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HBO (ended 2014)

The Newsroom S02E01: "First Thing We Do, Let's Kill All the Lawyers"


And we’re back, folks. My hair is combed, my tie knotted; I’m shuffling papers, I have one earbud in playing an mp3 I’ve made to encourage myself throughout this review in a British lady voice ("Keep pushing, dammit"). During its first season, Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom received its share of guff on a number of counts: the romantic relationships, the goofy moments like investigating Bigfoot, and the physical pratfalls detracted from the show’s investment in serious commentary on the media industry. Female characters were occasionally portrayed as ditzy messes and wiggle-fodder for the workplace’s various male eyebrows, and the facts-only, straight dope News Night mission came off at times as ALL CAPS Aaron Sorkin journal entries. 

To be fair, the show did initially succeed on a number of levels and may have suffered a degree of frustrated criticism based on the potential of the premise (i.e. good guys battle power to save the world through news)—a universe that Sorkin seemed predisposed to crackle. Hinting that a tune up was on the horizon, a few months ago HBO released this "Invitation to the Set" that screamed "do over," and I’m happy to report (see what I did there?) that "First Thing We Do, Let’s Kill All the Lawyers" indicated a welcome change in direction for the News Night crew. 

For starters, that horrendous Grandpappy O'Headline Presents: The Kellog’s News Cavalcade Sponsored by Lindeman’s Revitalizing Serum credit sequence has been replaced by more intimate visuals of life in the newsroom: explosive footage, memo close-ups, unraveling camera cables, all set to a kinetic new take on the dignified score. Honestly every time this show started last season, I felt like PBS was airing a tribute to the late members of AVN we lost this year. Also welcome in this premiere was an overall pared-down tonal focus, where "will they or won’t they"-type fluff served to cushion—rather than suffocate—the more interesting subject of how professionals navigate an extremely influential industry. 


On that note, gone too is the chapteresque (sure that’s a word) dedication to a ripped-from-the-headlines structure. Current events are touched upon, but like tonight's coverage of the fall of Gaddafi, not necessarily the focus. From the opening title card on, this method immediately worked better. We’ve seen Sorkin shine before in a legal back-and-forth scenario (The Social Network, A Few Good Men), and framing every episode within a season-long thread concerning the team’s controversial coverage of a secret operation known as "Genoa" is a perfect fit (also, welcome aboard Marcia Gay Harden as the team’s lawyer). Alleging that the U.S. committed a war crime via nerve gas, and that the Pentagon covered it up, News Night achieved not only its highest viewership, but produced the "most viewed program in the history of cable news." Or, according to expert Cyrus West (Ben KoldykeDale from Big Love and one of the unfortunate culprits in Work It!), a career-minded ringer brought in by Jim's hungry replacement Jerry Dantana (Hamish Linklater, The New Adventures of Old Christine) the notorious story was the sort of thing "...that makes careers and ends presidencies." These are the kind of stakes a fictional show needs, along with a sufficiently meaty plot to sustain further investigation down the road.    


Will being pulled off News Night's 9/11 anniversary show for calling the Tea Party "the American Taliban" (not sure I agree there, but that’s the point), and the later reveal that the decision had secretly driven him "mad," were equally welcome large gestures. As the closest figure to Sorkin’s surrogate, Will can at times can come off a little invincible, so exposing his need to be loved by a disapproving audience helped humanize him. Despite the fact that we never saw this distant powerful force, I love how viewers factor into the greater picture. As Will and the team are quickly learning, any level in the media chain can upend stability. Just as News Night hoped to influence a distant electorate and consumer base that, as a group, can affect both government and business, so too did the seemingly unrelated injury of a low-level reporter act as the catalyst for the destruction of an entire media empire.  


Speaking of relationships, Jim responsibly called out the Maggie situation as awkward (finally) and split to cover the Romney campaign. Good move guy, get your head straight. Though, if the depressive nature of this swift trip to the bottom wasn’t apparent,  Jim’s exchange with an aid, and how it mirrored his initial conversation with Maggie, drove the point home, this time with Jim being the one to ask, "Are you being sarcastic?" It’s sad on both ends, since Jim can be such a buoyant character—and Maggie bubbly—but eliminating these elements already makes the two feel more real, and in keeping with The Newsroom’s toned-down renovations.  

However, fans of the old "Maggoofball" got an annoying reminder of her tour bus stunt from the close of last season, in one of the most painless breakups I’ve ever witnessed. It’s a pet peeve of mine when a viral video gets used as a plot point. Given how random real-life memes can be, inserting one to convey vital information always feels so transparently written. Instead of Don watching Maggie’s Youtube footage, HBO might as well have cut to Sorkin’s beautiful fingers flitting across a typewriter. Oh well, at least the most uninteresting relationship thread has been put to rest (for now). Or in Don’s own words, "the clock’s run out on this conversation... we can’t get mired in these kind of detours. It’s like playing golf behind a foursome of blind people." Glad someone saw this.  


Even Neal’s pursuit of the Occupy Wall Street movement felt like an authentic progression from his off-the-beaten-path interests. OWS is certainly worthy of examination, because depending on who you speak with, they’re either portrayed as drum-circle hippies or educated activists. Plus, Neal deserves a serious plotline, and having him win the trust of peers who could also be a story will provide another angle on the ethics of journalism. Either way, his advice to PhD candidate Shelly Wexler (Aya Cash, Callie from the short-lived Traffic Light) sounded like Sorkin telling viewers that he received the memo: "Go back to one clear message or you guys are going to be a joke."

Last season Will at times seemed like a hard character to pin down. Sometimes he was an asshole, sometimes he was benevolent; sometimes he was petty, sometimes he was brilliant. Sometimes he reported the death of Osama Bin Laden while high. Sure, a person can be all these things, but as a main character it's nice to have a defining flaw that we can track within the context of an overall theme. If Will is Sorkin, then his Who-themed bar chat with Mac exposed the needy, driving force behind both faces of The Newsroom. The jury’s still out on whether we the audience will let him back into our hearts. One thing’s for sure, though: He better love us.  

FOLLOW-UP QUESTIONS:

– Is it any one person’s fault that the Genoa tip made its way into the newsroom?

– What happened to Maggie in Uganda?

– Is Will or Mac going to save the crew?

– Is Charlie going to save Will or Mac's crew?

– How will Jim fare on the campaign trail?

– How will Jerry Dantana fit into the workplace?

– Is Will's intern going to work her way up the chain or just research musicals?

– What dastardly plot will the Lansings cook up this time?  

– Was the weird interference during the Straus-Kahn piece AVM flexing its muscle?

– Is it reductive for Charlie to call Sloan "money skirt," or no big deal?

– Is it a little "cool dad" of Sorkin to have his characters discuss rock lyrics?

– Do you think Rebecca Black is a fan of The Newsroom?

– What is the key demographic of The Newsroom?

– Do you care if Sloan and Don / Will and MacKenzie / Jim and Maggie become a thing?

– What changes did you like/hate in this, the Season 2 premiere?

– Is The Newsroom capitalizing on its premise?

– Does OWS really use Quaker hand signals?

– What do you hope to see this season?

Previously Aired Episode

AIRED ON 12/14/2014

Season 3 : Episode 6

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