September 1, 2013

Television: Sorkin's 'Newsroom' has a different feel in second season on HBO

By MEREDITH BLAKE, McClatchy Newspapers

When "The Newsroom" premiered on HBO in June 2012, its opening credits, in which black and white images of Walter Cronkite, Edward R. Murrow and David Brinkley floated across the screen to soaring theme music, signaled the high-minded ambitions of its creator, Aaron Sorkin.

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Emily Mortimer and Jeff Daniels in “The Newsroom.”

HBO

Aaron Sorkin
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Aaron Sorkin enlisted 13 consultants to weigh in with their suggestions for “The Newsroom.”

Courtesy photo

And if the nostalgic montage wasn't already a dead giveaway, the events of the pilot drove home Sorkin's purpose: After going on an inflammatory tirade about the dumbing-down of America, anchorman Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels) returns to work at the fictional Atlantis Cable News. Urged by his executive producer (and former flame) MacKenzie McHale (Emily Mortimer), he reboots "News Night," with the mission of "speaking truth to stupid" and moving beyond the partisan bickering of cable news in the post-9/11 era.

But if the Oscar-winning screenwriter of "The Social Network" had set lofty goals for his return to series television five years after the high-profile failure of "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip," he was soon brought back down to Earth. While "The Newsroom" earned a solid if not spectacular average of about 2.2 million viewers a week, reviews were brutal. "So naive it's cynical," declared the New Yorker. "Almost insufferably earnest and sanctimonious and self-flattering and smug and shrill and condescending," ruled the Montreal Gazette.

"The Newsroom" returned in July for a second season with an understated new opening sequence that was part of a larger creative overhaul. The venerable newsmen of yesteryear were gone, replaced by beautifully lighted close-ups of anonymous hands scrolling through BlackBerries and fiddling with buttons in the control room. Instead of lamenting a bygone era of Important Journalism, "The Newsroom" was romanticizing the quotidian hustle and bustle of today's news business.

In a reversal of fortune for the auteur behind the acclaimed "Sports Night" and "The West Wing," the news media had piled on Season 1 with a zeal typically reserved for philandering politicians or misbehaving starlets. Hate-watching became a Sunday night ritual for members of the Fourth Estate, who slammed the show as sexist, preachy and out of touch and saw Daniels' character, supposedly a disenchanted Republican, as a sock puppet for Sorkin's liberal viewpoint.

"Though 'The Newsroom' intends to lecture its viewers on the higher virtues of capital-J journalism, Professor Sorkin soon reveals he isn't much of an expert on the subject," wrote Jake Tapper, then the senior White House correspondent for ABC News (now at CNN), in a scathing critique for the New Republic.

It didn't help that Sorkin, on occasion, seemed dismissive of the very profession he was trying to portray. For instance, he chided a female reporter from Toronto's Globe and Mail, "Listen here, Internet girl. It wouldn't kill you to watch a film or pick up a newspaper once in a while."

The series also invited unfavorable comparisons to the many classic films and television shows about journalism it implicitly referenced: "Broadcast News," "His Girl Friday," "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," "Lou Grant," "Murphy Brown," "Network."

"Newsroom" hate was not monolithic among journalists, however. Dan Rather, whose image appeared in the opening credits of Season 1, wrote gushing recaps for Gawker. " 'The Newsroom' is important television, the closest we've had to 'must-see TV' in recent years," he said.

NEW STORY ARC

For the show's sophomore outing, Sorkin enlisted 13 paid consultants, including former MSNBC and CNN President Rick Kaplan, political strategist Mark McKinnon, New Republic literary editor Leon Wieseltier, conservative pundit S.E. Cupp and MSNBC host Alex Wagner.

With their input, he made some storytelling tweaks. While "The Newsroom" still revolves around actual events from the recent past, like the 2012 Republican primary and the Occupy Wall Street movement -- a device that, according to some, robs the show of suspense and allows Sorkin the benefit of hindsight -- it now also includes a season-long story arc about the botched investigation of a fictional covert mission known as "Operation Genoa."

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