The best criticism of Aaron Sorkin’s first season of his Utopian TV news series was that it was too sanctimonious. It was too sanctimonious, but Season 2 is looking to turn things around on that front – spoiler alert.
Season 1 was a thrill for anyone with an idealistic bent: Sorkin invited us to imagine a news network that would resist such banal tragedy indulgence as covering the Casey Anthony trial, that would be a public advocate in bringing the most important issues to light and cut through Washington’s often-facile appeals and convoluted rhetoric. It would invite us, its happy viewers in, to share in a more-intelligent-than-thou, more-levelheaded-than-the-general-public vision of a news network after the likes of Cronkite, et al.
No doubt such news would elevate our political discourse and produce a more informed electorate (even if Sorkin’s version tends toward ideological one-sidedness). And, despite the show’s obvious political elitism, it really was a joy to watch, fun to buy into – and the characters and drama and (especially) dialogue were engaging, even apart from the show’s politics.
But wasn’t something missing? Season 1 painted as alluring and witty a picture of “News Night 2.0” as it possibly could have, but people were skeptical about Season 2 because it seemed like it had nowhere to go. And it’s true; it didn’t – principles could only be pushed so far, but then, as with everyday life, principles turn in on themselves; they becomes Law.
And so with Season 2, it looks like Sorkin’s taking a rare foray into moral complexity. Last night’s episode opened and closed with a lawsuit – there is real judgment, a moral reckoning, encapsulating the episode.
We see this shift in theme in the contrast between introductions; Season 2’s intro sequence doesn’t hearken back to the great anchors of our past or feature as many up-close character shots. Instead, details come to the fore: fact-checking (!), spilt coffee on a report, more up-tempo, frenetic music, a sense of feeling rushed.
And last night’s episode , similarly, felt entirely different than any in Season 1. It opens and closes with foreboding, allusions to Maggie traumatized overseas and to a “Genoa” operation of which McAvoy and company somehow botched their coverage. The harshest critics of Season 1 will be pleased to know the show is more in the zeitgeist of American network TV: dark references to unknown events, a noir-ish retroactive telling of the story, with the understanding that it’s headed toward potential doom (“If Jim hadn’t left for the Romney bus, if Cyrus West hadn’t been on the panel…”). The difference between Newsroom Season 2 (so far) and its television peers is that the moral complexity, if done well, will be thrown into even sharper relief because of Season 1’s idealism. That is, there will be fall, there has been a fall.
To write his fall, Sorkin works within a classic paradigm: the universe has conspired in such a way that the improbable moral reckoning would come, but some element of it is still the hero’s fault. Macbeth is a classic example: the “vaulting ambition” is his flaw, but it takes an encounter with witches to arouse his ambition to the point of destroying him. And ACN, the public’s advocate, our watchdog, has executed its role marvelously (though perhaps irresponsibly/overzealously) in exposing a US black op. It’s not just legal or public condemnation ACN faces; their principles , which led them into this mess, turn against them and judge them all the more harshly, while Occupy protesters question their involvement with the system at all.
Principle, the protagonist of Season 1, has given way to Law, which seems like it will be the most prominent theme of Season 2. We’re lucky that Sorkin (a) is undermining his own, earlier idealism and (b) that we get to watch the transition from the righteous to the self-condemned – your accuser is Moses, someone once said. And so the second season looks to be a less sanctimonious, more nuanced exploration of principled idealism, and the many ways it can turn against you, against itself – and for that, there’s a chance the show could have a major critical rebound.