The opening scene of The Newsroom’s second season, debuting Sunday on HBO, won’t do a hell of a lot to increase creator Aaron Sorkin’s popularity with women. Marcia Gay Harden guests as a brusque in-house attorney deposing news anchor Will McAvoy about a story the fictitious Atlantic Cable News channel blew badly—erroneously reporting that the Obama administration used nerve gas during a black-ops operation in Pakistan.
“Fuck me,” our lady lawyer finally snaps, exasperated by Will’s arch banter. (She’s not alone in that feeling, believe me.) After a pause, Will—ever the gentleman—turns to the other dudes in the room. “Well, would one of you fuck Ms. Halliday, please?” he asks. You have to feel for Harden when her character is obliged to soften, smile, and concede that the joke’s on her.
On this show even more than his earlier ones, or maybe just more noticeably, Sorkin tends to divide his female characters among bitches, waifs, annoying ninnies, and damaged-goods career gals who only need the love of a good man to feel fulfilled. But his glib sexism wasn’t the only sin he got his knuckles rapped for when The Newsroom premiered last year. Plenty of reviewers, me included, rolled our eyes at the gimmick of setting the show in 2010 and using real events—the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, for instance, or the Tea Party’s rise—to pack the scripts with 20/20 hindsight disguised as fearless, uncanny journalistic acumen.
By now, it’s 2011 on Newsroom’s calendar, and it’s significant that the big story the ACN team gets wrong in this season’s arc—the nerve-gas exposé—is an invention. Unlike, that is, the race for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination, Troy Davis’s execution, the budding days of Occupy Wall Street, and the rest of the now mildewed news that Sorkin uses his army of ventriloquist’s dummies—how many knees does he have, you wonder?—to spout off about after the fact. For my money, ask this man to deliver a wedding-reception toast at your peril. He’ll burst through the door on your second anniversary, brimming with quips he wishes he’d made about the bridesmaids’ outfits.
Accustomed as he’d been for years to the kind of press that leaves a man’s rump glowing with Chapstick, Sorkin must have felt blindsided when even pinko reviewers piled on him last season for making The Newsroom a turgidly self-righteous soapbox for liberal gasbaggery, often at the expense of verisimilitude and/or interesting drama. With Sam Waterston, as the network’s old-school news boss, incarnating rectitude like the poor man’s Henry Fonda, the pretense was that McAvoy and ACN were bravely resurrecting the glory days of TV-news integrity. Yet the lopsided editorializing turned them into the biased, arrogant “liberal media” of Roger Ailes’s dreams. It probably shouldn’t have surprised me that any number of viewers, friends included, decided they didn’t care.
They liked the soapbox stuff, enjoying the orgy of staircase wit that vented sentiments they subscribed to. Whether the show was any good apparently didn’t matter much. Far more than the superior The West Wing, that leaves Sorkin looking like the pioneer of a bizarre new dramatic genre: ripped-from-the-headlines escapism. In terms of how they gratify their respective audiences, Fox News and The Daily Show can be argued into the same category, I suppose. But they’re still reacting to events in real time, without the eat-your-cake-and-have-it-too benefits of The Newsroom’s immediate past. In interviews, Sorkin has often said that he’s basically creating fantasy worlds. Even so, are fantasies dependent on an aura of fact really something we need more of in this culture? If The Newsroom were only a satire of partisanship deluding itself about its own nobility, it would be much more provocative—and better—TV.
Nonetheless, as a confirmed non-fan, it behooves me to report that the series has gotten modestly better this season. That’s not because Will McAvoy has grown any less tiresome. Though Jeff Daniels can play narcissistic jerks with feeling when he’s asked to—his performance in The Squid And The Whale is one of the best, most pathetic portraits of a second-rate intellectual on film—his problem here is that Sorkin doesn’t really think McAvoy is a narcissistic jerk. He thinks McAvoy’s a hero, forcing Daniels to sell charmless bullying as if it’s virtuous, soulful, and secretly anguished. In the season premiere, when Will comforts himself after a workplace reversal by listening to Van Morrison’s “Into The Mystic” with Scotch and cigarette in hand on his apartment balcony, we’re probably supposed to see the moment as a glimpse into his melancholy inner depths. But all that registers is how unwittingly dreary his grandiose taste in self-pitying soundtracks is.
As for Sorkin’s trademark badinage, it’s gotten worse. Or even more interchangeable, at least, with pretty much every character wising off in the same by-the-numbers, no longer surprising style. And as mentioned above, his take on women hasn’t improved either. While Alison Pill is a fetching actress, her character’s story arc this season smacks of sadism disguised as sympathy. She’s being punished for being sexually attractive, and Sorkin’s real loyalty is to the men whose lives she’s messing up as a result.
So what on earth is left to cite as an improvement? Simply, the unfolding tale of how our gang messed up on the nerve-gas story. That’s partly because it leaves ACN’s finest looking fallible for once. But it’s mainly because this development is, ahem, fiction—that is, not dependent for its interest on taking potshots at real-world happenings and personalities. If you care, the snafu is apparently based on the hot water CNN got into for misreporting a 30-year-old story about Vietnam War atrocities back in 1998. Still, that’s a very different kind of factual inspiration.
It’s not just that the plotline’s twists add the narrative momentum that was sorely lacking last year. The ticktock depiction of the way even principled news-gatherers can be drawn into a wild-goose chase is far more convincing and compelling than the tendentious crapola about Will McAvoy getting in trouble for calling Tea Partiers the “American Taliban” and being shut out of ACN’s tenth-anniversary 9/11 coverage by way of network CYA. If the further joke is that it’s taken Sorkin two years to rediscover the nature of TV drama—i.e., that it’s supposed to be, y’know, dramatic—all I can say is better late than never.