“The Newsroom” recap: From hate-watching to … liking?

The second season begins with a lawyer interrogating the "News Night" team -- and covers Libya, drones, and Occupy

Topics: The Newsroom, HBO, Aaron Sorkin, will mcavoy, jeff daniels, Emily Mortimer,

"The Newsroom" recap: From hate-watching to ... liking? (Credit: HBO/Salon/Benjamin Wheelock)

I am not a hate-watcher.

When the first season of “The Newsroom” came out, last summer, I flipped it off within the first five minutes of the pilot; I was too angry, immediately, at Aaron Sorkin’s Sorkinian protagonist, with his opening diatribe declaring to a “sorority girl” his love for the Great Men of the past and his evident belief that history had declined since the 1940s and 1950s, when those Great Men fought just wars and did what was right. (If only Will McAvoy could go back in time and ask literally any woman, minority, or gay person what they thought of the great men, not to mention asking all of Continental Europe pre-Pearl Harbor how good the U.S. was at fighting just wars. I think their answers would surprise him!) I would rather indulge in just about any televisionary pastime than watching something I know will make me angry, up to and including staring at the blank white walls of my apartment while listening to Nine Inch Nails; working in an actual newsroom, where information is constantly crossing the transom and no one has a college roommate or a sister always conveniently able to help us break news, keeps my blood pressure high enough.

However, I am given to understand that recaps are a valuable commodity and, unlike Will McAvoy, I don’t have the luxury of making my own rules. And so it was that, having caught up on a first season that didn’t piss me off quite as much as I thought it would (despite blowing off universally hailed classic “The West Wing,” five episodes in, after my disdain for Sorkin’s reverence for authority threatened to torpedo my relationship with a Sorkin devotee in college), I set out to understand just what angers people so much about “The Newsroom,” and to chronicle whether those traits of the show grow more entrenched or whether they abate with each passing Sunday night.

Here’s the thing about the season premiere, titled “First Thing We Do, Let’s Kill All the Lawyers.” It’s funny, or funnier. It’s a sign of how far Sorkin has come as a writer of this particular show that McAvoy’s disdain for everyone around him now seems insouciant rather than poisonous. To wit: In the bad old days, McAvoy called an employee, played by Dev Patel, “Punjab”; it was clearly meant as a sort of half-joke. McAvoy didn’t have the time or interest to learn an employee’s name and resorted to a crude racial stereotype. What a great guy/Great Man! In the episode that aired last night, McAvoy misnames the three male lawyers present at a meeting with his counsel “Bob, Tom and Kurt.” They do look like a set of Bobs, Toms and Kurts. Though McAvoy treats the head counsel (played by Marcia Gay Harden) somewhat abysmally (asking if she wants to “jump in the air and swat at my chin? I have the confidence of a tall man”), it’s more about the fact that she’s an impediment to his goal than the fact that she’s a woman in his path he can slag off.

Throughout the episode, indeed, situations are contrived to justify the widely noted obnoxious qualities of the show’s characters. McAvoy has a manner of speaking, particularly to women, that’s condescending in what reads like an unearned manner — and so he’s presented with a lawyer whose presence (she’s defending the network and the show after something called “Operation Genoa” goes very wrong; her interrogation is happening in the show’s “future” while the threads leading up to it are in August 2011) threatens his very livelihood, whom he can treat nastily not just because he wants to but because he needs to project confidence. The show is leaning into Will’s jerkish nature, presenting threats more meaningful than the coarsening of the public discourse.

The news stories we open with this week are the fall of Moammar Gadhafi in Libya and the rape charges against Dominique Strauss-Kahn in New York. Midway through “News Night’s” Strauss-Kahn report, the control room completely melts down (the switches hilariously flash red in oscillating patterns — it looks like something out of “Star Trek”), forcing MacKenzie to switch the angle of the camera so that a graphic is broadcast on a screen behind Will rather than on the home viewer’s full screen. This is all done on fairly short notice, but the takeaway is, like, “Mac did it and it turned out fine.” Perhaps merely showing her as competent, though, is a step up.

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While Mac is doing her job, for once, Charlie and Sloane are avoiding theirs, bantering about fantasy football and Charlie’s charming “Money-Skirt” nickname for the economics reporter. This is the Sorkin I have never been able to get down with; given that Charlie and Sloane’s romantic coupling would be too grotesque even for pay-cable (Sam Waterston, you are a very talented actor whom I admire), their flirting has no point other than to show a man can condescend to a woman if he tells her it’s all in fun. So, too, does Will’s hiring of the “sorority girl” he maligned in the pilot — he makes her learn, in eight minutes, the names of every musical to ever win the Pulitzer, as though the fact he knows of “Sunday in the Park With George” and she doesn’t proves that he has better taste and judgment than she does and not that he is a wealthy person with limitless reserves of time and money to invest in theatergoing and she’s a college student. These, the presence of attractive women in men’s lives whose intelligence is presumed because they say “yes” to men, are not the sort of obstacles “The Newsroom” should be providing its male characters.

On a more serious note, congressmen are set to condemn McAvoy on the floor of the House, and Reese has been shut out of a SOPA meeting; Charlie informs the anchor that, given the controversy over McAvoy’s comparison of the Tea Party to the “American Taliban,” he’s been taken off coverage of the tenth anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks (he responds by smoking cigarettes in bed and listening to Van Morrison, which overlays the action of the episode in a Meaningful Montage). Meanwhile, Jim volunteers to go on the campaign trail, embedded with Mitt Romney. He’s kept off the press bus by a Young Republican type who didn’t like the “Taliban” broadcast himself, and who makes a crack about how Obama is keeping gasoline expensive. (This Romney plotline’s going to be a slow burner; one imagines that McAvoy’s disdain for covering the campaign over hurricanes at the start of the episode will ultimately be exemplary.)

The least delightful part of this episode, even beyond the flirtation stuff, is the continuation of nearly every “News Night” employees’ psychic abilities about what stories will be valuable in the months ahead: Sloane sees immediately just how important drone strikes will be, as a story, despite Will’s failure to give her a fair hearing on the air due to his careerist paranoia over the Taliban fracas, and Neal pitches the story of a coming “Arab Spring in the U.S.” to Mac, who, after hesitation, decides to let him go to the General Assembly. (The wince-inducing exchange: “What’s it called again?” “Occupy Wall Street.”) Neal manages to get a conversation with one of the higher-ups in OWS, despite the movement’s early prohibition on journalists’ sitting in on meetings.

Marcia Gay Harden returns at the end of the show, wordlessly gazing at Mac. Once again, she brings out not the characters’ best but justifies the characters’ most; Mac’s rambling Grammy-speech rant is deeply unprofessional, but for once she’s rattled for a reason other than “Will lecturing her about the Who” or “she has to do her job.” As the scandals of last season play themselves, it’s all a watcher who wants to love the show can hope that the show manages to find ways to justify its unequivocal and apparent unchangeable self.

Daniel D'Addario is a staff reporter for Salon's entertainment section. Follow him on Twitter @DPD_

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