The second season of HBO’s The Newsroom has begun and it appears that the cast and crew at Atlantis Cable News are in for some serious trouble. This season anchor Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels) and his staff will face the consequences of misreporting a very controversial story and for criticizing the Tea Party, referring to the movement as “the American Taliban.” Commenters around the blogosphere will no doubt rekindle debates over the coming weeks as to whether or not the show’s preachy approach to righting the world of broadcast journalism is brilliant and timely or trite and unsubtle. However, while McAvoy attempts to return to a mythical golden age of television news, the true idealism of the show is best expressed by his boss-Sam Waterston’s Charlie Skinner.
If you have only experienced Aaron Sorkin’s scintillating dialogue in The Social Network or in the first season of The Newsroom, you have a lot of catching up to do. Sports Night, which lasted just two seasons from 1998 to 2000, has developed a devoted post-mortem following similar to that of Arrested Development and The West Wing, widely regarded as one of the best TV dramas ever, remains a much needed Netflix salve for the wounds of our current political discourse.
As others at PolicyMic have correctly pointed out, a screenwriter with Sorkin’s credentials is set up to disappoint, especially when he or she endeavors to launch The Newsroom, an explicit editorial on the way broadcast journalism ought to be done. Set from 2010 through 2011 against the backdrop of the BP oil spill and the midterm House elections, the first season of The Newsroom follows anchor Will McAvoy in his quest to return to the Edward R. Murrow era of real, honest television news (was there ever really such a time?). McAvoy wants to report only the facts, which he often bullies out of guests and interview subjects through the combination of a sharp tongue and an absurd level of erudition.
It comes as no surprise when at the end of the first season McAvoy’s arrogance gets the better of him and he is brought low by a scathing magazine hit piece. He still very much desires to be well liked by the public and is devastated to be ridiculed. Whether Sorkin intended it or not, Waterston’s Charlie Skinner, the weather-worn head of fictional Atlantis World Media’s news division, provides a foil to McAvoy’s grasp for middle of the road.
Skinner, played by Yale-trained Sam Waterston, is the idealistic backbone of the show. He encourages McAvoy to take on corporations, extreme right-wing politicians, and anyone else who seeks to mislead the American public, and does so without regard to repercussion and with an unabashed elitism that runs against McAvoy’s appeal to down home Mid-Western moderatism. So far the most compelling moments in the show have not been McAvoy’s on air tirades or the rousing speeches delivered by executive producer MacKenzie McHale to her staff, they’ve been the moments in which an inebriated and defiant Skinner urges his colleagues to go with their gut and throw caution to the wind. With Skinner, one gets the impression that the whole operation is probably doomed, but that’s OK. This is not a fight the crew of ACN would win in reality and, in my opinion, it is not a fight Sorkin should allow them to win on television.
As Esquire’s Charlie Pierce says: “Charlie Skinner seems to be the only one here who knows what he told Will early in the show is 50 percent bullshit mythology. He’s an idealist, not a nostalgic. He probably saw Murrow take down McCarthy, but he also saw him interview Liberace and get shoved out the door at CBS because of the same forces that The Newsroom has set itself against almost 70 years later. Charlie Skinner is an institutional memory, and they are cold, realistic things, which is why they make us uncomfortable, and which is why we abandon them in favor of what never was.”
I look forward to watching the remainder of the second season of The Newsroom for its sharp dialogue and the often-spectacular acting performances by Waterston, Daniels, and Emily Mortimer. However, I hope that Aaron Sorkin moves beyond all of the happy endings and heart-swelling do-goodery that make The West Wing such a pleasant retreat. The fact of the matter is the world doesn’t work that way, but that’s no excuse not to try.