The Newsroom’s second season: a review

At this time last year, The Newsroom was probably the most hate-watched show, like, ever (except for maybe True Blood, which… yeah). It was everything The West Wing didn’t want to be – saccharine, severely overdramatized, and overwrought with weirdly incompetent female characters, awkward music cues and even more liberal worship than we ever saw from Josh Lyman. I still looked forward to the show every week, even though I recognized that it kind of sucked. It just wasn’t what Aaron Sorkin wanted it to be. I guess my standards are much lower. I recognized that the show was bad, but I loved it nonetheless.

Season 2 wasn’t a full turnaround, but finally, Sorkin is getting there. Step by step, the show is becoming more like The West Wing and less like the last five minutes of every 7th Heaven episode. The season started out with a trope that Sorkin uses well (as we can see in The Social Network, arguably his magnum opus) – the “lawsuit in rearview” story. We soon find out that ACN, our favorite overly sentimental and extremely fictional news network, is being sued for fabricating a “groundbreaking” report that the United States government used sarin gas during an arguably routine extraction (Operation Genoa), a plotline that threads throughout the rest of the season.

A further flashback shows the characters in further states of distress. After their fateful Sex and the City tour bus encounter, Jim and Maggie are in a détente, at odds with their feelings for each other. Maggie chooses to deal with this by getting back together with Don, and Jim hops on a bus to New Hampshire to cover the Romney campaign, because I guess literally ANYTHING would be better than being around the lovebirds, even following around a Mormon presidential candidate who later turns “binders full of women” into a meme. Sloane is still being too hilarious for this show, and also pining for Don. Neil is still dithering and shouting about tweets he thinks might be important. Mac and Will are still flirt-yelling all the time, and Charlie Skinner is just yelling. Marcia Gay Harden shows up as Rebecca Halliday and is predictably delightful. And Hamish Linklater gives an excellent turn as Jerry Dantana, a reporter from ACN’s DC bureau who might be a little too interested in Geona, which I keep wanting to call “Genovia” (thanks, Princess Diaries).

What Didn’t Work: There were definitely a few subplots that crapped their pants a little bit, the biggest being Neil pursuing leads on Occupy Wall Street. Raging liberals like myself don’t need to be continually reminded that OWS had good intentions but eventually cocked it up by not having any clear aims. In fact, the sad little OWS plotline really just served to further Genoa, which, in the end, seemed like a bit of a cop-out. As with a typical Sorkin red herring, OWS seemed completely vital and important when it was first introduced, and then fizzled so quickly that I literally almost forgot about it while I was writing this review.

Sloane was also a mix of awesome, hilarious and useless this season, which either delighted me or pissed me off entirely, depending on the episode. The fact that she had a nude-photo scandal (echoing co-star Alison Pill’s actual nude-photo scandal [OBVIOUSLY NSFW]) was, I felt, very insulting to her whip-smart character, although it did give Olivia Munn a great opportunity to act the hell out of some very nicely written Sorkin dialogue while she was holed up in an office trying not to die of embarrassment. (It also gave her an incredible opportunity to kick the photo-poster right in the nads.) Other than her planting a big one on Don in the finale, her job was to get interrupted by Will every time she tried to talk, which was funny the first… two times.

And finally, Nina Howard. Maybe I’m a little biased, because I share her first name. Maybe I should care less, because Nina Howard is so obviously a throwaway character that Sorkin is desperate to throw back in because she’s played by Hope Davis. She shows up, accepts Will’s mimosa-fueled mea culpa, and then immediately sleeps with him, only to have him dump her after some poor media strategy on her part. I would write more about this, but that’s literally it. What happened? Did they actually break up? Where did she go? Did she die? Is she somewhere fighting to have her Twitter account verified?! INQUIRING MINDS, AARON!

Oh, and maybe I’m bitter, but how many Gummers are there?! Just because you’re Meryl’s daughter doesn’t mean you should be making out with John Gallagher Jr., Grace. You might have her nose, but you don’t have her genius. Hashtag sorry not sorry.

What Really Worked: Thankfully, more worked this season than didn’t. The Genoa subplot, based on a similar scandal at CNN in the 1970s, gave the cast some extremely interesting material and some excellent conflict. The obvious standout here was Linklater as Jerry Dantana, who turned out to be the villain thanks to some serious tape-doctoring that told Americans that Genoa definitely happened, even though it definitely didn’t. The rest of the characters had to deal with the repercussions, attempting resignations all over the place, with an extremely high (and particularly excellent) Leona Lansing/Jane Fonda absolutely refusing any resignation that came her way. The Genoa subplot did seem extreme at points, but it did serve as a good device to bring ACN down a peg and give a real, serious source of conflict to the show overall.

There were also some surprises in what worked this season- namely, Maggie’s African trauma. Maggie, in an effort to get away from her rapidly crumbling life (Don leaves her after seeing a surprise YouTube video of her and Jim on the bus, and Lisa refuses to talk to her anymore despite their cohabitation), takes an assignment in Uganda, and ends up in the middle of an attempted massacre with a murdered child on her back. The little boy was really into her long blonde hair, so she hacks it all off and dyes it red in one of the worst onscreen hair decisions since Felicity. Despite the worst wig ever, Alison Pill had a lot to work with this season and followed through admirably, letting us see the extent of Maggie’s suffering.

And maybe this is just me, but the emotional, heartstring tugging moments really killed it this season, particularly in the finale. Will proposes to Mac with his hidden Tiffany ring, admitting that he’s been a huge liar the whole time and that he’s really been in love with her forever (I think in real life, MacKenzie McHale would have had to feign surprise really really hard). Sloane punches Don in the mouth with her mouth because he paid $1000 in an anonymous auction for a signed copy of her book. Lisa and Maggie’s bad hair even make up. And, in a nebulous and open-ended moment, Maggie tells Jim about the moment when she first really noticed him (GUYS THIS IS JUST PAM AND JIM ALL OVER AGAIN I FEEL LIKE I’M TAKING CRAZY PILLS). The finale did focus on Obama winning his second term, which made me super teary and happy the first time around, but the rest of it made me pretty verklempt too. Maybe I’m just a wimp.

ALSO, that scene in the laundromat with Sloane, Maggie, and the crazy Twitter lady (aka Blueberry Girl from Louie/Polly from OITNB), where Sloane was extremely awesome and funnier than anyone else. Let’s not forget that one.

Sure, there were some missteps, and sure, I haven’t been as comprehensive as I could be (but does anyone really want me to just recap every episode? Seriously, no one would read it). But Season 2 of The Newsroom seriously looked up, even though it didn’t really include the debates. But really, are jokes like “[insert current event here] will be great in Newsroom season 6!!!” still funny? Asking for a friend.

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