The Newsroom is back, and it’s… pretty much still The Newsroom. Although a few Aaron Sorkin diehards are still flying the flag, the overall tone of the reviews for the series’ second season, the first four episodes of which were made available in advance, hovers somewhere between acceptance and resignation. Sorkin has toned down some of the show’s most grating aspects, particularly his habit of writing every female character as a high-functioning flibbertigibbet; when the frenzied rant unleashed by Allison Pill’s romantically bisected associate producer in last season’s finale turns up in the second season as a fatefully recorded YouTube clip, it feels as if it’s been imported from a different show.
In his review for The Hollywood Reporter, Tim Goodman takes issue with the idea that those who stuck through The Newsroom’s first season were “hate-watching.” This, he says, was “disappointment-watching,” and hoping, increasingly against hope, that the show would live up to its promise. I’m not convinced Sorkin has earned his reputation for genius — snappy patter and the occasional mid-size idea is more like it — but there’s certainly something to the idea of exploring our sensation-driven media culture, even if the obvious solution is “Don’t get your news from TV.”
The Newsroom is less wall-to-wall aggravating now, although Sorkin still seems hopelessly out of touch with the technological advances of the last several decades: No wonder Olivia Munn’s still-underused finance reporter is shocked to learn that you can send calls straight to voicemail. There’s a neat jab in the first episode, when Jane Fonda’s network owner crabs about the “pajama people” stealing content online, but then Sorkin has to ruin it in the next one by bringing in a delusional Sex and the City blogger who uses Foursquare to detail the contents of her laundry loads. (Pill, ever the newshound, tracks her down by calculating the time remaining in the delicate cycle.)
Sorkin ups the structural stakes for season two by opening with Jeff Daniels’ Will McAvoy in the thick of preparing for a trial where he and the News Night team will have to defend themselves for reporting, apparently erroneously, that the U.S. used Sarin gas on Pakistani civilians. How that came to happen, and why Pill has cut and dyed her hair so she looks like a young Ron Howard, will form an ongoing arc that offers the tantalizing prospect of the show finally admitting that Daniels’ anchor-desk saint can make a mistake. Less tantalizing: The hints that Pill’s hair-reddening trauma may echo the sexual assault of CBS reporter Lara Logan, which is not ground anyone wants The Newsroom to tread on.
The season-spanning story is designed to seem ambitious, but this Newsroom feels like a scaled-down show; there’s less egregious overreach, but nothing’s come in to replace it. It’s a tamed beast, no longer the unicorn of absurdity it once was. It’s less of a disappointment, but mainly because we know not to get our hopes up now.
More reviews of The Newsroom:
Tim Goodman, Hollywood Reporter:
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.
Alan Sepinwall, HitFix:
Though Sorkin is able to address some of season 1’s deficits, he still retains his other blind spots. His hatred of the internet rings out loud and clear in an almost self-parodic subplot where Maggie Jordan (Alison Pill) has to grovel in front of a Sex and the City fan-fiction author (I am not making that up, much as I wish that I was). His belief in our need of Great Men with a capital G and M is unswerving, even if he allows other characters to make fun of Will each time he suggests that he is one. And the man who once penned The American President now finds himself unable to write a single romantic storyline in which the audience might want to root for any combination of characters to actually get together. And yet… and yet… and yet, he is Aaron Sorkin, which means he is also among the most gifted wordsmiths this medium has ever known.
Matt Zoller Seitz, New York:
I wouldn’t say season two of The Newsroom is a big improvement over season one, but the show’s definitely more measured and confident — and now that we’ve accepted that certain tics, such as setting the stories in a recent, real past, aren’t going away, it’s easier to appreciate what Sorkin and company do well.
Jeff Jensen, Entertainment Weekly:
I suspect Sorkin is pulling a Humpty Dumpty, blowing everything up so he can put it back together. Hopefully The Newsroom can get back to being a functional hot mess instead of a plain old mess — and quickly, before Pill yanks out all of her hair, and I go bald with her.
Mary McNamara, Los Angeles Times:
Oh, there’s still a lot of craziness and rants designed to resonate with a certain demographic. But an air of if not humility then self-awareness pervades, softening everything it touches, even Will.
Alison Willmore, Indiewire:
The Newsroom hasn’t turned around all of its tonal problems, but it’s certainly a more coherent and comfortable show in its second season, and the characters seem less like scattered mouthpieces for their creator’s deep thoughts on the state of TV journalism and more like individuals.
If you get your news from anywhere other than The Newsroom, to watch the show is to be harangued by opinions you have heard many, many times over, just polished with Sorkin’s trademark linguistic flourishes and passed off as shiny and new.
Todd VanDerWerff, A.V. Club:
Yet the show remains beautiful poison. Its surface is so easy to watch and goes down so well that it’s easy to miss all of the horrible things the series is feeding you.
Ellen Gray, Philadelphia Daily News:
The West Wing creator’s series about cable news is still the show that a year ago I called “both wonderful and terrible” — a quote that inexplicably failed to make it into any ads — and is still entertaining, in a way that only occasionally makes me want to throw things at the screen.
Alessandra Stanley, New York Times:
Most important, the narrative this time around is driven by an overarching story line — a libel suit — that pulls viewers past the rocks and eddies of liberal piety. This revamped version of The Newsroom is no less preachy, but it’s a lot more fun to watch.
David Chute, Thompson on Hollywood:
The best stuff is about the work, in other words, rather than contrived obstacles to true love. Back in the good old West Wing days, Sorkin had surer touch finding the right balance.
Brian Lowry, Variety:
Ultimately, one needn’t be a purveyor of snark to view The Newsroom as a disappointment — too smart to be dismissed, but so abrasive as to feel like Media Lectures for Dummies. In that respect, it’s well suited to cable news, just not in the way intended.