This review contains spoilers.
2.1 First Thing We Do, Let’s Kill All The Lawyers.
“14 months ago, you went on the air and called the Tea Party ‘the American Taliban’.”
“I did.”“And?”“The Taliban resented it.”
The first season of Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom drew both praise and complaints from critics. In our season one recap, we likened its well-written jumble of speechifying melodrama and slapstick comedy to “Network, if it were written by Richard Curtis”, which was no bad thing in our books.
If you’re just tuning in, The Newsroom follows a news team at fictional network ACN, and their quixiotic efforts to raise the standard of cable news broadcasts. The news stories covered in the show are real, but Sorkin has the benefit of hindsight in order to give his characters an almost preternatural ability to report a story in just the right way, while also following their inter-personal melodrama.
There’s not a lot in The Newsroom to suggest that Sorkin would take critics seriously, so while it remains to be seen if the new run will adapt to any of the complaints from last time around, the second season première, First Thing We Do, Let’s Kill All The Lawyers, is predictably geared towards reminding us where we stand – there’s a feeling of “And we’re back…” about the whole episode.
The new title sequence doesn’t do a whole lot to disguise that this isn’t a revamped version of the show, but rather that we’re building upon the foundation of the first season in much the same way as the previous ten episodes did. However, in a departure from the previous format, we have the beginnings of a much more overt season-long arc.
The episode opens in a deposition room, ostensibly to open the season with some more intellectual banter from Jeff Daniels’ Will McAvoy, but also to jump forward fourteen months after the finale of the previous season. In scenes that are a little reminiscent of Sorkin’s Social Network, Marcia Gay Harden guest-stars as Rebecca Halliday, a lawyer for ACN, who collects statements relating to a major legal problem that News Night has apparently incurred.
Since we saw them last, News Night has broken and then retracted a story about the mysterious Operation Genoa, apparently accusing the US government of committing and covering up war crimes. And as we see in flashback over the course of the episode, only an astonishing sequence of coincidences could lead them into this, starting when a reporter on Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign trail jumps off a roof at a party and breaks his ankle.
But more on that later. Avid viewers will remember that the last time we saw Will, he went on the air and said that the Tea Party, a sect of right-wingers that he believes has hijacked the more moderate core of the Republican party, were “the American Taliban.” The consequences of that nationally-broadcast editorial smackdown ripple throughout this season premiere.
Will defiantly quips that the Taliban resented the comparison, but it turns out they weren’t the only ones. Twice in this episode, we see how the Tea Partiers in the Republican party are using their influence to shut out ACN – first, a soaked Reese Lansing (Chris Messina) is shut out of a legislative committee at the Capitol building, and second, poor Jim (John Gallagher Jr) is kept off the Romney bus by a vengeful aide.
This leaves the news team watching their step. Charlie (Sam Waterston) takes Will off-air on the night of the 10th anniversary of 9/11 as an act of diplomacy. Will takes it hard and so he spends less time doing the usual Will McAvoy stuff in this episode. It’s gratifying to see Mac smack him about for not engaging with a blow-hard panellist during a debate, because the whole first season was about him snapping out of his desire to keep the audience happy and docile.
Happily, Will’s not the centre of attention in this episode, and we get a satisfying, if not entirely happy resolution to the long-running love triangle between young producers Maggie, (Alison Pill) Don (Thomas Sadowski) and Jim. Seeing as how Maggie chose Don at the end of the last season, Jim decides to get himself out of the way and volunteers to replace the injured reporter on the Romney campaign in New Hampshire, resulting in the aforementioned not-getting-on-the-bus.
But back in New York, Don discovers a YouTube video of Maggie’s public meltdown from the season finale, in which she admitted that she was in love with Jim. He neatly breaks things off, and suddenly it seems like their characters can develop outside of those inter-personal dynamics. One of our biggest wishes for this season was that these three characters would exist outside of their love lives, and it’ll be interesting to see how Sorkin uses them from here on out.
We’re especially interested to see what happens next for Maggie, even if we had a preview during the deposition scene. Sporting a much shorter haircut, she looks almost unrecognisable, fourteen months down the line. Will scolds Halliday by telling her (and us) that Maggie will end up covering a story in Uganda sometime this season, and that “If what happened to her happened to you… you’d sit in the middle of a room, and cry forever.” Tough times ahead for Maggie, it seems.
There’s also more development for Neal, (Dev Patel) previously the office tech guy, who demonstrates the preternatural Sorkin-sense by asking Mac to cover the Occupy Wall Street movement. Here, we meet Shelly Weixler, (Aya Cash) with whom Neal discusses some of his (Sorkin’s) problems with the organisation of the movement; you can bet we’ll see more of this in the next few episodes.
But the ominous Operation Genoa looms large. With senior producer Jim out of the way, Mac drafts in Jerry Dantana (Hamish Linklater) to replace him in the interim. Will, who admittedly fears change, suggests that his appointment will leave the newsroom as a “hellscape” by the time Jim comes back, and perhaps he’ll be proven right. After all, it’s Jerry’s panellist who tips him off to the ominous Operation Genoa.
The highlight this week was a typically melodramatic scene in the control room. As Will covered Tripoli and foreign affairs live on air, Mac is confronted with a fact-check snafu and a near-catastrophic technical failure, one after the other.
These scenes are the closest The Newsroom comes to action sequences, and the inter-cutting between Mac using her producing superpowers and Will warbling Rebecca Black’s then-current single Friday to himself, in between segments to-camera, is as enjoyable as this season setup gets.
While there’s only one notable bit of slapstick this week, (Mac doesn’t know Washington is on speakerphone, makes a crack about Washington being unimportant, cue sad trombone) the poor attitude towards female characters still seems to be in full flow.
From the over-reaction to Maggie’s appearance, to the mistreatment of Will’s new intern, (a familiar face from the previous season) Sorkin seems to have the same problems with making his female characters both as competent and well-adjusted as last season, and it’s still not on.
First Thing We Do, Let’s Kill All The Lawyers revisits the triumphal ending to the first season, and seamlessly carries forward the consequences of those events directly into a new season-arc. The performances are up to the same great standard, and the writing is snappy and engrossing, but there’s also plenty of grousing about the current state of the media, some slightly dodgy characterisation and just a pinch of hit-and-miss comedy. And we’re back…
The Newsroom season two airs on HBO on Sunday nights. Read Mark’s look-back at season one, here.
Please, if you can, buy our charity horror stories ebook, Den Of Eek!, raising money for Geeks Vs Cancer. Details here.