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Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Review: The Newsroom, "First Thing We Do, Let's Kill All the Lawyers"

Season 2, Episode 1

Grade: A

Verdict: The Newsroom begins its second season with an episode that feels very much like a return to the format which made the first season so good.  Unfortunately, this means the episode will not likely do anything to sway viewers who may have disliked this series.  Story-wise, the series makes a slight shift in that it now contains an over-arching plot which will guide the season as a whole, making for a story which feels a bit more focused and keeps the viewer guessing as to how all of the pieces will fit together.  New story arcs such as a focus on the Occupy Wall Street movement are a mixture of the show's well established commentary on past events as well as a new way to expand upon certain characters.  Much of the personal drama which occurs outside of News Night still feels either forced or apathetic, but the aforementioned over-arching plot may seek to mend these problems.

Last year, Aaron Sorkin's latest foray into television, The Newsroom, was met with decidedly mixed reactions that tended to skew more positively.  The show's detractors were upset about a number of things.  A seemingly self-righteous attitude in the show's writing/Jeff Daniels' portrayal of Will McAvoy as well as accusations of blatant sexism were among the chief complaints.  Nevertheless, the show received consistent ratings, and Sorkin continued to prove to fans that he was creating a unique television experience that was providing a treatise on modern journalism that was desperately needed.  Now the show has begun its sophomore season, and many have been wondering if things will be business as usual, or if the series will simply continue to ignore the complaints lodged against it.

The Newsroom's second season begins with a flash forward to an imminent law suit against the News Night crew, with Will looking back on the events which lead to this.  Two weeks after the end of the first season, we are seeing the effects of Will's description of the Tea Party as the American Taliban, and things are not going well for several people.  Jim, feeling too close to some of the emotional drama involving Maggie, decides to leave to cover the Romney campaign.  Finding a new online grassroots movement to cover, Neal investigates Occupy Wall Street.

It may be upsetting for many who were expecting The Newsroom to make any major changes in light of some of its more major criticisms to learn that the only huge change made to the show's formula in this episode is a more obvious over-arching story.  This episode is book-ended with scenes displaying Will and MacKenzie giving testimony for a lawsuit of some sort which is being lodged against ACN/News Night.  Not a lot of information is given on that front, but it is enough to intrigue the viewer as to what has taken place.  The scenes are anchored by a performance by Marcia Gay Harden as lawyer Rebecca Halliday, who is the perfect fit for this ensemble.  Though Harden does not get a ton to do here, there is an eager anticipation present in her scenes that she will be excellent.  In its first season, The Newsroom had a somewhat over-arching story in the form of Will McAvoy's overall emotional arc, but there was not really anything which offered a ton of unison as many plot threads often felt disjointed.  By giving the series a more united vision that brings each of these characters' emotional arcs into play, it allows for the series to hopefully become much more focused.  It is hard to say how well this unifying element will work out for several more episodes, but it is nevertheless an exciting development in this show's storytelling.

If one could pinpoint any one thing The Newsroom is most known for, it is perhaps its commentary on the media coverage of events from the recent past.  In many ways, the uniting of each of these news pieces into the story of these characters often served as a reminder that our history is a much more jumbled amalgamation of happenings rather than a linear movement from point to point.  Taking a look at the recent past was a method of making this show a reflective piece, and it continues to be one of the series' strongest elements.  The only major downside to this season starting only two weeks after the previous one is that we as viewers are watching, in 2013, events which occurred in 2011, meaning that some of these happenings feel less fresh than they did last season.  Jim's departure to cover the Romney campaign, while an interesting move, feels a tad awkward as, in 2011, Mitt Romney was not yet the Republican nominee.  With the show being written two years later, however, it does mean that Jim can be placed with the campaign which could carry his story for a much longer period, so perhaps, in that way, it is a smart move.  In this episode, the most interesting news story which is woven in is Neal's desire to cover the budding Occupy Wall Street movement.  Viewers undoubtedly remember the protests occurring, but it still came as a bit of a surprise that we had already reached the time where that movement began (again, the weird way these news stories all mesh together).  Although it is doubtful that The Newsroom will have anything to say about Occupy Wall Street that we have not heard before, what makes it a fascinating plot thread is that it will be an excellent way of developing Dev Patel's Neal.  Last season, Neal was just the "computer guy" who could do neat things on the Internet to help out with News Night.  Now, with this Occupy Wall Street thread, we can see Neal away from his co-workers, and it will be fascinating to see the way this movement develops him as a character.

Since this premiere episode did not do much to alter the format established for this series, it will come as no surprise that the more personal drama elements of this episode feel lacking.  Anything involving Will and MacKenzie continues to be the more interesting aspect of everyone's personal drama, no doubt due to the brilliant acting of Jeff Daniels and Emily Mortimer.  In the meantime, any and all more personal scenes involving Maggie and Don's on again/off again relationship ends up coming off as a re-hash, with a "been there, done that" feel.  As previously mentioned, some of the new story arcs established in this episode seem like they will be much more personal, helping to develop these characters further.  Olivia Munn's Sloan Sabbith was the surprise of the previous season, and it seems the writers are doing a little bit more to make her a better character this year.  Such endeavors are more than appreciated, but the personal drama still feels like the weakest link in this show.  It is more than easy to care about these characters when they are deciding stories to cover, putting the show together, and dealing with any fall out of their actions on air, but all of that care is usually thrown out the window when we have to discuss which of these characters are dating.  Perhaps Aaron Sorkin should consider bringing in a co-writer for this series to help make these moments less grating and more engaging.

The Newsroom begins its second season in a very strong fashion, bringing in one new element which will hopefully help give the story a more unison focus, adding new stories which seek to develop its more side characters, and once again uniting Sorkin's fantastic writing with the brilliant acting of this cast.  The flip side to that coin, however, is that this is only the sort of reaction someone who enjoyed the first season would have.  Not much is really altered in terms of format and the way this series handles certain elements, so it will likely do nothing to sway the more critical viewers.  As this is only the first episode, however, The Newsroom has plenty of time to change those minds.  For now, the show has done a good job of bringing its fans back into that sense of familiarity, and that is enough to make this a good start.
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