There was a moment in last season’s finale of HBO’s The Newsroom when Will McAvoy, the bombastic TV anchorman played by Jeff Daniels, shot forward on his hospital bed and bellowed to a co-worker “I don’t think I’m coming back!” He was talking about his return from a drug-induced bleeding ulcer to the cable newscast over which he presides, but weary viewers, impatient with the preachy prattle that passed for the first season of Aaron Sorkin’s Treatise on the State of the American News Media, could have been forgiven if they hoped he was musing about the fate of the show itself.
The Newsroom angered many conservatives and made many liberals cringe with its cartoonish characterizations in its first season, but the show’s most glaring flaw wasn’t ideological. It was structural. By setting the show in the very recent past and basing it around real events, Sorkin seemed to appoint himself ombudsman for the entire planet. To steal a line from Broadcast News, another, far better dramatization of the news biz, The Newsroom was always the smartest person in the room. It was also, by the end of its first season, a pretty unpleasant watch.
And now it’s back. Season two begins Sunday at 10 on HBO. That structural flaw remains — this season covers the year leading up to the 2012 Presidential election, and encompasses real life events such as the fall of Muammar Gadaffi and the Occupy Wall Street movement — but Sorkin and his team have at least pulled back a bit on the Monday Morning Quarterbacking.
The new Newsroom, in its first few episodes, is comparatively subdued, and seems less interested in retroactively righting the media’s missteps and more content to examine the adrenaline-fueled high wire act that is the modern newscast. At first, especially in a crackling control room scene where executive producer Mac (Emily Mortimer) narrowly averts journalistic disaster during a live broadcast, the shift in scope is to the show’s benefit.
After a while, though, it starts to feel like a careful-what-you-wish-for situation. Sure, The Newsroom now feels more like a television program than a polemic, but wild-eyed characters ranting Sorkinian dialogue at least made for arresting television, love it or leave it. Viewers expecting last year’s polarizing show won’t find as much to get worked up about, at least not right away.
Its acting ensemble has always been The Newsroom’s biggest asset. As McAvoy, Daniels begins the new season neutered from last year’s version, but it’s by design — the anchor is under censure for referring to the Tea Party as the “American Taliban” during last season’s finale. Sam Waterston is still doling out wisdom as the news division president, and Jane Fonda spits nails as the Rupert Murdoch-esque media baron who owns the network. One notable newcomer is Marcia Gay Harden, who plays an in-house attorney deposing many of the main characters about a news story apparently gone very wrong. Those depositions offer the framing device for the new season, which unspools in flashbacks.
The tone is still all over the map, but that’s hard to avoid for a show that tries to juggle breaking news from around the world with the relatively insignificant, often ridiculous personal and romantic entanglements of its characters. Overall, The Newsroom returns slightly improved, but it remains a study in frustration: All the pieces are in place for it to be a lot better than it actually is.
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