In its first season, HBO's drama The Newsroom faced an avalanche of criticism for getting too strident and preachy - a common complaint leveled at most anything associated with series creator Aaron Sorkin. After all, the man behind The West Wing, Sports Night and Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip has a track record of doing smart, witty, somewhat ponderous and overly stylized stories with a pronounced Limousine Liberal bias, so why should this one be any different?
As if in response to those critics, Sorkin hired conservative political consultants on The Newsroom's second season - the result is a show that subtly modified itself to become a little more focused and not so biased. Sorkin's talent for writing entertaining, intelligent dialogue is still on full display in these nine episodes. His usual self-righteous grandstanding still retains its potency, as well, although it's worth noting that the saintly characters from Year One are revealed as flawed while the villains have softened up. The show continues to focus on the doings at Atlantis Cable News (ACN), a top news channel struggling to keep up with its competitors in the ratings. Its veteran newscaster, Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels), questions how much further the station's dumbing-down of the news will compromise his integrity. It puts him at odds with the executive producer at his program News Night (and Will's ex-lover), MacKenzie McHale (Emily Mortimer) and the network's level-headed president, Charlie Skinner (Sam Waterston). With the bean counters at ACN's parent company Atlantis World Media closely monitoring Will's increasingly volatile on-air commentary, the pressure is on all of News Night's staffers to make the program both newsworthy and attention-grabbing.
For this season, Sorkin concocted a flashback-laden, multi-episode story arc of high-stakes journalism and betrayal. As it opens, a brusque lawyer (played by Marcia Gay Harden) is seen questioning Will and other ACN staffers after an unnamed employee files a wrongful termination suit against the network. The development sends News Night's star-crossed young staffers Jim Harper (John Gallagher, Jr.) and Maggie Jordan (Alison Pill) off in different directions, after Maggie rejects her inner feelings for Jim and subsequently botches up her engagement with Don Keefer (Thomas Sadoski), the bland ACN executive producer currently installed on another news program airing on the network. Wanting to distance himself from Maggie, Jim decides to follow Mitt Romney on the campaign trail (this season is set in 2011-12) despite having too much seniority for the job. Meanwhile, Maggie sets out for Uganda to investigative a tip that U.S. military forces were prepared to move in on a terrorist cel in the region.
Most of the drama this season came as a result of the ACN news team's botched pursuit of a covert U.S. Marines operation done under the code name Genoa. Although it was a storyline that came across as somewhat confusing at first (being told via flashbacks), in the end it contributed to some fine direction and satisfying performances. Genoa first came to the attention of Jerry Dantana (Hamish Linklater), a producer brought over from ACN's Washington bureau to fulfill Jim Harper's duties. Although Dantana was going on flimsy evidence that the military illegally used Sarin gas in the operation, he's adamant that it's a story worth pursuing, eventually convincing ACN's higher-ups to gather a team and put together an exclusive for McAvoy's show. Without going into too much further detail, the investigation doesn't turn out too well for Dantana (the lawyer's inquiry is prompted by his lawsuit) and - as in season one - McAvoy and ACN are left attempting to salvage their reputations.
Aaron Sorkin is a gifted screenwriter with a flair for clever dialogue (kind of like Joss Whedon without the fanboy geek element), although there are times when it seems as if the sprawling format of weekly television is too unwieldy for him. The Newsroom is no exception, although admittedly this strong second season is good evidence that Sorkin knows how to put grandstanding aside and craft compelling, intelligent drama on its own terms. The strongest part of this particular season came with the final two-parter set over the course of a single evening - during ACN's 2012 presidential election coverage - which nearly functions as its own self-contained mini-film. This season was particularly good for Olivia Munn's character of Sloan Sabbith, ACN's gorgeous yet socially awkward financial reporter. There's also some great moments with Dev Patel as ACN's tech guru Neal Sampat, Jane Fonda as Atlantis World Media's steely CEO Leona Lansing, Chris Messina as Leona's son and AWM's president Reese Lansing, and Hope Davis as Nina Howard, the gossip columnist who eventually becomes an item with Will. Marcia Gay Harden is a fantastic new addition to this season as Rebecca Halliday, the ACN lawyer investigating Jerry Dantana's wrongful termination lawsuit.
The Blu Ray:
HBO's three-disc Blu edition of The Newsroom: The Complete Second Season comes as an attractive paperboard fold-out package with each disc on a clear plastic tray. No booklet is included, although a panel lists episode titles, credits and brief synopsis (the only mention of bonus content, however, is printed on the exterior paper piece).
The picture quality on The Newsroom: The Complete Second Season is given a solid treatment in 16x9 1080p high definition. Aside from the increased image fidelity, I didn't notice much difference from the DVD edition of the first season (which also looked good). The shading and colors are rich and naturalistic (especially during night scenes), while the crisp transfer brings out lots of detail in the photography.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack is done in a clean, atmospheric mix that doesn't really wow but serves its function well with pristine dialogue kept in the central channel, while sound effects and audio are mixed in realistically to add ambiance. When it's used, the music cues are done seamlessly and at a pleasant level with the track's other elements. Each episode also comes with audio in French 5.1, Latin Spanish 2.0, and Castilian Spanish 5.1. Optional subtitles are provided in English SDH, French, Latin and Castilian Spanish, Dutch, Finnish, Norwegian and Swedish.
As with the first season release, this set includes Behind the Episode Featurettes on all nine episodes. These 4-minute bits are kind of shallow, originally functioning as between-show filler on HBO, but they do contain some good insights from Sorkin. Audio Commentaries from Sorkin, executive producer Alan Poul, Jeff Daniels, Emily Mortimer, Sam Waterston, Olivia Munn and several others are included on four episodes throughout the season. A modest amount of Deleted Scenes are also spread out on all three discs (strangely, they don't include scenes with Patton Oswalt as an ACN Human Resources employee mentioned in one of the commentaries). The package includes a code to receive the season's Ultraviolet digital edition, along with instructions for accessing HBO Instant Preview on network-connected Blu Ray players.
The second season of HBO's The Newsroom delivers more of Aaron Sorkin's witty, biased ruminations - mostly via Jeff Daniels' Emmy-winning turn as cable TV's crankiest news anchor, Will McAvoy. At first glance, it may seem as scattershot as the first season, but viewers who stick with it will be rewarded with a compelling, well-acted story arc. For a show that still feels as if it's settling into a niche, Sorkin's outrage over a broadcast news industry that has given itself over to dumbed-down sensationalism comes through clearly in every episode. Recommended.