Though we've still months to go before it premieres, it's not too soon to start dreading season two of Aaron Sorkin's yesterday's-news-today drama The Newsroom. Either maddeningly thrilling or thrillingly maddening, the preachy pinnacle of rage-watching is currently in production, meaning we're starting to get a clearer picture of what recent news stories will get the Sorkin treatment come summertime. Sorkin and some of his cast members participated in a Paley Center Q&A in Los Angeles last night, and the details spilled teased at a season of real doozies. I oddly can't wait.
Obviously the last calendar year was itself a doozy. There was of course the interminable election, which will feature prominently in the new season, but Sorkin also mentioned the Trayvon Martin shooting, the budget crisis, and, most horrifyingly, the Sandy Hook massacre. It's not surprising that Sorkin would want to address big, newsy tragedies — after all, the first season featured a Gaby Giffords climax scored to Coldplay's "Fix You" — but he did at least exhibit some restraint when talking about Sandy Hook last night. Entertainment Weekly reports that when asked about the Newtown shootings, Sorkin responded "[t]hat’s a tough thing to write about without minimalizing it, exploiting it, spreading Cheez Whiz all over it." So maybe he will decide to not write about it at all? That would be the best way to avoid anything Cheez Whiz-y, wouldn't it. While Sorkin acknowledged that it would be hard not to cover the incident, he did at least show a little timidity about wading in. He should probably do that more often. Though, if he did, would the show be worth watching?
The sad thing to admit is this: The Newsroom was a lot of fun last season because Sorkin blundered so cockily through various real-life news events. The Gabby Giffords story in particular became a moralizing fantasy of how the news should have reacted, praising the fictional Will McAvoy and his producers for handling the situation tactfully and smartly. So really the whole thing was a laudatory paean to Sorkin's vision of how the news should work, a hilariously grandstanding monument to the righteousness of his own opinions. While that's certainly a pretty odious way to make a television show, it's also undeniably entertaining. Freaking out over Sorkin's pomposity became a shamefully fun weekly activity last year, and really we've no reason to suspect that this time around will be any different. But that means that he has to cover all the sad, unpleasant stuff; there can be no avoidance if The Newsroom is to do the overblown, awed-with-itself job that it's supposed to. I don't know for certain, but I can't imagine I'm the only person who sinisterly relishes in watching this show through a lens of eye-rolling disdain.
Well, disdain might be a heavy word. There are of course some actual good things about the show. Sorkin assembled a solid cast of actors — among them Jeff Daniels as the fearless leader/Sorkin mouthpiece, Allison Pill as a smart-but-frazzled producer (does Sorkin write any women that aren't smart-but-frazzled?), and Sam Waterston as the blustery, bleary head of the network. It's also filmed well, all smooth and swift and serious. It's nice to look at, the kind of elegant television that HBO does so well. But really those positive qualities only serve to better embolden the alternate wind-baggery and frivolousness tumbling out of the characters' mouths. It's not just the McAvoy character either, in all his lecturing, Huffington Post-spewing fury. There's also Will's executive producer MacKenzie, who whines and caws like a seabird and often plays the sounding-board for Will's "let's do the news, people" sermons. Their relationship is highly problematic in a gender politics sense, but that fundamental problem also makes it, rather pathetically, an exhilarating one to watch, pulling out your hair and yelling "Noooooo" at the television screen. Sad but true, I'm afraid.
And of course there's the cad-ish producer Don, played by Thomas Sadowski, who swaggers with a chauvinistic arrogance that is supposed to be off-putting but that you can tell Sorkin kinda likes and identifies with. Last night Sorkin said "If you’re a fan of Don and Sloan, I would definitely be watching," which means that Sadowski's character will be getting more focus, as will Sloan, the financial whiz commentator played by Olivia Munn. Sloan is incisive and competent when talking on air, but in civilian life can barely function, a hilarious conundrum that Sorkin loves writing into his women. As much as Sloan is an unlikable character — which, again, makes me want to watch her more — Munn actually managed to accidentally cut to the heart of the show's problems at last night's panel. An audience member asked her a question about TV news people becoming celebrities, and she responded with this: "I prefer to see Piers Morgan and Diane Sawyer just on the news and not a red carpet. To make yourself newsworthy is so egotistical and self-absorbed. That’s the problem with so many news organizations — so many people trying to make themselves a celebrity." Which... let's take a second to process that.
Yes, Olivia Munn is taking other people — including the panel's moderator Piers Morgan — to task for being a celebrity for celebrity's sake. Olivia Munn is saying that. So that's silly and something of a pot/kettle situation. But the real humdinger in that quote speaks directly to what is inherently wrong with The Newsroom. Here is its notion that cable news can and should be this noble, grand bastion of integrity, an ideal that the show painfully tries to instill in us week after turgid week, when in reality, television news people figured out years ago that theirs is an entertainment industry. Here's Olivia Munn, emboldened by her rousing Newsroom philosophy, trying to change an industry "back" into something that it never really was. Cable news, at least, has been pure infotainment for well over a decade, all of its anchors blessed with celebrity status and all that comes attendant with that. Sure there is some misty faraway concept that TV news people should all be dedicated, dogged journalists with no hint of self-interest, but the much closer and clearer reality is that it's quite the opposite, and has been for some time.
So The Newsroom is praising itself for thunderingly evoking a principle that doesn't exist — what Munn said was, like the show, both moralizing and naive. There is ultimately nothing timely or pertinent about The Newsroom, because it dwells almost entirely in a world of Sorkin's fantasy creation. And yet we're supposed to revere its knowingness, its intelligence and its correctness. In that light, its self-regard is pretty unseemly, and occasionally even offensive. And yet, what can I say, it's pretty fun to watch too. Bring on season two, as awful as it wants to be.