By Kevin Jagernauth | The Playlist July 15, 2013 at 9:58AM
After a rocky first season, both compelling and cringe-worthy in equal doses, and sometimes all at the same time, Aaron Sorkin's "The Newsroom" is back for a second season and it has undergone some significant retooling. The writers' room was given a shakeup, and even as production got underway, Sorkin seemingly changed plans midstream. After the first two episodes had been shot, and while Sorkin was writing the third, he realized his story wasn't going to play out way he wanted. So he went to HBO, asked to reshoot major portions of the first two episodes and rewrite the third, which they agreed to, though the cost was dropping the season order from ten to nine episodes. So, what was the result of all this overhauling? Well, mostly more of the same, outside of one key structural difference.
Where the first season saw each episode tackle of a different news story and followed it from beginning to end, for the sophomore effort, a flashback narrative is set up through which the season will play out. Following an ACN report on Operation Genoa, alleging that U.S. military personnel used nerve gas during an operation (shades of Operation Tailwind), lawyer Rebecca Halliday (Marcia Gay Harden) is brought in to represent the staff in what could be a legal battle. It seems the Department Of Defense tried to quash the story and even worse, it might not be true at all (after CNN and Time reported on Operation Tailwind, the story turned out to be essentially false, and major staff members resigned or were fired). Set against the backdrop of fall 2012 with Hurricane Sandy brewing in the background, the show uses the device of Rebecca meeting with the staff to jump back to explain how the Genoa story first germinated more than a year ago, allowing Sorkin to dive into political events of 2011, not long after the first season ended. Got all that?
It's bit of juggling act, storywise, so to make this recap a bit easier to handle, we're going to spend the season following each character with the story points dropped within, in what should be an easier to digest summary of what's going on, so let's dive right in.....
Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels)
Testy, hot-headed, sarcastic, dismissive...not much has changed for Will thus far. "The First Thing We Do, Let's Kill All The Lawyers" opens with Will toying with Rebecca's questions like a cat with a dead bird, before he eventually concedes that had not an almost comic array of events happened, the Operation Genoa story would have never gone on the air. But he doesn't shy away from his own complicity. We soon learn that the first ripple in the pond leading to the tip about Operation Genoa comes when Will lets Cyrus West, a guest panelist and decorated military veteran on the show, give an uninterrupted rant/defence for the use of drones. When Mackenzie repeatedly tells Will to jump in a counter with questions about the AUMF, he ignores her and ends the segment early, with West getting the last word.
In other developments, Will's comments about the The Tea Party get him removed from the network's 9/11 coverage, in an effort to stem any controversy. This episode also re-confirms Will's penchant for pot, his love of classic rock with tunes from both Van Morrison and The Who featuring (with the latter's "You Better You Bet" being part of one of the more tedious exchanges of dialogue) and in a small running gag, he sings Rebecca Black's novelty hit "Friday" to himself as well. But basically, it's more of the same from Will.
Not a lot going on with Mackenzie as the season starts. She obviously gets upset when Will ignores her direction during the "News Night" panel, however any criticisms from last season about Sorkin's inability to write a strong female character won't end here. Over the course of this episode we learn that Mackenzie sleeps with a nightlight, and one sequence finds her forgetting her purse in the office, with Will covering her bar tab and cab fares. We're still waiting to see the strong woman emerge who reported from war zones, but we're mostly still getting a flighty producer with unresolved feelings for a news anchor. Oh, but she does correct a fact checking error regarding Dominique Strauss Kahn live on the air -- cutting in fresh voiceover in real time -- without anyone noticing, which we're sure never happens in real life and makes for some pretty cooked up drama.
Neal Sampat (Dev Patel)
A character acting somewhere between comic relief and conduit to cover freaky fringe stories, Neal was mostly underdeveloped in the first season. He started sort of acting as Jim's best friend, before fading into the background and mostly being known as the guy who pitched the Bigfoot story, but it looks like Sorkin finally figured out how to use Neal. It's August 24, 2011 -- three weeks before Occupy Wall Street starts -- and while the rest of the world has no idea what's about to descend on Zuccotti Park, Neal has been following the movement on social media and believes there's a story worth covering. Likening the movement as the American equivalent of the Arab Spring, his theory is mostly dismissed at the rundown meeting, but Mackenzie gives him a shot to dig deeper and see what's there.
So Neal heads to one of the early organization meetings for Occupy Wall Street presenting himself as a journalist, and while most of the activists want nothing to do with him, Shelly Wexler takes a bit of pity and decides to spend some time answering his questions. She elaborates on the horizontal instead of vertical structure of the Occupy Wall Street movement, and how the demands -- which started as a single plea to get money out of politics -- has grown into numerous causes. But of course, Sorkin uses this story as a teachable moment, and has Neal presciently advise Shelly to stick to one message if they want to be taken seriously.
Well, the good news is that Maggie/Jim/Don triangle is now, thankfully (hopefully), over. Since asking Maggie to move in with him, Don has strived to be a good boyfriend, proudly confessing his 13 day long streak of being attentive, loving and supportive even while Sloan (Olivia Munn) has made it clear in no uncertain terms that she's interested in him. Meanwhile, Jim continues to suffer and can barely keep civil with Maggie, as she essentially confessed her feelings for him at the end of season one in a weepy monologue on the street, but moved in with Don anyway. When an ACN correspondent gets injured covering the very early stages of the Mitt Romney campaign, Jim steps in his place, just to get out of the office and away from Maggie for a couple of weeks.
But he needn't have gone to far. It turns out Maggie's tear-laden confession to Jim was recorded by someone on their iPhone on the adjacent "Sex & The City" tour bus, uploaded to YouTube, and pointed out to Don by one of Maggie's cousins. Maggie is mortified and tries to patch things up with Don, but this is the final bit of info confirming what he knew all along, and he moves out of their apartment. But it seems there is even more emotional turmoil coming to Maggie. In the opening "present day" section of the episode, we see her briefly come into the meeting between Will and Rebecca with shockingly short hair, colored purple and looking as the laywer puts it, like "The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo." Will reveals that Maggie was recently sent on assignment to Uganda, it went bad and left her a bit "messed up." This is one of the more interesting plot strands introduced and we'll be curious to see where it goes.
Jerry Dantana (Hamish Linklater)
With Jim out on the Romney campaign, Mackenzie brings in Jerry to fill in as her co-producer for a couple of weeks, and Jerry is eager to make his mark. He's the one who brings in the ranting Cyrus West to the panel, and when he tells his longtime source that he might not be able to use him if he can't control himself, West counters that he has a tip on a huge story. And thus the seeds of Operation Genoa are planted.....
The usual battle between editorial control and corporate responsibility again is centered around these three with Leona and Reese letting Charlie known that Will's comments calling The Tea Party the "American Taliban" got them barred from a meeting in Washington on SOPA. It turns out, they are actually against the bill which would leave the network itself liable if someone used their infrastructure merely to point towards possibly copyrighted material. Is Sorkin going to spend the season talking about piracy? Lord, we hope not...
Basically, everything you love and hate about "The Newsroom" is here at the start of season. Simply put: it takes complex political issues, pours them through a liberal filter, and presents them (mostly) one-dimensionally through one-dimensional characters, with the recipe still making for an equally fascinating and maddening mix. The drama is potent but the execution leans toward polemic in its storytelling, with characterization often taking a backseat. At least thus far, it's everything you couldn't stop complaining about last season and yet, you can't stop watching. That being said, the idea of "News Night" powering through and getting a story major story potentially wrong is an interesting idea, one that sees this crusading type of reporting taken to task for not getting the facts straight first. It's an interesting possibility but we'll have to see if Sorkin can see it through. [B-]