I’ve lost track of the number of times in the last year when a major news event – or, rather, the news media majorly bungling its coverage of that event – inspired my Twitter feed to explode with comments about how “The Newsroom” would turn this into an episode two seasons from now. With each mention, there was a clear sense that these repeated, institutionalized screw-ups – the misreading of the Supreme Court’s ruling on the Affordable Care Act, the torrent of erroneous information about the suspects in the Boston Marathon bombing, cable news completely ignoring the riveting, made-for-TV drama that was the recent Texas state legislature filibuster – were only proving “Newsroom” creator Aaron Sorkin correct in his thesis that the Fourth Estate has been badly failing the American people. Yet each one also came laced with jokes about the amazing power of 20/20 hindsight, about “News Night” producer Jim Harper conveniently having a second cousin once removed connected to the story, and about which Coldplay song would accompany the montage about a tragedy poorly-covered by the press.
That’s the double-edged sword that is “The Newsroom,” which returns to HBO on Sunday night at 10. By having his noble, fictional TV news team reporting on two-year-old stories, Sorkin has a chance to address the sins he feels have been committed by the people who both make and cover the news in this country. But with this series, Sorkin usually does it in a fashion so smug – to use an adjective he’s self-aware enough to at times apply to his heroes – that it can feel embarrassing to agree with the things his characters do and say.
Because even if you can somehow put aside the show’s political leanings(*) – as he’s demonstrated on “The West Wing,” “The American President” and elsewhere, Sorkin is one of the most passionate and vocal liberal voices in a very liberal business, and in the first season used “The Newsroom” to attack the Tea Party almost as vigorously as he went after the ineptitude of CNN, MSNBC and Fox News – “The Newsroom” has a lot of smart, pointed things to say about the decrepit condition of TV news, and about the general lack of civility, communication and cooperation in our national politics, regardless of which party you prefer. But the message is frequently undercut by the messengers.
(*) Which we will try our best to do, given the No Politics rule here on the blog, but which a show like this makes all but impossible to stick by. All I can ask is that you try to be respectful in your disagreements with both the show and other commenters – remembering that the first of those rules is to TALK ABOUT THE SHOW, NOT EACH OTHER.
In one storyline of the new season, “News Night” producer Jim Harper (John Gallagher Jr.) decides to go on the road for a few weeks with the Romney presidential campaign in the fall of 2011. His scenes wind up less an attack on Romney than on the way any modern political campaign neuters the press corps covering it, until every reporter is reciting, without comment or question, the same set of talking points handed to them by the campaign staff. Yet the reason for Jim being on the Romney bus in the first place is tied to the show’s cringe-inducing attempts at romantic comedy, where by the mid-point of this new season, it’s safe to describe Jim as one point in an irritating love hexagon. And his behavior in pointing out the way the campaign and the press are both doing their jobs badly comes across as so patronizing that he seems in need of perpetual eye-rolling.
In fairness to Sorkin, he has other characters on-hand – including Grace Gummer as a campaign veteran annoyed that Jim has parachuted in to cause trouble for the regulars – point out this and other problematic behavior for his heroes. We’re all meant to agree with Jim, with heroic anchorman Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels) and all the rest even as they make their points in the most pompous way imaginable, but Sorkin at least gives internal voice to the idea that they’re making good points badly.
Sorkin has also made at least a few other tweaks in response to the very loud and frequent criticisms to the first season, and they’re apparent from the opening moments of the premiere. The season 1 opening credits sequence was a montage of great moments in the history of TV journalism, linking Will McAvoy to the grand tradition of Edward R. Murrow, Walter Cronkite and all the rest, and creating a sense of self-importance that nearly crippled “The Newsroom” from jump. The new credits are a simpler, more modest series of images of activity in and around the “News Night” studio, and even the music is a more sedate version of last year’s inspirational Thomas Newman-penned theme song. The original sequence demanded your awe and respect; the new one simply suggests serious issues are about to be discussed.
Beyond that, the new season is framed by a series of legal depositions about a Sorkin-invented military scandal that “News Night” royally screwed up in reporting. The show’s fictional characters have never co-existed easily alongside real politicians and events, and the idea of the team having made a giant mistake – even if early signs point to newcomer Jerry Dantana (Hamish Linklater) being the cause of that mistake, rather than Will, Jim or executive producer MacKenzie McHale (Emily Mortimer) – also goes a long way towards suggesting these characters are not omniscient, infallible crusaders, but people just as capable of making errors as their enemies.
Sorkin got rightly dinged a lot for the way he turned MacKenzie and the other female characters into clowns whose primary function was to fall down and/or find things to apologize to the men about. We see a bit more of MacKenzie being professionally competent this season – and when she messes up, it’s in more interesting ways, like when she dismisses the attempts of junior staffer Neal (Dev Patel) to get “News Night” to report on the early days of Occupy Wall Street – but Sorkin’s main corrective here is to start making the men also fall down and have great difficulty with modern technology. Even Olivia Munn’s financial reporter Sloan Sabbith, the show’s best-drawn female character in season 1 – thanks to the surprisingly effective melding of Sorkin’s sense of humor and Munn’s dry delivery – stumbles a bit in year 2 thanks to a bizarre infatuation with producer Don Keefer (Thomas Sadoski).
But though Sorkin is able to address some of season 1’s deficits, he still retains his other blind spots. His hatred of the internet rings out loud and clear in an almost self-parodic subplot where Maggie Jordan (Alison Pill) has to grovel in front of a “Sex and the City” fan-fiction author (I am not making that up, much as I wish that I was). His belief in our need of Great Men with a capital G and M is unswerving, even if he allows other characters to make fun of Will each time he suggests that he is one. And the man who once penned “The American President” now finds himself unable to write a single romantic storyline in which the audience might want to root for any combination of characters to actually get together.
And yet… and yet… and yet, he is Aaron Sorkin, which means he is also among the most gifted wordsmiths this medium has ever known. And though “The Newsroom,” like “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip” before it, is mostly Bad Sorkin on display, there are also those occasional flashes of Good Sorkin that make it worth sifting through the rest of the mess to find. And a lot of what Sorkin is criticizing about 21st century politics and the reporters who cover it is a valid subject – it just happens to be one where Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert usually covered it first, funnier and better when the events actually happened two years ago.
Part of what “The Newsroom” is criticizing is a media landscape where the audience has the option to only listen to people with whom they already agree. Without opposing viewpoints being genuinely and fairly articulated for all to hear, we’re a nation suffering a deeper and deeper schism, where two seemingly reasonable people can hear two radically different interpretations of the same event and have no idea what the other one just heard. But there are times where you can agree with the ideology of a TV show and still not enjoy much of it. The last year suggested to me that Aaron Sorkin is right in a lot of what he had to say on “The Newsroom.” I just wish he was saying it in a less sanctimonious, more entertaining series.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org