The Newsroom is Back…and Yes, We Still Need It

A little over a year ago HBO began airing what initially seemed to be a slam-dunk: an hour-long dramedy about the cable news biz written by one of the greatest television writer/producers of our generation: Aaron Sorkin. The Newsroom first teased us with a stunning trailer showing series star Jeff Daniels going off on a young college student when she asks him why America is the greatest country in the world. Daniels’ character, Will McAvoy, responds with a blistering critique of the state of affairs in America that leads him to say, “The first step in solving a problem is recognizing there is one. America is not the greatest country in the world anymore.”

newsroomThis simple but bold statement in a media landscape that still holds true to the opposite launched a 10-episode season focusing on McAvoy teaming up with former girlfriend and executive producer MacKenzie McHale (Emily Mortimer) to produce a nightly news program that focused on actually educating their audience with information that they can use in a voting booth. Together they intend to buck the pure entertainment aspects of modern news like the Casey Anthony trial and the latest goings-ons of the Kardashians by becoming self-proclaimed Don Quixote and Sancho Panza spreading the truth and attempting to improve the society they live in.

Is this television loudly wearing its heart on its sleeve? Yes. Does it sometimes come across as condescending and pompous? Yes. Is it idealized to the point of being unrealistic? Oh, you bet it is. But you know what – that’s the whole point. Our society – and more importantly, the media within it – has become so tone deaf to the actual state of itself and those pesky things called facts that we need someone to be shouting it at us in the most blatant way possible. In this instance, Sorkin is that someone.

The Newsroom debuted to criticisms for the very things I’ve listed above as well as barbs that he’s covered some of this material before in programs like The West Wing, Sports Night, and Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. The fact is, yes, it’s true that Sorkin has preached this particular sermon before but the crucial thing to consider with that criticism is the question “does it still need to be preached?” And I think any reasonable person can take a look at the world around him or her to find that the answer is most definitely YES.

Our attention spans are still getting shorter. Our news programs contain less and less actual information. Our politicians have lost all sense of doing what’s right in favor of just winning the next election. And the growing influence of social media is putting an enlarged emphasis on how we feel about something rather than what the facts actually say. We are lost in that eternal spiral of cynicism that keeps us from demanding the changes we need as a society in favor of just complaining about them. We desperately need someone pointing these things out to us until they’re blue in the face or until we actually change and if Sorkin wants to be that man and continue railing on these topics that he’s already covered before, I not only accept it but applaud it.

For essentially that reason alone, I applauded when HBO renewed The Newsroom for a second season and was immensely pleased with its second season premiere episode that arrived this Sunday. Set mostly in September 2011, the episode opens and closes with scenes from late 2012 where we find Will and MacKenzie giving deposition to a high-priced lawyer (series newcomer Marcia Gay Harden) over their involvement in a false story that “Newsnight” aired claiming that the United States military used nerve gas on civilians in an operation called Genoa. Through their testimony we see flashbacks from 2011 that reveal how the false story came from a strange set of circumstances involving Jim (John Gallagher Jr.) going on the campaign trail with Mitt Romney in New Hampshire and being temporarily replaced in the newsroom with Jerry (Hamish Linklater) from Washington.

But before the Genoa story airs we learn that Will’s reference to the Tea Party as “the American Taliban” has both him and the network in hot water. Network president Reese Lansing (Chris Messina) is denied access to an important Congressional hearing as retribution and his mother, Leona (Jane Fonda) is forced to put the pressure on Will and his boss Charlie Skinner (Sam Waterston) to cool it down once again. And I don’t know about everybody else but I could watch Fonda and Waterston bitch at each other for hours on end. It is priceless.

But I digress. As a result of the warnings, Charlie decides to pull Will from the 10th anniversary coverage of the September 11 attacks, which sends Will into a pool of self-loathing and doubt. So in effort to not look liberally biased he goes easy on a conservative guest booked for the show by Jerry to do a panel discussion on drone strikes. The panel is deemed a bit of a disaster but the guest ends up giving Jerry the information about Genoa in hopes of getting invited back to the show.  We don’t yet know how the story progresses from there but this will certainly be fodder for the whole season.

On the love story front, we get to witness the final (hopefully!) breakup of Maggie (Alison Pill) and Don (Thomas Sadoski) after Don sees a Youtube video of Maggie’s epic rant/confessional to a Sex and the City tour bus about her love of Jim. Jim, though, has already left for New Hampshire and will have to wait to take advantage of Maggie’s newfound single status until he returns. Don’s single status seems teed up to last  even less time though thanks to continued flirtations with Sloan (Olivia Munn). I sense an impending hookup as soon as she takes a break from investigating drone strikes.

Sloan isn’t the only one breaking news though. Burgeoning reporter Neal (Dev Patel) is now making initial efforts to document a group calling themselves Occupy Wall Street in their very early days. One can sense he’ll be jumping into it feet first and I’ll be curious to see what Sorkin has to say on the protests through the vessel of Neal.

Ultimately the episode ends with MacKenzie (who shows off why she’s a great producer during a potentially disastrous show at the beginning of the episode) giving her testimony late into the night with Will protectively waiting outside for her as long as it takes.

In short, the episode crackled with Sorkin’s usually brilliant dialogue, strong performances, glossy production value, and a new opening credits sequence that hopes to start off on a new foot with the show’s critics. And although this episode – and thus the entire season – sets up a storyline showing our hero journalists at “Newsnight” making a major mistake and having to pay the price for it, the show still shines as an example and reminder of the world that we live in and how our media could ultimately make it better with just a few changes in style, content, and intelligence level.

I make no secret of the fact that I think The Newsroom is an important show saying important things. I know many people will continue hating it simply because it’s become an en vogue thing to do, but I’m glad to have it back on my TV screen and will continue to applaud it’s message even if I’m the only one.

The Newsroom, Season 2, Episode 1: “First Thing We Do, Let’s Kill All the Lawyers” (originally aired July 14, 2013)

Images courtesy of HBO.

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