorkin that already makes the story feel more realistic than it did in season one. My guess is this team of paid consultants told Sorkin how the news actually works, and gave him the details that make things start to feel like you’re sneaking into a room you’ve never been in before. For example, unlike Season One, there is more than one big story a night. A really good night in the control room isn’t getting a call from a college pal who happens to be sitting in a Halliburton meeting – because that’s ridiculous – but rather, masterfully re-cutting a segment live, as Mac does in the first episode of Season Two. We learn some military panelists are actually sad, desperate guys with their own agendas, and the power to go rogue and screw it all up. And perhaps my favorite tidbit since Peggy Noonan was feeding us insider juice on the West Wing: To New York, the Washington bureau is an irrelevant farm team filled with annoyingly ambitious guys gunning for Peabodys. But I am still dying to see a scene that recognizes the newspapers and wires for doing the actual heavy lifting of reporting the news, rather than just commenting and aggregating.
The “Woman Problem” It is true that a major problem with Season One was that the female characters were reduced to stumbling Annie Halls minus the complicated internal angst, original catch phrases and game-changing personal style. Season Two’s sexist jokes have been limited to what is probably meant in jest, but may still offend. An example from Will’s deposition. Rebecca Halliday: “Fuck me!” Will: “Well, would one of you fuck Ms. Halliday please?” Rebecca: “That was a little funny.” Or totally inappropriate. We have yet to see Will imply that his male colleagues are being annoying because no one has had sex with them in a while. Which is why I think Will might just be written as an old-school, misogynist-light who says offensive things without even knowing they’re offensive, and the women that work with him would all benefit from reading Sheryl Sandberg. Whether Sorkin has written these dynamics intentionally, I’m not sure. But it does feel like women face enough subtle sexism in the real-life workplace that jokes like the one Charlie Skinner (Sam Waterston) makes to Sloan Sabbith about “reciting financial numbers in a skirt,” aren’t helpful to anyone. Especially for a show that spends the better part of an hour re-imagining the media as reflection of it’s own progressive values.
That said, Leona Lansing (Jane Fonda) is smart, sassy, pragmatic and strong, and she’s leaned in so hard she’s actually sitting on top of Charlie Skinner and Will McAvoy. (Which is a good thing.) Rebecca Halliday, running a team of young male lawyers, and making an astonishing $1,500 an hour, is no slouch either. Points to Sorkin for using the Who’s, “You Better You Bet” as an extended analogy for MacKenzie’s sometimes-unrequited love for Will, and Will’s sometimes-unrequited love from the audience. Their “Know British Rock” moment is an endearing this-how-nerds-flirt session, in which MacKenzie points out that Townshend wrote it, and Will counters, yes, but Daltrey sang it. These are sapiosexuals in love.
And while it does feel like there are 70% more story lines in one episode than there were in the whole last season, it would still take a master stroke to build dramatic tension around threads where we already know the punch line. But maybe Sorkin’s insight into Occupy Wall Street, the fall of Tripoli and the Romney campaign will prove compelling enough we will want more.
Ever since L.A. Law drove young television watchers to take the Bar in droves, the true litmus for a professional drama has been: do you want to work in this office? You tell me. I drank the fourth-estate koolaid years ago.