TV Turnaround

‘The Newsroom’ Season 2 Premiere: How Aaron Sorkin Saved the HBO Drama

Andrew Romano has good news about Sunday’s Season 2 premiere: Aaron Sorkin has managed to turn it around.

Melissa Moseley/HBO

If you watched the Season 2 premiere of HBO’s The Newsroom on Sunday night, you may have noticed a difference.

The show was pretty great.

And (spoiler alert) the next three episodes are even better. (I watched the press screeners. Twice.)

What’s changed? The first season of The Newsroom was a strange beast. If you, like me, are an Aaron Sorkin fan who adores journalism movies and tends to prefer HBO programming to just about everything else on TV, the pitch sounds like a dream. It’s an hour-long HBO drama about a gentle, golden-retriever-y anchor named Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels) who suddenly decides that he’s sick of being fair and balanced and instead starts to speak “truth to stupid” on-air. In between are scenes of him and his equally attractive and brilliant coworkers emitting reams of politicized Preston Sturges dialogue as they stride through a big glassy office space filled with colleagues they have slept with or will sleep with or want to sleep with someday. What, we thought, could possibly be better?

Then the show materialized, and it was not nearly as good as it should have been. The nation—or at least those of us who cast our ballots for Josiah Bartlet—shook its collective head, sighed, and resigned itself to another Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip.

At the time, I diagnosed The Newsroom’s affliction as a failure to do justice to its subject matter: journalism. Sorkin had set the show in the recent past—2010, the Year of the Tea Party. The idea, he explained in an interview, was to “giv[e] me the chance to have the characters be smarter than we were, which is kind of fun.” Sadly, it turned out to be kind of the opposite.

“While Sorkin is right about the false bias toward balance that plagues the postmodern press,” I wrote, “his decision to center the series on the real events of 2010 prevents him from dramatizing how that bias could actually be combated. When the Deepwater Horizon rig explodes, McAvoy’s team immediately intuits that the real story is the size of the coming oil spill rather than the ongoing search-and-rescue mission—even though in real life it took days for anyone to report that oil was leaking.

“Sorkin is cheating here: he knows how each story will end; to make his characters seem “smarter than we were” … he lets them know it, too. But journalism isn’t about knowing all the answers in advance; it’s about figuring them out in real time. How would these eloquent know-it-alls—these brainiacs bent on “speaking truth to stupid”—untangle the knotty threads of information that make actual breaking news so difficult to sort out? It’s a question that’s ripe with dramatic potential; fiction tends to thrive amid doubt and wilt in the presence of certainty. But The Newsroom is only pretending to answer it.”

Even though Season 1 of The Newsroom improved as the finale approached, it was still hard to swallow. Retrospective armchair quarterbacking might make for a good Sunday Times Op-Ed, but it doesn’t make for compelling drama.

With Season 2, however, Sorkin has shifted course and put the process of journalism front and center. (His all-star cast of media-industry consultants—MSNBC’s Chris Matthews, CNN’s Ashleigh Banfield, former Bush adviser Mark McKinnon, Navy SEAL-turned-investigative-reporter Kaj Larsen, and veteran campaign reporter Shushannah Walshe, among others—certainly deserve some credit for the change.) The opening scene of the premiere takes place around a conference table, where Rebecca Halliday (Marcia Gay Harden), a First Amendment lawyer tasked with defending ACN in a wrongful-termination lawsuit, is grilling McAvoy about a story gone wrong. Apparently, the News Night team reported that the U.S. military used sarin gas on Afghanistan as part of a secret operation called Genoa—when nothing of the sort happened. (The story is based on “Tailwind,” a discredited 1998 CNN news segment alleging that the U.S. had committed the same war crime in Vietnam, which former CNN employees Jeff Greenfield and Rick Kaplan brought to Sorkin’s attention.) Meanwhile, in a flashback—the action immediately rewinds a few weeks—we learn that young, idealistic producer Jim Harper (John Gallagher Jr.) has run off to New Hampshire to embed with the Romney campaign, an assignment that is technically beneath him—all because his office crush, Maggie Jordan (Alison Pill), is back together with Don Keefer (Thomas Sadoski), who produces another ACN news show.

As the season unfolds, at least over the first four episodes, the Genoa and Romney storylines come to dominate the narrative. With Genoa, we see News Night get a tip about military wrongdoing, pursue promising leads, develop sources, and vet their reporting. Up in the Granite State, we watch as Jim boards the bus, endures speech after newsless speech, gets turned down, again and again, for an interview with the candidate, and tries (and fails) to convince his fellow embeds to be more combative.

Neither of these subplots is perfectly accurate; this is still television, after all. But accuracy wasn’t the problem with The Newsroom’s first season. The problem was that Sorkin did too much (pedantic, predictable) telling and not enough showing. In Season 1, he probably would have seized on Genoa as an opportunity to criticize the mainstream media for failing to question the military establishment; the Romney story would have been ripe with potshots at the candidate’s politics. But in Season 2, Sorkin stops lecturing us about journalism and finally lets us see how it works.

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The effect is revelatory. Once McAvoy & Co. are no longer forced to serve primarily as mouthpieces for their creator’s political views and mechanisms of his journalistic tsk-tsking, The Newsroom’s virtues, many of which were in place from the beginning, can finally shine through. The dialogue is crisp, chiseled, and often very funny. Characters are undeniably alive, despite their quirks. (Emily Mortimer’s MacKenzie McHale, for example, will still irritate viewers who found her ditziness in Season 1 demeaning.) The acting is (mostly) excellent.

Sorkin saved The Newsroom by transforming it from a show about how other journalists were wrong into a show about how his journalists struggle to get it right—and how hard that can be. For those of us who were rooting for the series from the start, this is very good news.