Early in this second season of "The Newsroom," "News Night" anchor Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels) googles his own name, with the addition of "hate," and turns up a list of sites dedicated to how awful the show's doughty hero is. The idea of not being universally loved -- an achievement that becomes all the more elusive when you boldly declare, as Will did on air in last season's finale, that the Tea Party is "the American Taliban" -- causes our protagonist a crisis of confidence that permeates the first few episodes of this year's arc, kicking off on HBO this Sunday, July 14th at 10pm. Will's desire to speak truth to power exists is placed in opposition to his need (to chase mediocrity in order) to be liked, a dilemma he's faced before and one that the show places at the heart of the problem with television news. Do you do the hard reporting and analysis, ratings be damned? Do you give the people what they need or what they want?
While Will is certainly going to choose the former, series creator Aaron Sorkin hasn't drawn such a hard line between his own unvarnished vision and audience feedback -- low though his opinion of it may be.
The first season of "The Newsroom" received a mixed and justly maddened reaction from the media for its bald sermonizing and its dizzy female characters, and despite Sorkin and HBO's suggestions, maddening themselves, that these criticisms were born out of spite, misguidedness or a sense of being threatened, at least some of the response was heard and taken to heart. The second season of "The Newsroom" begins in an overall softer, less self-aggrandizing and, yes, improved vein, from the new opening sequence, which trades in the "great newscasters through time" montage for one of sensory snapshots of New York (the Brooklyn Bridge, the N train) and the ACN offices (typing on a keyboard, passing notes across a conference table).
Rather than chastising a college student, Will starts this season being questioned by a lawyer (Marcia Gay Harden) tasked with defending ACN from the fallout of a "News Night" piece that has since been retracted, one involving a black op named "Genoa" -- in other words, a mistake.
The interviews provide a frame story for the nine-episode season, which unfolds in flashbacks, slowly unveiling how the Genoa story came to be alongside looks at the "News Night" team's approach to real life events like Occupy Wall Street, drone strikes and the Romney campaign. There's noticeably more fallibility involved, a very welcome contrast to the first season's hindsight-powered certainty -- MacKenzie McHale (Emily Mortimer) makes fun of Neal Sampat (Dev Patel) when he latches onto OWS only to see initial turnout be scattered and small, and Don Keefer (Thomas Sadoski) tries to enlist a resistant Will in a campaign to save Troy Davis from execution, an effort that obviously doesn't work out.
"The Newsroom" doesn't feel cowed in its return, exactly, but it does feel less shrill. Even its most potentially preachy new development, in which Jim Harper (John Gallagher, Jr.) flees his romantic problems by volunteering to travel around New Hampshire on the Romney press bus, is allowed more nuance when he's faced with the real threat of having his access cut off for not playing nice and keeping to the talking points.
The "News Night" crew might still know and be eager to declare how things should be, but the world isn't always ready to play along or bow to their strident speeches, and there are at least acknowledgments this season around of the price that can come with planting your feet and refusing to change with the times. (The note that one non-ACN reporter is making $500 a week is also a needed nod toward the economic realities of the industry.) All in all, the show's approach toward TV journalism is easier to take this season if still colored by that Sorkinesque bluster, and the evolving of the Genoa story in the four episodes given to the press allows it to actually delve into the details of piecing together a story we don't already know the conclusion of -- to show process instead of correcting what's already done.
The personal dramas are still the weak point of the "The Newsroom," especially Will's endless heartbroken punishment of Mac and the Jim-Maggie Jordan (Alison Pill) tension. Sorkin is deeply fond of, and has an undeniably fantastic touch for, workplace dynamics, but his need to maintain these collegial almost-romances in communication-free purgatory is infuriating, and makes characters who are meant to be competent, talented professionals look weirdly petulant and childish.
Being intelligent doesn't guarantee emotional IQ, but the love/grudge Will harbors in particular seems there only as a plot device -- and these will-they-or-won't-theys (abetted by inconvenient YouTube videos and deleted voicemails) aren't made any more compelling by the show's continued preference for its women to remain adorably flustered and aggressive as a general mode of existence. Sadowski's Don and Olivia Munn's Sloan Sabbith remain the bright spots, not the least because they don't fit into the dynamic of "great men and the women who support/torture them," and their attraction is one the show will hopefully be building on in future.
"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. It's prone to heavyhandedness, but it just wouldn't be an Aaron Sorkin show if it wasn't -- and it's still at its best when it's less starry-eyed in the face of its protagonist's wonderfulness and more engaged in the work that he and his team are trying to get done, something that's more to the front and center in these new episodes.