After an up-and-down debut season, Aaron Sorkin‘s The Newsroom is back for its second run amid talk of hefty rewrites in response to negative reviews. Did this season opener show signs of improvement?
This week’s headlines
The events of this episode takes place in two distinct timelines: the main one in August 2011 (about two weeks after the season one finale), while the secondary one puts us 14 months into the future in October/November 2012.
Flashing forwards to 2012, we see both Will McAvoy and MacKenzie McHale being deposed by lawyer Rebecca Halliday (Oscar winner Marcia Gay Harden) regarding a story they ran and subsequently retracted about a black ops programme codenamed Operation Genoa, which puts the careers of the entire News Night team in jeopardy.
Rebecca: 14 months ago you went on the air and called the Tea Party the American Taliban. What happened then?
Will: A lot.
Back in August 2011, the main focus is on drone strikes in Pakistan against strategic Al-Qaeda and Taliban targets, in particular the acceptability of civilian casualties. Stand-in senior producer Jerry Dantana (Hamish Linklater) puts one of his own contacts, Cyrus West, into a panel discussion during which a gun-shy Will pulls in his claws and allows him to grandstand, hanging Sloan Sabbith out to dry in the process.
After the debate, an anxious West offers Jerry a big exclusive, “the kind that makes careers and ends presidencies”, initiating the chain of events which will ultimately lead us to the 2012 timeline.
The Libyan civil war reaches a head as rebel forces attack Muammar Gadaffi‘s palace in Tripoli, overthrowing him and his government and ultimately resulting in his execution.
A report on Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the former head of the IMF who was forced to resign over sexual assault allegations, causes panic in the control room after a botched fact-check has to be corrected live on air.
The team is preparing for the ten-year anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, but Charlie has to talk Will into standing down from fronting the coverage after the controversy over his Tea Party comments. Will outwardly accepts being benched but is obviously seething inside, leading to his passiveness in the drone panel discussion and a heated showdown with Mac.
To get away from Don and Maggie’s lovey-doveyness, Jim Harper accepts a temporary assignment covering Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney on the campaign trail. To cover, Mac drafts in Jerry from the Washington office to fill in.
Neal Sampat pitches a story about an embryonic protest movement called Occupy Wall Street, claiming it could be the US’s Arab Spring. Mac is initially dismissive, but relents and sends him to attend the group’s next General Assembly, where Neal befriends de facto leader Shelly Wexler (Aya Cash) and offers advice on mounting an effective protest.
Will and Mac end up arguing in a bar about whether The Who’s You Better You Bet is a metaphor for their own relationship or Will’s connection with his audience. In fact, it’s a better description of both Don and Maggie’s relationship and the unfolding Operation Genoa storyline. If two parties are going to go all in together, there had better be substance behind that commitment. In each case someone – a YouTube video of Maggie publicly ranting about her love for Jim, the robustness of Jerry’s Genoa story (we’re told he doctored an interview) – is exposed as holding an empty hand.
What can possibly happen in a couple of weeks?
Will’s rhetorical question about how long it is until Jim returns is, obviously, dripping in foreboding. We already know that the chain of events which will put his team’s livelihoods in jeopardy is already under way. But the question can also be asked retrospectively, as much has also transpired in the two-week gap between the end of season one and this episode.
We closed the first season riding high on the associated tales of Don Quixote and Camelot, with the News Night team merrily tilting at windmills and willingly being the ‘greater fool’. But as season two opens, we discover that their actions have consequences. In some cases doors literally close: Reese Lansing is locked out of a House judiciary hearing about the SOPA anti-piracy law, while Jim is refused a seat on Romney’s campaign bus. Neal finds ACN’s credibility has been damaged by their coverage of the Casey Anthony trial. Maggie Jordan‘s sidewalk rant in last season’s finale results in the abrupt termination of her relationship with Don Keefer (paving the way for a previously hinted Don/Sloan relationship to develop). And Will’s ‘American Taliban’ comments about the Tea Party lead to him being pulled from ACN’s 9/11 anniversary coverage and his reversion to his initial season one defence mechanism of wise-cracking passivity and willfully getting people’s names wrong.
It feels like season one’s over-the-top idealism has been tempered with a note of realism as the team are forced to take off their rose-tinted glasses, stare into the harsh light of day and deal with the fact they have created as many enemies as friends.
Off the back of revised opening music and titles which are a little sharper and convey greater urgency – I miss the old titles, though – the framing device of the deposition sessions establishes genuine jeopardy up front and teases what is to come. What did the News Night team get so horribly wrong regarding Operation Genoa? What was Maggie’s traumatic incident in Uganda that led to her dramatic haircut? And how many people will notice that this is the same narrative framework as Sorkin’s screenplay for The Social Network?
Clearly these will be explored over the course of coming episodes, and with Neal’s involvement with Occupy Wall Street we will also have more ongoing storylines to follow rather than one-off hits.
There has also been some tweaking to a number of the characters. At first it seems that the reset button has been pressed completely on Will as he reverts to his former arrogant, diffident, image-conscious persona, but in the 2012 timeline it becomes clearer that he is using his defence mechanisms less to protect himself than as a way of sheltering his team.
Mac’s characterisation was roundly criticised for her all too frequent descents into hysteria and incompetence, but here we see her much more in control and making the kind of high-pressure decisions you would expect a good executive producer to make.
Jim suddenly can’t cope with the overtness of Don and Maggie’s relationship, leading to an uncharacteristically emotional outburst where he volunteers for the Romney assignment just to get away. It feels like a stretch, albeit one necessary to get him out of the picture and get Jerry in to set the Genoa ball rolling.
And what’s happened to Will’s bodyguard Lonny Church? Wasn’t it only a couple of weeks ago that Neal’s trolling assignment accidentally stirred up a whole new series of death threats against Will? Surely they can’t have gone away that quickly?
Overall though, if this first episode is anything to go by, it looks as if season two of The Newsroom will have more of an emphasis on dramatic rather than soap opera elements as the show shifts from rebellious adolescence to a more grown-up tone. It’s still not perfect – there’s still too much sanctimony, for starters – but it’s encouraging that Sorkin appears to have listened to the show’s critics and made some distinct and positive changes to the format. A good, solid start, albeit one which lacks the between-the-eyes punch of the original pilot.
And finally …
This episode’s title - First Thing We Do, Let’s Kill All the Lawyers - is a quotation from Shakespeare’s Henry VI, Part II.
In the studio between items, Will sings Friday to himself, the song which made a YouTube sensation of Rebecca Black. At the time of writing the video has over 57 million views and nearly 1.2m dislikes on YouTube. Black later appeared in the video for Katy Perry’s appropriately titled Last Friday Night (T.G.I,F.).
To amuse himself, Will adopts the role of a night-time talk show host called the ‘Nightbird’. Is this a reference to the late-80s drama Midnight Caller‘s Jack Killian, a cop-turned-radio-host who operated under the moniker ‘Nighthawk’? Killian was played by Gary Cole, one of whose subsequent roles was vice-president Robert ‘Bingo Bob’ Russell in Sorkin’s The West Wing.
The Who’s You Better You Bet was released in 1981 and became both the band’s last top US top 20 single and their last UK top 10 hit.
The Newsroom continues on Sky Atlantic on Mondays at 9pm.