Jeff Daniels in HBO's 'The Newsroom' Season 2 Premiere, 'First Thing We Do, Let's Kill All the Lawyers.'
So with Season 2 debuting this Sunday, we're splitting the difference and giving you five reasons to start tuning in… along with five reasons to stay far, far away.
START WATCHING FOR: Aaron Sorkin's monologues
As anyone who's seen "The West Wing" and "The Social Network" can tell you, Aaron Sorkin's hyper-intellectual writing style can be a joy to behold. And it works best when coming out of the mouth of an impassioned character, uninterrupted, while others just sit back and marvel at the speaker's brilliance. ("You can't handle the truth," anyone?) Case in point: the "Newsroom" series premiere, which opens with disillusioned news anchor Will McAvoy rattling off all the reasons why our country might not be as great as we think it is in a soaring, thought-provoking tour de force. Say what you want about Sorkin (and we will, just you wait), but the man can write the hell out of a speech.
STOP WATCHING FOR: Aaron Sorkin's dialogue
But as great as Sorkin's monologues are, he can get clumsy when it comes to scenes where people actually, you know, talk to each other. The banter in Will's newsroom tends to be self-consciously quippy, full of scholarly bon mots and literary quotes that no post-college human should still have in their brains. And the romantic entanglements here range from tedious to actively annoying; the fumbling office romance between senior producer Jim and Will's assistant Margaret is such a blatant rip-off of "The Office's" Jim-and-Pam dynamic that we just call them "Jim and Pam" to save time. No matter how hard he tries, screwball romantic comedies are not Aaron Sorkin's forte. Stick to what you know, buddy.
START WATCHING FOR: A peek behind the cable-news curtain
"The Newsroom" is at its best when Will and the News Night team drop all the personal drama and get to work bringing us the news. Now we can debate whether the portrait of cable news painted here is entirely accurate (hint: it's not), but it's still exciting to watch a motivated news team tap into their considerable talents to cover a huge story as it's breaking. That combination of fearsome intellect and raging idealism is a Sorkin specialty, and gives "The Newsroom's" best scenes a kinetic spark unrivaled anywhere else on TV.
STOP WATCHING FOR: Its irritatingly perfect hindsight
"The Newsroom" conveniently takes place a year or so in the past, which allows Sorkin and company to comment on actual news events like the BP oil spill and the death of Osama bin Laden. And which also allows the News Night crew to be exactly right about what angle to take every single time, like when they managed to unearth Halliburton's murky role in the BP oil spill in a matter of minutes. While it's undeniably satisfying to see Will's team nail a big story, it'd be nice to see their instincts fail them once in a while. Just to mix it up!
START WATCHING FOR: A show that gives journalism a good name
With "The West Wing," Sorkin made us believe in our political leaders again. (Or at least fictional ones.) And with "The Newsroom," he gives the much-maligned media a human face, with an inspiring portrait of brainy journalists working their butts off to keep us informed. Journalistic legends like Cronkite and Murrow get name-checked, and today's brain-dead TMZ news culture gets justifiably trashed; it's a tiny victory for those of us who grew up reading newspapers. (Remember those?)
STOP WATCHING FOR: Its obliviousness to the current state of journalism
Do you know whether you have a blog or not? Great! Then you're one step ahead of esteemed journalist Will McAvoy, whose ignorance of 21st-century technology would be laughable if it weren't so ridiculous for a man in his position. Sorkin seems to think it's charming for his main character to be computer-illiterate, even when today's news travels at the speed of Twitter. (And let's not even mention Will referring to Dev Patel's tech-savvy Indian character as "Punjab.") The whole thing just makes Will (and Sorkin, and "The Newsroom") seem hopelessly behind the times.
START WATCHING FOR: Jeff Daniels' performance as Will McAvoy
A well-respected film actor with decades of credits and plenty of range, Daniels may have hit on the best role of his career with Will McAvoy. As a "smart, talented guy who isn't very nice," Daniels mixes together equal parts arrogance and self-hatred to create a compulsively watchable character, while ably handling the verbal dexterity that Sorkin's writing requires. (Seriously, go back and watch that monologue from the premiere again.) Daniels will probably score an Emmy nomination next week for playing Will, and in spite of "The Newsroom's" glaring flaws, he deserves it.
STOP WATCHING FOR: One-dimensional villains
But Will McAvoy would be an even more compelling character if he had some decent adversaries to bounce off of. Alas, "The Newsroom" only offers thinly drawn antagonists, seemingly just to give Will and his idealistic staff someone to yell at. Will's bullheaded ex-producer Don was a frequent punching bag in Season 1's early episodes. As Will's corporate boss Leona Lansing, Jane Fonda is a caricature of a bottom-line-driven CEO. And Chris Messina (who's so great as swaggering doc Danny Castellano on "The Mindy Project") is completely wasted here as Leona's irredeemably evil ratings-monger son Reese.
START WATCHING FOR: High-minded political debate
It's not easy to find actual hard news on TV these days, even on the so-called news channels. (But if you want to watch every moment of the latest trial of the century, you're all set!) Thankfully, "The Newsroom" delves deep into the hot-button issues of the day, from the debt-ceiling debate to the influence of the Tea Party on the Republican platform, and in captivating enough fashion to keep the show from becoming a bone-dry civics lesson. We've actually learned things about the world we live in from watching "The Newsroom"… which is more than we can say for most TV.
STOP WATCHING FOR: Horribly biased political leanings
Sorkin tried to insulate himself against accusations of political bias by making Will a self-described conservative. ("See? My main character's a Republican!") But it's disingenuous, since all we see Will do is tear apart conservative ideology. The result is a staunchly liberal series posing as one that gives equal time to both sides of the political spectrum. What if Sorkin gave Will a smart Republican female character to argue with who could actually outsmart him at times? Now that might be a show we could wholeheartedly recommend.
Watch the cast of "The Newsroom" talk about Season 2 at the show's L.A. premiere:
Season 2 of "The Newsroom" premieres Sunday, 7/14 at 10 PM on HBO.
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- Aaron Sorkin