There were few new dramas more anticipated last year than The Newsroom, an HBO series that promised to do for cable news what creator Aaron Sorkin's The West Wing did for the Oval Office. Unfortunately, that early potential was never met by The Newsroom's preachy, pedantic, and arguably sexist first season, which alienated plenty of critics while consistently garnering mixed reviews. (Though, notably, the show earned a much warmer reception from HBO viewers.)
So has The Newsroom improved in its sophomore season, which premiered last night? The critical consensus seems to be yes… but not by much. The HBO series has made a series of recalibrations both minor (a less grandiose opening credits sequence) and major (a flash-forward framing device that sees the News Night staff giving depositions after an investigative report gone awry). It's encouraging that Sorkin has taken the criticisms of the HBO drama's first season to heart as he makes creative adjustments for the show's second season — but unfortunately, many critics believe that The Newsroom's fundamental flaws remain. Here, some of the smartest takes on why The Newsroom 2.0 still isn't working.
The political tone is still unbalanced and preachy, says Bryan Lowry at Variety:
[The Newsroom] has the rare ability of bringing conservatives and liberals together — the former outraged by its politics, the latter embarrassed by how preachy they sound. Usually interesting despite its abundant excesses, the show's irritating moments continue to outweigh the satisfying ones. It's a shame, really, since Sorkin writes about media with an insight and savvy that remains all too rare, particularly within the TV space. […] Through McAvoy, the imperious host of the show within the show, Sorkin does deliver a rather bracing rebuke to the rudderless nature of the then-nascent Occupy Wall Street movement. As usual, though, the writer (whose voice shines through loud and clear) reserves his harshest critiques for intransigent Republicans and a too-compliant media. [Variety]
It's still insufferably (and undeservedly) smug about its so-called "insights," says Willa Paskin at Slate:
Here's a brief rundown of bold perspectives grandly espoused by the show's characters over the new season's first four episodes: Cable news is tawdry and crass and broken; the cultural conversation is overrun with snark; Troy Davis was wrongfully executed; the way we cover political campaigns is stupid; Occupy Wall Street would have been more effective if it had a leader; Africa is dangerous and it's complicated when Americans, especially white Americans, go there to try and help. All of these "ideas" are rendered as though the characters on The Newsroom were the first to ever have had them. (Coming soon, the News Night team discovers that poverty is a thing and it's fun to twist Oreo cookies apart before you eat them!) Sorkin brings an entire episode to a halt so that Don (Thomas Sadoski) can deliver a speech about Davis' execution. It's so didactic that you would be forgiven for thinking you suddenly changed the channel to some semi-offensive lecture series that uses poor, dead, probably innocent men to try to make fictional TV programs appear high-minded. [Slate]
The treatment of female characters is as problematic as ever, says Jeff Jensen at Entertainment Weekly:
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. […] 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. [Entertainment Weekly]
And unfortunately, the series shows no signs of getting better from here, says Tim Goodman at The Hollywood Reporter:
Season two at least appears stronger than last year, but this all comes with a caveat […] That is, Newsroom is the show we're getting from Sorkin even if it might not, for some of us, be quite the show we wanted. Perhaps that's unfair to Sorkin, a very gifted writer with an impressive body of work. Maybe it's that his brand of idealism worked better in the White House than it does on the set of a cable news show. There's a grandiosity of importance that's missing in that environment. It's also true that Sorkin's style post-West Wing is more transparently repetitive — meaning like a David Milch or a Spike Lee he definitely has an immediately identifiable style — and some of the magic in its originality is gone. That's not a flaw, it's just what's revealed over the course of someone's career. [The Hollywood Reporter]
Consensus: Despite the best efforts of Sorkin and his creative team, The Newsroom still hasn't morphed into must-see TV in its second season.