This post discusses plot developments in The Newsroom's Season Two premiere on July 14.
There was reason to be optimistic about Season Two of HBO's behind-the-news drama The Newsroom. The show earned decent viewership ratings in its first season; critical responses ranged from deeply offended to amused if mildly underwhelmed, but speculation circulated that creator Aaron Sorkin had revamped his writing strategy after the season was over.
So even if the particular rumor that Sorkin had fired his whole writing staff turned out to be false, Atlantic staffers Chris Heller and Ashley Fetters had high hopes that perhaps a more thoughtful reboot of HBO's "pretentious, condescending" Sunday-night series was on the way.
But then the season actually began.
The Newsroom's season premiere opens with an investigation, circa 2012, into the ACN News Night team's activities in the fall of 2011. Rewind to the days of Occupy Wall Street and Rebecca Black's "Friday," and the newsroom is mired in as-per-usual chaos: Crusty anchorman Will McAvoy gets kicked off of the network's 10-year September 11 coverage for calling the Tea Party the "American Taliban" on air, finance reporter Sloan Sabbith can't seem to get anybody to listen to her about how drone strikes are a pretty big deal, and producers Jim and Maggie still, disastrously, haven't gotten together—a tragedy that sends a sulky Jim out on the road to cover the Romney campaign.
Below, our discussion of the second-season premiere—the welcome adjustments, the many continuing frustrations, and the agonizing question of how long you should keep watching a show with great potential that nevertheless just keeps disappointing you.
Ashley: Are you sighing a little bit right now? I'm sighing a little bit right now. I wanted this to be better than it was.
Chris: I'm right there with you. Was it really this tedious last season? Re-adjusting to the conceit felt a lot more difficult this time around. I mean, it mentioned the D.C. earthquake multiple times!
Ashley: Yeah. I kind of felt like I was getting hit over the head with "HEY GUYS. IT IS FALL 2011. REMEMBER OCCUPY WALL STREET? IT IS 2011!" But then I remembered: Oh yeah, that's always been the shtick in Newsroom world—the sanctimonious rehash of stuff that feels like it happened five minutes ago.
Chris: This show is like an annoying cousin you don't see that often. You forget, specifically, how simultaneously irritating and dull it can be.
Ashley: Totally. But I guess what I'm still trying to decide is whether what we just saw was any indication that Season Two will truly be any different from Season One. Maybe Aaron Sorkin didn't fire the whole writing team, like the rumors were saying way back when, but he did bring in some new consultants...? And after Season One suffered all that critical backlash (the women are crazy, etc.), I wondered whether the writers would be making adjustments in response.
Chris: I didn't have much faith in the behind-the-scenes changes. The joke about Sorkin is that his co-writers are effectively assistants. The scripts are his, not anybody else's.
Ashley: See, I was actually (maybe foolishly) kinda optimistic. But, go on.
Chris: The first episode seems to be reacting, at least a little bit, to some of the backlash. Sloan stood out in a way she hadn't last season.
Ashley: Sloan suddenly felt like more of a real, understandable person to me in this episode—less like an irrational, explosive jumble of unexplained feelings and more like somebody who's really good at her job but just awkward in sensitive situations. Like being around Don, who she's starting to be interested in.
Chris: Mac showed a hint of finally becoming more of a character than some caricature of whatever harried woman did wrong by Aaron Sorkin 25 years ago. And Maggie, uh, didn't cry? I don't know. It didn't feel like the characters improved much. (And as for Jim, he got even worse.) What do you think?
Ashley: Maggie. At this point, she's still the most offensively clueless character of all, but I'm suddenly very intrigued by where her trajectory is going. That flash-forward tease in the beginning where she walked in with short red hair? Like, that worked for me. I want to know what happened there.
Chris: But do you have any faith—at all—that Sorkin will handle that trauma well?
Ashley: I mean... I'm optimistic. At the very least, I do think it was smart—and not accidental—that in the season premiere, it's made clear that the character who seems to get ragged on the most by critics and viewers has undergone a radical change. And I'll definitely keep watching to see "what happened to Maggie" get explained. I see what you're doing there, Sorkin, and it's working. I'll stick with this for a second.
Chris: Okay, you've convinced me. One small thing, though: Mac is a much, much worse case of crazy lady-itis than Maggie. And she's not dramatically different. The last scene in the bar, with her and Will, had me hoping that it was changing—and then that joke about her forgetting her wallet happened. I don't think The Newsroom can even approach a good episode until the Mac problem is solved.
Ashley: I feel like last season she did some cool producer tricks and had a lot of ditzy moments. This episode had some cool producer tricks (that DSK voiceover thing was pretty nifty!) and... some ditzy moments. What do you have in mind, though? What's your vision for a new, improved Mackenzie?
Chris: A character who could believably manage a newsroom and produce a television show every weeknight. The Mac we watch can't even send an email without embarrassing herself.
Ashley: Yeah, seriously. And I cringed at the whole needy reprisal of "But what was in the voicemail?!," too.
Chris: And moreover, she needs to break out of this ridiculous pattern of dependence and deference to Will. It's the show's worst flaw.
Ashley: Yeah, that's pretty gross. It's funny—that didn't bother me as much in Season One, but this year I'm coming at it having watched all seven seasons of The West Wing since I last tuned in. And now I understand. The female characters Aaron Sorkin has created before are such great female characters (this guy created C.J. Cregg...! And Amy Gardner...!), and perhaps even more importantly, he's created work environments in the past that were both entertaining and actually inspiring. What makes The West Wing so compellingly watchable is that at the end of the day, those colleagues support and care for each other far beyond the levels colleagues are required to care about each other.
The Newsroom, even in its (maybe-)rebooted form, offers neither of those, from what we've seen thus far. And that's disappointing.
Chris: You know, I really don't *like* The Newsroom. I actually don't know why I keep watching. Should I just stop?
Ashley: I mean... you have options at this point. You could, indeed, throw your remote down in frustration and quit. Or you could watch optimistically. You could ironically hate-watch. You could also cathartically hate-watch. (The difference between the last two: The former is watching just to laugh at its shortcomings, and the latter is watching it angrily, as a ritual weekly emotional cleanse that purges your negative vibes.)
Chris: I think I haven't quit because I'm still waiting for Aaron Sorkin, Brilliant Screenwriter to supplant Aaron Sorkin, Kinda Dull Smart Guy Who Really, Really Wants You to Know How the World Works. (Also: "Hate-watching" is a peculiar way to spend your time. And it's a misnomer. You're still enjoying it! That's the point!)
Ashley: Yes. Yes! I'm with you there. I haven't quit because I keep waiting for The Newsroom's pedigree to start showing—I keep waiting for it to start feeling like what the gangbusters combination of HBO and Aaron Sorkin could feel like.
I want to tell The Newsroom, you're NOT the best show on television, but you could be.
Chris: Heavy, heavy emphasis on "could."
Ashley: Ha. Yes. Extreme emphasis. So, moment of truth: Are you gonna watch next Sunday? Gonna revisit that somehow boring-yet-obnoxious cousin again, in hopes that he becomes cool?
Chris: I mean, the show fits a nice role in my TV routine. I typically put it on a day or two after it airs while I'm making dinner. It's background noise that catches my attention while I'm washing my hands. What would it take for you to quit watching?
Ashley: Hmm. Wow. I mean, maybe I should first explain something about why I haven't quit watching: Yes, I'm optimistic it could get better, but in a weird, perverse way, watching it in its current state also makes me appreciate just how great other TV programming is right now. When I watch Mad Men or an old TWW episode after having seen The Newsroom, I'm more grateful for awesome writing when it happens.
So maybe... OK. If it stays just as grating as it is, I will eventually find other things to do on Sunday nights. If it gets better, I'll keep watching. If it gets worse ... I may also keep watching.
Chris: You don't know the highs until you've seen the lows.
Ashley: Precisely. Or, maybe I'll just quit after I find out what happened to Maggie's hair.
Chris: I'll quit if Don ever doesn't appear in an episode.
Chris: Or if I ever sign up for Seamless. Either or.