[Review] - The Newsroom, Season 2 Episode 1, "First Thing We Do, Let's Kill All the Lawyers"

Courtesy of HBO
Last year, Newsroom proved to be a controversial show. Not controversial in the usual ways: no members of the cast were arrested after a drunken binge, it didn't show graphic nudity or torture, and the creator wasn't found in possession of hallucinogenic mushrooms. It was because critics thought Aaron Sorkin was being too Sorkin. That his political opinions were overriding the narrative of the show, that the characterisation was weak, that the plots were simplistic and cliched, and that the idealism was too ideal. This all seemed pretty childish to me.

The first season wasn't perfect, that's true. Better the Studio 60, not anywhere near West Wing, probably hanging out in the same neighbourhood as SportNight. Not a bad place to be, all things being equal. It didn't change the history of television, but it wasn't a noxious turd in the pool of cable programming either. Still and all Aaron Sorkin believed there was room for improvement, and set out to make season 2 Newsroom 2.0. So, did he succeed?

Hit the jump for the review, which contains spoilers which had some stuff happen to them in Africa.

A brand new opening sequence, and a new (or, if not new, tweaked) theme song signal the change the show has apparently underwent, and straight away I was on guard. Was the the warning signs of a complete retool, or just lipstick on a pig? The answer falls somewhere in between. The show is still obviously Sorkin, written in the hyper intelligent, hyper aware, two- hundred-words-a-minute-and-don't-you-wish-people-actual-carried-on-conversations-like-this-is-real-life-sort-of-way that makes those that love Sorkin love Sorkin. The personalities are still the same abrasive, single focus sort of people who get on each other's nerves. And the politics are still very much leaning to the left side of the screen.

But. Everything else had a toned down, measured feel to it. As Sorkin tells it, with two episodes already filmed and complete, he asked for them to be scrapped, rewritten and reshot. And HBO said yes, go ahead, it will cost you an episode. So, season 2 arrives with an order for 9 instead of ten, but with the assumption that Sorkin's last minute reboot makes them better episodes. This premier certainly didn't relent any. It introduced the running gimmick for this season, testimonies (or at least, debriefing) given by the cast to company lawyer Marcia Gay Harden, looking back on events from 14 months hence. And in that brief chaotic mess of dialogue and humour, we were introduced to several elements that, had the show simply played out like normal, would have been annoying and intrusive (more on that latter).

Jump to late August 2011. The tenth anniversary of 9/11 is approaching, and Will is suffering the repercussions of having compared the Tea Party to the Taliban. Reese is still president of ACN, despite his phonehackery last year, and is uninvited to a discussion in Washington concerning the SOPA bill, which meant we got another terrific scene between Sam Waterston and Jane Fonda. One thing I do like about Newsroom is the constant reminder of all the shit that happened that seemed important at the time, and what I've completely blanked out. And, everytime they showed a shot of Will in his New York apartment, I couldn't help but thinking how the show will handle Super Storm Sandy, should it last that long.

Hail character progress, and if I had a major complaint last year it was that the characters never did anything. It was ten episodes of spinning wheels, because for all the character conflicts, any of them could have been resolved if any of them had actually done anything. This episode pretty quickly gets beyond this. Jim insists that he be fired or moved to a now open spot on the Romney campaign tour (this was back in the primary stages of the election, before he was the nominee - one character announces that Rick Perry is favoured at this point) in order to get away from Maggie, who refuses to adjust to the situation she created in last year's finale by making the big dramatic declaration. So, Jim's gone. In no short order, so is Don, who was my least favourite character when the show began, and ended last season my favourite. He's found said pronouncement on the internet, and finally decided he's had enough of Maggie's waffling bull. Which frees him up quite nicely for Sloan, should they ever decide to get over that awkwardness.

Even Will and Mac have moved on out of their perpetual ditherfest, no longer attempting to be the next Tracey and Hepburn. They still bicker, yes, but without the heavy gloss of unresolved tension. Their interactions here are more platonic, more balanced, and better. I like the bickering nature of their interactions, and I like it that much more without one of them feeling the need to bring up their failed relationship every time. The rambling attempt to use a Who song as a metaphor, that gets caught up in its own logic was fun because it didn't hinge on a pronouncement of love, and because it genuinely seemed like a conversation two people would have.

A strange new relationship emerged, between Charlie and Sloan, born no doubt after last season's epic show down between the two. I don't know what Sorkin's building towards there, but I like it, and Waterston and Munn play off each other very well. Olivia Munn continues to be the actor who surprises me the most on the show, and Sloan appears positioned to become an even bigger force at the network.

A new character, Jerry, was introduced to replace Jim, and without the framing device, I know I wouldn't have cared for his role at all. Much of the first half of the episode was focused on introducing him, and the conflict he brings to the story. And because we, as the audience, already know where it's leading, he doesn't have to be paraded around by the hand by one of the permanent cast. Had he been introduced cold, I would have found his being forced on us as intrusive and inorganic, and distracting from the other stories and characters that we're actually interested in. As it is, I still sort of feel that way, but it's cushioned by knowing that he's going to be the cause of much suffering before this is over. I feel like his character, and this news story he's set to bring, are a direct reaction by Sorkin to the claim that, because he's working from the lofty position of the future, the character's reactions to events in season one were very polished, and always right. And that breaking this ultimately false story is the easiest way to avoid the issue. Though, I feel it's a bit of a cheat. Like last year's phone hacking stuff, it's easier to shape the reactions of the characters when you are inventing events from whole cloth. But the claim of the show is that it's happening in the real world, so would it not be more "real" to have them royally screw up something real? It's harder, yes, but wouldn't it be more satisfying?

They touched on it slightly with resident youth Neal becoming aware of an embryonic Occupy movement, and I chuckled my way through every scene of that plot. Partly because I loved the way the show introduces the movement via a sharing circle without leadership, direction or a cohesive message. Which was pretty much what made the Occupy movement as ineffective as it was once it got up and running at 100%. The heavy-handed liberalism returned in full force in the scene where Neal tries to convince the movement's mouth piece that they needed better focus, and she went on a lengthy soap box diatribe that wouldn't have been out of place on the West Wing, but would have seemed more at home there. The same is true of the drone strikes arguments (nice and prescient considering Obama's current woes in that area), where the left side of the argument is made and well punctuated (literally, in the latter's case), but the counter is left limp or quite.

So, the show still isn't perfect. Few shows are. But it is improving, making obvious strides to make things better where it fell short last season, and finding new things for me to complain about on a weekly basis here. Look for further Newsroom reviews to appear on Wednesdays in the coming weeks, and look for Patton Oswalt to eventually appear in his recurring role on the show. I'm looking forward to it, and hopefully more of whatever classic rock licensing agreement the show made over the winter.
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About MR. Clark

Adopting the descriptor of "successfully unpublished author", MR. Clark began writing things on the internet in 2012, which he believed to be an entirely reputable and civilized place to find and deliver information. He regrets much.


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