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You can’t talk about HBO’s The Newsroom without talking about the notion of “hate-watching,” and you can’t talk about “hate watching” without slicing it in half, or at least into thirds.
So let’s get this straight: If you hate-watched NBC’s now-canceled Smash, then you were just wasting your time on a show that was awful, you knew it, and you couldn’t stop mocking it. But if you hate watched the first season of The Newsroom, it’s much more likely that you wanted it to be better than it was – and the erratic nature of its quality was annoying and thus your anger came from a healthy place. You know creator Aaron Sorkin could and should have done better in the topsy-turvy hour that HBO gave him for 10 weeks last season.
That’s why hate-watching is a misnomer for The Newsroom. Don’t kid yourself – you were “disappointment-watching.” You fell for all the drama and entertainment Sorkin is known to conjure with his verbal gymnastics, but you loathed the show when those same qualities failed him while writing about women or the Internet. Every time Sorkin took a step forward in illuminating the world of journalism in general and cable news in particular (see the epic rant in the season-one premiere from anchor Will McAvoy — played with dictionary-level passion, smugness and adroitness by star Jeff Daniels), he took two steps back by trying to wedge romantic comedy into a framework that made the men unlikable and the women offensively pathetic.
The reason The Newsroom was talked about so passionately and ferociously wasn’t because it was hate-worthy, but rather because it was both really good and really bad, which was maddening on a level much more visceral than just despising something for being awful, ridiculous or inept. As much as Sorkin might be worried that fans who loved The West Wing or The Social Network might have turned on him, the fact is that all they want is for him to do more work like Sports Night and less work like Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. They want him to soar to great heights. And when he fails or muddles genius with cringe-worthy tone-deafness, they get testy. As they should.
The roller-coaster quality that defined the first season returns again in season two (four of the season’s nine episodes were sent to critics), which solidifies the point here: When Sorkin is good, he’s very good. When he’s not good, he’s really not good. Smash (oh, that word again) those qualities together for an hour and what you’re left with is frustration tempered by hope (yes, in that order – not vice-versa), and enthusiasm for the next episode undercut by a sense of foreboding that he’ll screw up all the good bits with a smattering of annoying ones, leaving you to get all snarky about it on Twitter.
Does that happen in season two? You bet it does. But that’s The Newsroom. That’s the show, folks. It’s a drama with all the things you like about a Sorkin series – intelligence, passion, compassion, righteous anger, etc., mixed with all the things you hate about a Sorkin series, including pontificating, an overindulgence of liberal arrogance, the poorly drawn social lives of successful women and humor that isn’t very funny.
On the plus side this season, Sorkin and his writers have latched on to a season-long arc that gives the show some trajectory, where season one often felt like a soap box derby where there wasn’t any racing, just people lecturing you about things they figured out with the advantage of hindsight.
In Sunday’s premiere, Sorkin sets the season in motion by structuring the episode in flashbacks to reveal that the team at ACN has made a very bad journalism decision that could have far-ranging implications, particularly for Will who is still feeling the fallout from calling the Tea Party the American Taliban. This story arc, a fictional version of the Tailwind story that roiled the houses of CNN and Time in the late 1990s, will play through the season, giving a more solid backbone to The Newsroom while also allowing it to cover the Occupy Wall Street movement and other major news stories of the last two years (since the series is still set in the recent past, which allows Sorkin and his writers to reverse-engineer major media stories and study how they were covered and what went right and wrong through the lens of the ACN staff).
Season two at least appears stronger than last year, but this all comes with a caveat, which is pretty much everything before this sentence. That is, Newsroom is the show we’re getting from Sorkin even if it might not, for some of us, be quite the show we wanted. Perhaps that’s unfair to Sorkin, a very gifted writer with an impressive body of work. Maybe it’s that his brand of idealism worked better in the White House than it does on the set of a cable news show. There’s a grandiosity of importance that’s missing in that environment.
It’s also true that Sorkin’s style post-West Wing is more transparently repetitive – meaning like a David Milch or a Spike Lee he definitely has an immediately identifiable style – and some of the magic in its originality is gone. That’s not a flaw, it’s just what’s revealed over the course of someone’s career.
The Newsroom has all the identifiable Sorkin aspects. He likes his characters to be tested. There’s a plea for them to do the right thing even if it will result in some kind of detrimental personal or professional fallout. Those characters then battle against the idea, tussle with its moral, personal or professional implications and then heroically capitulate their resistance. You’ll see Daniels and others in The Newsroom do that with vigor this season.
Almost every character in a Sorkin television series needs to strive toward greatness and idealism and tussle with the hardships that come with that ambition. But – strike up a familiar and moving contemporary song – the alcohol tastes better and the songs have more feeling and the emotional impact on that character and his or her friends, lovers and co-workers is worth the effort when it’s all said and done. Grand manipulation is something Sorkin does better than most, and that’s what his most ardent supporters want from him and his series.
Few writers can stir up idealism and deliver rousing speeches like Sorkin. True, he’s not as adept at the depiction of women (though Emily Mortimer’s MacKenzie McHale is drawn better this season, and bringing in Marcia Gay Harden as the company’s main lawyer helps as well). And relationships that stumble into the romantic comedy arena don’t always produce the best results (see: Alison Pill’s Maggie), nor does humor in general. But Sorkin is slightly above the Mendoza Line in most of those areas and well above it in the dramatic elements that bring in most of the viewers – the bulk of them not “disappointment-watching” as much as Twitter might suggest. Plus, Daniels is taking the McAvoy character and – like he did last season – acting the hell out of it, flaws and all. Plus, season two confirms the eye-opening revelation from last season – that Olivia Munn is a far better actress than anyone suspected or gives her credit for.
It’s clear from the revamped opening credits and music that The Newsroom is going for change – perhaps taking to heart some of the most vocal criticisms. But the show you got last season is essentially the show you’ll get this season. Sorkin gives you the very good and the not very good. If that’s disappointing then perhaps accepting its limitations will be a less maddening way to watch.
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