At the end of The Newsroom’s first season, Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels) and his staff were colluding to blackmail their bosses and suppress information about their parent corporation’s use of illegal phone hacking and surveillance. Instead of portraying a devil’s bargain in which noble idealism took a backseat to keeping our protagonist in the anchor’s chair, the series used it as an occasion for triumphal speeches and lilting orchestration, a particularly egregious example of ideological confusion and narrative incoherence. That plotline is summarily binned in an almost farcical way (with a literal trash bin) in season two. The series hasn’t been retooled exactly, but there’s a finessing of characters and a shifting of priorities, with most of the changes for the better.
Those changes start with the opening titles, in which the parade of Great Men has been replaced with a more down-to-earth montage of images reflecting the news-making process, attentive to the ways that images and words (and coffee) circulate through the media sphere. Following directly from the end of last season, new plotlines seem to address many of the complaints levied at the series, such as its obsession with uninteresting love triangles. For example, Jim Harper (John Gallagher Jr.), disheveled and brooding after his thermonuclear romantic implosion with Maggie (Allison Pill), undergoes a self-imposed exile as a reporter embedded with the Romney presidential campaign.
This distance allows the most insufferable of season one’s soap operatic plots to gracefully decompose, but it also pits the self-righteous Jim against an unsympathetic audience and allows for actual character development; he may be right, but he’s also annoying, and there might actually be situations in which having all the facts along with an inspirational speech at the ready isn’t enough. His romantic tension with fellow reporter Hallie (Grace Gummer) has both its rote beats and its charms, but more importantly, it’s pitched at a level that seems unlikely to devour the narrative whole. Maggie’s side of the romantic implosion is slightly more problematic; her sojourn to Africa, complete with a bizarrely manic montage in which she reads a storybook to an orphan, has a paternalistic, colonialist underdone.
It hasn’t been retooled exactly, but there’s a finessing of characters and a shifting of priorities, with most of the changes being for the better.
However, the greatest beneficiary of the show’s altered trajectory is undoubtedly Emily Mortimer, who finally has something to do with the character of producer MacKenzie McHale. Showrunner Aaron Sorkin seems to have remembered that he introduced her as a hard-bitten veteran war journalist coming in from the cold, which was totally at odds with the comically incompetent flibbertigibbet entirely defined by the men in her life that we saw bumbling her way through season one. Her reintroduction, in which she almost singlehandedly saves a broadcast through quick thinking and assertive leadership while an oblivious Will sings Rebecca Black’s “Friday” in the background, lays it on a bit thick, but allows the character to display the grace under fire she should have had in the first place. She’s also at the center of one of the overarching stories of the season, investigating evidence of possible American war crimes in Pakistan alongside Jim’s temporary replacement, Jerry Dantana (Hamish Linklater). Mortimer can command the room when she’s given the chance, and her scenes with Will, and their rapport and lingering romantic tension, are actually engaging rather than stultifying.
It’s the clearest example of the series rebalancing its priorities. Season one was All About Will: his didactic speeches, his lofty crusades, and his psychodramatic crises. While he’s still the center of gravity, the series has pulled back a little and given the characters around him room to breathe. Like Josiah Bartlet in The West Wing, Will is an imposing presence who doesn’t need to dominate every plotline to make his influence felt, and the time taken away from his navel-gazing and love triangles is spent on more interesting conflicts and on building up other character arcs. Neal (Dev Patel), who previously had the thankless job of hunting Bigfoot and Internet trolls, is posed against the backdrop of the incipient Occupy Wall Street movement; his growth as a journalist dovetails with other character threads and with the season’s running political conversation. Other characters get more play and have more personality within individual scenes; there are fewer didactic lectures and more kinetic verbal sparring sessions. Olivia Munn, for example, is a joy to watch as Sloan Sabbith, what with her advanced fluency in Sorkinese and her off-kilter comic timing.
While this may be new and improved Sorkin, it’s still distinctively his style; the polysyllabic rondo of his dialogue, with its self-referentiality and grammatical convolutions, remains unmatched in its energy and musicality. Yes, there’s the same theatrical, slightly on-the-nose symbolic imagery, the recurrence of familiar narrative structures like legal depositions, and the grandiloquent speechifying of a comfortably centrist liberalism that sounds more progressive than it acts. Yet for those attuned to the Sorkin style, those excesses have their own kind of virtue, and season two of The Newsroom salvages the promise of becoming something urgent and vital.