Monday, July 15, 2013

'The Newsroom' Premiere Review - 2.01 First Thing We Do, Let's Kill All the Lawyers

        On the season premiere of HBO's The Newsroom, Will and the "News Night" staff are questioned by their lawyer about a story they've aired that's become a network crisis; an on-air remark by Will has him pulled from 9/11 anniversary coverage; Jim volunteers to cover for an embed reporter on the Romney campaign; and Neal investigates the beginnings of Occupy Wall Street.

        The lasting impact of a series does not come from how will it does in its first season but more importantly by the direction it chooses to take in its second. A series can have a dynamic and near-perfect first season but how they choose to follow it up is more indicative of whether or not lightening can struck. Then there are other series with very problematic first seasons but get the opportunity to come back for another round. This clearly describes The Newsroom because even though the first season produced some great episodes - namely "We Just Decided To" and "5/1" - it had some very crippling structural, tonal and character flaws.
        The biggest flaw that increasingly grew throughout the first season of The Newsroom was its characters. They all started out in places of intriguing and offered up various dynamics that will very telling of the workplace atmosphere they inhabited. But as the season continued on, it seemed as if the show was growing further and further away from what made these characters who they were in the first place. It opted for them to be more in tune with a political soap box that continually came across poorly to the audience. They often read smug and self-indulgent: now of whom were ever challenged in a way that sparked a conversation about the issues.
        The season now opens with a brand new opening credits sequence. It is marginally more fantastic than the one that proceeded it. Before the sequence was comparing the series to greatness - saying that what this show and these characters are trying to do is just as important and life-changing as the legendary newsmen of the past. It spoke as how it strived to return to this era of being informed by covering the news "the way it should be" and not the bias frequently seen in today's current news broadcast. That messaging in and of itself comes off as holy-than-thou and the following show was equally as so. Now, the new credits is just as informative of the succeeding series but is more in line with its true nature. The Newsroom is a program where serious issues of real life can be talked about. It's not going to be a revelation to the medium nor is it going to change the way real life politics and reporting operate. The fact that the show came to this understanding gave me hope that the following premiere would be one of hope that the series finally could live up to its fullest potential.
        As second season begins, it's very evident that Aaron Sorkin was able to take some of criticisms to heart. But it is even more evident, that this will be series that can produce great moments but will also always have stories that drag down everything else around them. That again simply is due to the way certain characters are being written.
        Every single thing that has to do with the romantic entanglements of the characters continues to be distracting and grating. What started as a love triangle between Jim, Maggie and Don has now evolved into a love I don't even know. And because the show remains so bent on making that element a (or the only) defining trait for these characters and makes them seem unnecessary to the whole narrative. It is also slowly ruining the true breakout character of the first season - Olivia Munn's Sloan Sabbath. She was this strong, opinionated woman who is exceptional at her job. And yet, whenever she is faced with feeling something towards a man - named Don, for some reason - she becomes a bumbling mess. Jim, similarly, is decent in his work interactions - not nearly as great as Sloan but then again he's never been asked to do as much as she has. Now, he leaves to cover the Romney campaign for a few weeks to get away from Maggie and his absence from the main proceedings was not noticeable and was actually preferable. His replacement Jerry Fontana - played by Hamish Linklater - is definitely being set up as the main trouble for the serial arc of the season but in his short time in this environment he was able to prove his worth to the team. He was able to add to the material that works on the show - the inner workings of a cable news program - and not the stuff that doesn't. Similarly, I feel like Don and Maggie could be just as easily written out of the show because they've only been defined by their relationship. I'm intrigued to learn more about Maggie's future and her trip to Uganda but that was only because the show was telling me to look forward to that. It won't feel earned when it actually happens in the moment.
        That point will lead me to my chief concern for this season - the flash forward structure of a present-day set deposition with company lawyer played (wonderfully) by Marcia Gay Harden. On one hand, I quite enjoyed it because those scenes where she interacts with Will and MacKenzie are very telling of what's to come but also were great to watch. But on the other hand, the show is also telegraphing the exact events of what's to come this season with it building naturally and surprising us along the way. Now, we know that whenever someone says Genoa, it is building up to this catastrophic mistake. I wonder if the better structure for the season would have without these glimpses into the future. That way we along with these characters could learn all about Genoa unbiased and be just as hopeful that it could be the main event to put them all on the map - and get them out of the shadow created by the American Taliban comment.
        But I also saw a lot of things that made me very hopeful for the season to come in this premiere. Surprisingly enough, the most enjoyable change of pace in the second season is the dynamic between Will and MacKenzie. Both characters were frequently just called on to be pompous and preachy in the first season - and in MacKenzie's case, completely spastic whenever it came to technology and romance. Her character definitely has had the biggest turnaround this season. She is now in charge of that control room and does so excellently in a much needed scene at the very top of the hour. Similarly, her interactions with Will have become more than just her pining away for him - or vice versa. Now, they seem to be having honest conversation about the difficulties of life and I actually kinda do believe them to be realistic. Will, too, has largely been turned down from his past preachy, off-putting former self. In many moments in the premiere, he is simply asked to sit back and quietly react to what others are saying. He may agree with them. He may not. But, at least for now, he is not coming across as a man preaching his own belief system as the way to fix American politics. All of this could easily come undone in the episodes to come. But at the start, it has a very decent foundation.