Aaron Sorkin's HBO drama returns with its few strengths and abundant flaws still intact
As if conceding the first season harbored a serious structural flaw, “The Newsroom” returns with a flashback framing device to help explain its we-told-you-so leaps into the near past — in the second season’s case, to a stretch beginning in 2011 preceding the last presidential election. Such an admission, however, would be the only subtle thing about Aaron Sorkin’s in-your-face HBO drama, which has the rare ability of bringing conservatives and liberals together — the former outraged by its politics, the latter embarrassed by how preachy they sound. Usually interesting despite its abundant excesses, the show’s irritating moments continue to outweigh the satisfying ones.
It’s a shame, really, since Sorkin writes about media with an insight and savvy that remains all too rare, particularly within the TV space. Yet while that represented a delectable garnish on a program like “The West Wing,” here it’s more akin to force-feeding.
Setting those elements aside, “The Newsroom” is most seriously marred by its interpersonal relationships and the shifting romances within its newsroom at a fictional cable network. Yes, everyone is clever, funny and fluent in rat-a-tat Sorkinese, but the show hasn’t provided much incentive to care about them, or (in more extreme instances) stop the gnashing of teeth every time their love lives enter the picture.
Admittedly, some viewers have accepted the show on these terms, concluding the positives supersede its negatives. Besides, where else are you going to hear TV characters talking about SOPA?
That forgiving impulse, however, is put to the test by the first four episodes of season two, which find the younger characters making one career decision after another motivated by romance, and anchor Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels, still terrific) ever pugnaciously speaking his mind.
Through McAvoy, the imperious host of the show within the show, Sorkin does deliver a rather bracing rebuke to the rudderless nature of the then-nascent Occupy Wall Street movement. As usual, though, the writer (whose voice shines through loud and clear) reserves his harshest critiques for intransigent Republicans and a too-compliant media.
In that vein, Will is bedeviled by an earlier commentary comparing the Tea Party to the Taliban, while a subplot involves producer Jim (John Gallagher Jr.) taking leave to cover the Romney presidential campaign. On the trail, he encounters an attitude toward the press that’s nothing short of contemptuous, and reporters terrified of losing access who numbly avoid tough questions despite all the empty rhetoric.
Admittedly, there’s ample truth in the criticism, but given the campaign’s outcome, the exercise feels a bit petty, like kicking a man when he’s down — or at least beating a dead elephant.
Will is also accused of being smug, and a whiff of that permeates the entire series, with characters making prescient observations with the benefit of hindsight. Rick Perry’s candidacy, for example, is dismissed because, “Eventually, he’s going to have to speak,” after the Texas governor’s campaign imploded for that very reason, highlighted by his “Oops” moment during a televised debate.
It’s too bad, since the good sequences will surely make Sorkin aficionados long for more, such as Will saying, “Snark is the idiot version of wit, and we’re being polluted by it,” or financial news anchor Sloan Sabbith (Olivia Munn) using her substantial trove of Twitter followers as capital in a negotiation to help Maggie (Alison Pill), the focal point of a workplace Jim-Maggie-Don (Thomas Sadowski) triangle that remains the show’s weakest link.
Ultimately, one needn’t be a purveyor of snark to view “The Newsroom” as a disappointment — too smart to be dismissed, but so abrasive as to feel like Media Lectures for Dummies. In that respect, it’s well suited to cable news, just not in the way intended.