HBO’s “The Newsroom” Season 2 preview

Lori Acken

Creator Aaron Sorkin’s fast-paced drama The Newsroom returns for Season 2, where the office faces a wrongful termination lawsuit, and tackles real-world subjects like the Occupy Wall Street movement and the 2012 presidential election. Jeff Daniels, Emily Mortimer and Olivia Munn return. Premieres on HBO Sunday, July 14, at 10pm ET.

While this not quantitatively verifiable, Aaron Sorkin’s HBO comedy/drama The Newsroom made a certain impact on the long painful decay of television journalism when it aired last summer. Which is to say, it may have delayed it marginally.

No small feat, to be sure, but amid and in the wake of its first season, you might’ve measured a minor uptick of people in TV news doing their jobs. If you routinely scoured news aggregator blogs, there appeared odd succession of stories as the election cycle ramped up of television talking heads showing the temerity to fact-check political talking heads on-air. Though The Newsroom was an oft-clumsy mash-up of patter comedy, exhausting soap operatics and overwrought liberal wishful thinking, you had a sense that it became a must-TiVo thing amongst the over-quaffed bobble-head set, who, inspired by Sorkin’s characters’ monologues-over-swelling-music, decided maybe they could be less a joke if they held up the mirror of consequential reality to exhaustively managed official stories of political parties, candidates and corporations.

This was Sorkin’s grail. Season 1 introduced the fictional Atlantis Cable News’s fictional News Night 2.0, anchored by once-complicit, now not-going-to-take-it-anymore presenter Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels) and catalyzed by his irrepressible former girlfriend and exec producer Mackenzie McHale (Emily Mortimer), as something that set itself off from business-as-usual by the revolutionary metric of not being a servile sounding board for talking points. McAvoy, McHale and their intrepid team battled and wheedled around the machinations of sneering go-along-to-get-along competitors, political hacks and their own graft-happy corporate management, who, par for real-life, saw more profit potential in non-news pabulum, and that many-headed hydra of corruption continues mold the landscape they navigate as the Season Two premieres this Sunday night.

Sorkin muddled Season 1 by infesting sometimes compelling narrative with romantic effluvia compounded by his sadistic penchant to make his characters emotional flagellants. Would-they-or-won’t-they arcs with McAvoy and McHale and a romantic triangle-cum-quadrangle between producers Maggie (Alison Pill), Don (Thomas Sadoski), Jim (John Gallagher Jr.) and smoking-hot business news anchor Sloan (Olivia Munn). Without dropping too many spoilers, he starts Season 2 positively by with some early shedding of this some of this baggage.

Still, Sorkin’s obsession with his version of the Manic Pixie Dreamgirl (MPDG) – kind of a Gawkward Quip-happy Brainiac Dreamgirl (GQBDG) – continues to as our reporters go afield. Jim meets one as a beat reporter on the Romney campaign, on the bus of which he meets Hallie (Grace Gummer), a repressed cynical no-nonsense bus corps reporter. But it is News Night website/tech-nerd Neal (Dev Patel) who encounters the crème de la GQBDGs, Shelly (Aya Cash), who filches every scene in one of the season’s ongoing arcs as a tiny, fiery, dedicated organizer of the early Occupy Wall Street movement.

Shed of at least a modicum of soapy ballast, there does remain a bit of awkwardness to the whole production, owing to The Newsroom‘s trying and succeeding at being a sharp little comedy – sometimes. This is particularly evident in the case of Sadoski, who plays this year’s much more sympathetic Don with something close to masterful comic timing and delivery. What offsets that is, Sorkin tries it many more times than he succeeds, with too many bits too awkwardly framed by his relentless pursuit of meaningful drama that means something super-meaningfully. At certain points, one finds oneself wishing he would have pitched the show wholly as black comedy.

As with last season, we find our heroes a year in the past, aided by the Deus ex Sorkina that allows them to apply 20/20 hindsight to their coverage of such major events, or, as in the case of OWS, their high-handed dismissal of them. And yet, something is more coherent here. The season kicks off with a new framing device that returns each episode, anchored the ever-awesome Marcia Gay Harden. Harden plays a high-powered lawyer debriefing the team (14 months later) for pending legal action over something that went horribly wrong with a mysterious Big Story on U.S. military action in Afghanistan.

Sorkin does little to disguise his leftward political bent – in spite of his over-obvious device of programming McAvoy as a common-sense Eisenhower Republican run afoul of the ascendant know-nothing Teabilly wing of the party – but this arc portends a compelling undercurrent for the season. There is much discursive promise in the show addressing what are the actual conservative tendencies of the current, ostensibly liberal-ish administration: its intransigence towards curbing corporate excess and the confluence of the latter with the national security state, so recently prominent in headlines lately after the actions of NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden.

While the show still meanders per its characters’ farflung story-threads, this Harden frame initially seems to effect a sort of pole star guiding them all in same narrative direction – a major improvement over last season. Moreover, vigilance against unaccountable power is one point where Old School conservatives and social democratic progressives meet, however tendentious their quibbles there become, and if Sorkin, McAvoy, McHale, et al. might emit a similarly buzzy halo into the news business this year, it could be to suggest that a lot of us might still have common ground even in an age of the Fox News/reality, Red/Blue divide.

Not to say it will. Per the general morass Sorkin is addressing, actual investigative reporting by TV newspeople has largely gone the way of the dinosaur.

But some of the newswonks will definitely be taking notes.