Next to Smash, the most watchable hot mess last year was Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom, starring Jeff Daniels as Will McAvoy, a news anchor who melts down and morphs into a polarizing crusader. Everything great about this idealistic fantasy was intertwined with everything grating about it. Inspiring and sanctimonious! Reflective and drama-challenged! Terrific cast and problematic female characters! Admirers and detractors agreed: The Newsroom could improve. Alas, the show’s sophomore season — which tracks the consequences of McAvoy’s and his team’s interconnected, uncorrected blunders — hits the ground slumping in its first four episodes.
Cribbing from his Oscar-winning script for The Social Network, Sorkin uses a framing device that has the News Night staff giving depositions on the eve of the 2012 election about an investigative report gone wrong; the details unspool as the season progresses. The mystery is as gimmicky as it is intriguing. Even less successful is Sorkin’s risky decision to mess with The Newsroom’s most entertaining quality: watching McAvoy’s band of brainy idealists produce the news together. Sorkin sends Jim (John Gallagher Jr.) on the road to cover the Romney campaign, then ships Maggie (Alison Pill) to Africa for an assignment. The catalyst for their respective jaunts — a humiliating YouTube video of Maggie’s romantic breakdown over Jim surfaces — is painfully lame, and neither story line is rewarding. Sorkin also gives Jim another bad-at-her-job colleague (Zero Hour’s Grace Gummer) whom he can smugly scold, save, and maybe smooch. As for Maggie, she remains an emotionally chaotic wreck. Sorkin’s idea of female character development: a hardening shock of manipulative tragedy and an angry punk haircut. I found myself wondering if Pill pulled her tresses out herself trying to make it all work.
The Newsroom ultimately rises and falls on its stirring self-righteousness. But Will and his chief collaborator in culture change, MacKenzie McHale (Emily Mortimer), are more passive protagonists as the season begins: A reckless potshot at the Tea Party, Will’s Republican politics, and a reversal of a key season 1 plot point leave them gun-shy and ambivalent about playing Edward R. Quixote. This is interesting. But an utterly unbelievable choice regarding his love life and his petulant takedown of an Occupy activist left me frustrated and confused about McAvoy. Perhaps that’s the point; I suspect Sorkin is pulling a Humpty Dumpty, blowing everything up so he can put it back together. Hopefully The Newsroom can get back to being a functional hot mess instead of a plain old mess — and quickly, before Pill yanks out all of her hair, and I go bald with her. C