The Second Season of 'The Newsroom': Less Moralizing, More Likable

From the get-go, the second season of Aaron Sorkin's much-derided (and rightfully so) HBO drama The Newsroom, which premieres this Sunday night, is advertising its new sleekness. Having shed the weight of all its grand intentions, Sorkin's show is suddenly freed; it's livelier and looser and, I daresay, likable.

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The Newsroom has a new opening credits sequence. Gone is the soupy paean to venerable television newsmen of yesteryear, replaced by images of New York City, of workroom frenzy, coffee cups spilling on newspaper, the sometimes errant bustle of getting things done. Thomas Newman's swooning music still plays over all this, but without the invocations of Cronkite and Murrow, the tune sounds sprightlier, more darting and witty than heavy-handed. From the get-go, the second season of Aaron Sorkin's much-derided (and rightfully so) HBO drama, which premieres this Sunday night, is advertising its new sleekness. Having shed the weight of all its grand intentions, Sorkin's show is suddenly freed; it's livelier and looser and, I daresay, likable.

In the four episodes I've seen, we are mostly spared any lectures about How News Should Be and instead simply shown how the news is. Of course this is still Sorkin's hyped-up, harried world, so nothing is exactly believable, but with much of the first season's achingly pretentious — and deceptively shallow — moralizing gone, the world of Atlantis Cable News is a more relatable, livable place. We're still dealing with yesterday's news — the season starts in August 2011 — but last season's air of hindsight-blessed sanctimony is subdued. Sorkin continues to preach to us about the media's mistakes, but without as much haughty finger-wagging. Season two is less about a crusade and more about the slog. And while that might sound like a bad thing, the slog is actually what's interesting, the day-to-day of it, the careful building of a story piece-by-piece. While I'm sure most real journalists would shiver at the idea that The Newsroom is at all accurately representative of what they do, let's just go with it. It's television.

As a way to provide the season with some focus and structure, Sorkin has given it a frame: Marcia Gay Harden plays a steely attorney, Rebecca Halliday, hired by the network to defend it in a wrongful termination lawsuit. We learn the details of the case — involving a News Night story about the U.S. Army using chemical weapons in the Middle East that, we learn very early on, was false and demanded a retraction — through Halliday's flashback-prompting witness prep with the principal players. Our ostensible hero Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels) is still irascible and narcissistic, but this time around he's not so damn right all the time, a refreshing change in tone that turns Will's story into more of a character study than Sorkin's awkward and unpleasant guidebook to how to be a loud and effective man. Daniels handles Will's sudden shifts in mood well, and seems reinvigorated by his newfound... well, kookiness isn't exactly the right word, but it's close. There are moments in season two when Will, despite all his stubbornness and exhausting Sorkin-male arrogance, is actually kinda fun. Things get especially goofy in scenes with Sam Waterston's network prez Charlie, and while their antics can seem a little out of place amidst all the earnest newsgathering, any opportunity this show seizes to take itself a little less seriously is fine by me.

John Gallagher Jr.'s rumpled cutie producer Jim (they're always named Jim, those rumpled cuties) is sent off to New Hampshire to follow the Romney campaign, the show teaching us a lesson about intra-press relations and the perils and inanities of access journalism. Jim leads a mini-revolution against the talking points memo stonewall, a sweet but corny storyline that if nothing else allows for some fun flirting between Jim and another young journalist (Grace Gummer) and a few nicely barbed exchanges between Jim and a Romney campaign staffer (the always welcome Constance Zimmer). The biggest problem with this plot is that Southern California turns in a terrible performance as New Hampshire. It can't even get the trees right.

Back in New York, Dev Patel's goofy Neal Sampat has picked up on the early rumblings of Occupy Wall Street, a movement that Sorkin seems perhaps unduly angry at. He's highly critical, through Will and producer MacKenzie (Emily Mortimer), of the movement's lack of leadership and ideological cohesion; a criticism that, while smugly made, addresses its own smugness and, I must admit, rings with a slight hint of truth. I still don't think Sorkin is all that effective at actually arguing a point — he's too wishy-washy in his never-ending quest to prove our assumptions about his politics wrong — but he at least addresses OWS with the level of seriousness it deserves. Though, I wish he didn't make the avatar of the movement a young woman whose motivations ultimately boil down to wanting an apology from Will for being mean to her.

Sorkin's perhaps now legendary problems with writing women are unfortunately on groan-worthy display this season. Though MacKenzie has calmed down some — she's not the wing-flapping flighty bird she used to be — Olivia Munn's financial whiz Sloan Sabbith, who gets much more to do this year, is a mess of smarts overcome by screwy social stumbles and odd personality tics. This pretty girl in heels doesn't do daffy pratfalls, the way they do in so many romantic comedies, but all of Sloan's verbal clumsiness essentially does the same job. And Maggie (Alison Pill), poor Maggie. This season seems determined to ruin her life, solely because she committed the cardinal sin of not picking the nice guy when he was available to her. While Jim gets a fun trip to New Hampshire (complete with a monologue about how women are always punishing him for being nice), Maggie is sent to Uganda where she witnesses a horrible, life-changing tragedy. She comes back a little nuts, evidenced by her new choppy, butch haircut. (The haircut is discussed, at some length.) Sorkin has given his female characters more shape and agency this season — Will doesn't swoop in and save MacKenzie anymore — but the show still has work to do before its women no longer seem like atomized parts of one woman Aaron Sorkin is frustrated with.

That, admittedly major, problem aside, Newsroom season two is a mostly successful entertainment. Real-life recent history is included, but with a far defter and subtler hand than it was in season one. (Though, one dreadful scene that has two unnamed staffers watching, in awe, an old tape of Will broadcasting on September 11 is an ugly reminder of how low this show can go.) And the show really benefits from its own entirely made-up major news arc — it's much more of a television drama now, rather than some kind of strange fantasy reenactment. The framing device adds a dash of intrigue to the proceedings, a welcome sensation from a show that used to be about a bunch of stuff we already knew. Pepped-up and dramatically honed in its sophomore outing, this series may be starting to realize its potential. I guess you could say that The Newsroom is, well, a developing story.

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