Note: Do not read on if you have not seen the Season 2 premiere of HBO's "The Newsroom," titled "First Thing We Do, Let's Kill All the Lawyers."
The first season of "The Newsroom" was not very good. Even cast members have described it as a "first draft" of the show.
So, apparently, the second season promises a big reinvention. I will say at the outset that, for the first episode at least, that deep cleanse is not much in evidence. Most of the show's biggest problems are still big problems. It is, however, a mild improvement on the depths the first season could sink to.
Let us dive, then, into the Season 2 premiere, "First Thing We Do, Let's Kill All The Lawyers." (Lest you think all of Sorkin's grandeur has been curbed, that's a line from Shakespeare.)
We get the "change" message right at the top, as brand new titles replace the Edward Murrow-heavy ones of the first season. Now, we see more restrained images of teleprompters and people reading newspapers and spilling coffee -- less "we are the saviors of television" and more "there's a show to do!" Then the episode begins, and ... not much is different!
About that show, "Newsnight": It's apparently in a bit of a pickle. As the curtain rises, we are witnessing a rehearsal for a legal deposition, and the one and only Will McAvoy is busy correcting people about Italian cities, and a lawyer played by Marcia Gay Harden is demanding that he buckle down because hey, don't you know, the station and the show are facing a huge crisis thanks to that false news story it put out about American use of chemical weapons in warfare and shouldn't Will take that seriously? Oh, and Maggie Jordan, the plucky producer last seen shrieking hysterically at a "Sex and the City"-themed tour bus, has a weird haircut because SOMETHING TERRIBLE HAPPENED TO HER IN AFRICA.
So, y'know, there's a lot of plot right away.
We return to that room periodically as the episode flashes back to late 2011, when ACN is in trouble because Will called the Tea Party the "American Taliban." That translates into Reese Lansing being randomly barred from testifying to Congress because some Republicans are mad at his employee. This strikes me as deeply dubious; surely the politicians would want nothing more than to rake a witness over the coals.
Whatever the questionable plot points, there is at least a welcome return to the screen of the show's two best characters, Leona and Charlie. Honestly, if Jane Fonda and Sam Waterston could just sit and fight for an hour, "The Newsroom" would be much improved. The result of all this is that Will gets yanked from ACN's 9/11 anniversary coverage because he's too much of a Tea Party target, and he sulks a lot and has tortured conversations with MacKenzie while listening to Van Morrison.
Meanwhile, Don and Maggie are living together, but Maggie still likes Jim, but Jim is still broken up about it because Maggie and Don are together, and then Sloan is on the scene, and Jim is so cut up about it that he demands to go to New Hampshire and follow the nascent Romney campaign to get away from her. YAWN. None of these people have been able to locate any spark between them in the year since we've seen them last, and they're all so screechy or drippy or clumsy that it's a slog to watch them fumble around with each other.
Meanwhile (and this is the last time I will say that) Neal is singlehandedly discovering Occupy Wall Street, since the people on this one news show are always singlehandedly discovering every major event. MacKenzie is not interested, but we the audience know that she will be soon, since this already happened in real life. Cue lengthy NealChats with an organizer about the media and whether or not Occupy needs to have a unified goal. Neal is very keen to press this point, though I was not that keen to watch him press it.
Oh, and what's with drone strikes? Sloan is on the case! Oh, and what about that new producer who's filling in for Jim and has a military analyst who just so happens to have news that could bring down the president? Things have a lovely way of falling into this news show's lap, don't they?
This is a helluva lot to juggle. On the one hand, better to have more plot and less gasbaggery from Will. On the other hand, only half of these stories are remotely interesting.
So, what's improved?
MacKenzie's character has improved somewhat; she's a bit more screwball power-heroine and a bit less klutzy kook. We get to see her being good at her job for a change, too.
Will's supreme ego is also punctured better, and Daniels and Mortimer have good chemistry. It's the one relationship we don't mind watching unfold.
The Operation Genoa thread has real promise. I'm willing to go along with the idea that "Newsnight" can suddenly think it has unearthed the new Pentagon Papers, and watching the story fall apart in the team's hands is the kind of solid, consequential journalism plot that could actually yield satisfying drama.
The show's biggest problems, though, remain pretty solidly in place. Sorkin still has trouble writing female characters, nearly all of whom are treated to some sexually tinged mockery from the men on the show. The core personal storylines are still a chore to watch, and Sorkin's continued reliance on real events from five seconds ago is still a bad idea.
I don't care what Aaron Sorkin thinks about Occupy Wall Street nearly two years after its height. These characters are not interesting because of how they grapple with things that just happened in the world. To watch "The Newsroom" is to catch a glimpse of what "Mad Men" would be like if every episode was like its recent, deeply unsuccessful attempt to dramatize Martin Luther King's assassination.
What does this add up to? A big, giant "we shall see." Despite it all, I retain my hope. "The Newsroom" remains a show with an incredible cast, a creator who is capable of great things, and a premise that could still work. Let's keep our fingers crossed that that happens, shall we?
"The Newsroom" airs Sundays at 10 p.m. ET on HBO.