David Zurawik

HBO's 'Newsroom' returns in all its Aaron Sorkin righteousness

For a while last year, I started to worry about liking Aaron Sorkin's "The Newsroom" so much.

Most of my colleagues didn't like it — not that being out of sync with the herd ever bothered me greatly. It usually turned out that I did better work outside the herd, the farther the better. And by the end of the season, some critics even started coming around on the HBO drama.

What worried me was being so in tune with Sorkin's vision. I once did an interview with him in his office on the Warner Bros. lot when he was at the height of his "The West Wing" fame, and I thought he was a madman — brilliant, inspired, polite and even gracious to me during the conversation, but an absolute madman with his mind racing in a million directions at once. And now I was seeing the media world as he did?

But after watching the first four episodes of Season 2 of his series, forget the ambivalence. For all its flaws, I truly, madly, deeply like "Newsroom." And I love what Sorkin is saying about the state of TV journalism today.

At the risk of offending some of my friends all over again, let me also repeat what I said last year on a Sunday morning cable TV show: I firmly believe the reason some critics and journalists (especially the inside-the-Beltway types) don't like "Newsroom" is that it calls them out for their loss of a sense of purpose and their descent into social-media snark. Especially when they know in their heart of hearts that it's true.

Set in the three months leading up to the 2012 presidential election, Season 2 opens with a comment by anchorman Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels) calling the tea party "the American Taliban," causing all kinds of trouble for his Atlantis Cable News channel.

Leona Lansing (Jane Fonda), CEO of ACN's parent company, Atlantis World Media, acknowledges that she smiled when she first heard McAvoy say it on air.

"I thought, 'Let the chips fall where they may,' " she tells news chief Charlie Skinner (Sam Waterston).

"But you know what I'm thinking now?" she asks.

"I don't," he says warily.

"Chips are falling," she snaps as she walks out of the boardroom and slams the door.

One of the chips: Three conservative Republican congressmen elected with tea party money retaliate by keeping the president of ACN out of the room when their committee writes anti-piracy legislation that could mean billions to Lansing's company.

Yes, "Newsroom" does demand some understanding of American government and media to fully follow its twists and turns. Thank goodness there are outlets like HBO and Netflix still willing to make such series.

But the gang at ACN doesn't know what real trouble is until the chips start falling from a report on Operation Genoa, a secret rescue attempt that allegedly used sarin gas to kill civilians in Pakistan. The season's first scene features McAvoy being interviewed by the attorney hired to try and save the company and the careers of those involved in reporting the story. Could this be his version of Dan Rather's Memogate?

Oscar winner Marcia Gay Harden plays the attorney, as if the series didn't have enough talent with Waterston, Daniels, Fonda and Emily Mortimer as MacKenzie McHale, the executive producer of McAvoy's nightly show. (I know the names in a Sorkin drama sound artificial, but he is writing from a sensibility shaped by the American theater, where almost all the names sound that way. And, by the way, a TV drama is nothing but artifice, no matter how steeped in verisimilitude it might try to be.)

Other newcomers worth noting: Hamish Linklater as a producer brought up from Washington to help the show, Grace Gummer as an embedded reporter on the Mitt Romney campaign bus in New Hampshire and Constance Zimmer as a Romney spokeswoman who despises the news media. You might remember Zimmer as Janine Skorsky, veteran White House correspondent for the Washington Herald on Season 1 of "House of Cards."

"I hate the press in ways you can't even start to comprehend," she says with acrid contempt to Jim Harper (John Gallagher Jr.), who normally serves as McHale's second in command in the newsroom. This season, however, he finds himself on the Romney bus, where Zimmer's character, Taylor Warren, rules.

I didn't start out liking this storyline very much. But by the third hour, I was hooked.

I'll try to do this without too many spoilers, but if you don't want spoilers, what the heck are you reading a piece like this for anyway?

Here's what matters about the Jim-on-the-campaign-bus storyline: He refuses to just go along with the other embeds, most of whom simply take the PR junk handed to them by Warren and her assistant and feed it straight into the digital cameras they carry and operate.

Sorkin is too good for a one-dimensional portrayal of almost anyone, so he has empathy for these reporters near the bottom of the campaign food chain. But he doesn't absolve them, either. He shows that what passes for being ironic, detached and social-media cool by the reporters on the bus is nothing less than an abrogation of their duty as journalists.

By the time Jim tries to rally them to the kind of journalism some of them can't even comprehend, you want to stand and cheer him in the effort. Only, again, this being Sorkin, don't count on things automatically going all that well for the good guys.

Sorkin isn't afraid to preach about what he sees as wrong with the media and the culture. And God bless him for it, even when he seems to be going overboard with a speech from McAvoy, McHale or Skinner.

Pay attention in the third episode when McAvoy says, "Snark is the idiot's version of wit … and we're inhaling it."

While McAvoy's words link directly to the media and those passive dupes on the Romney campaign bus who think they're cool, it extends way beyond that pack — back through at least a couple of generations of Americans who have been raised on post-modernism and irony.

And what they sadly learned is that it's better to be self-absorbed, detached and cynical than to commit to anything as idealistic as the belief that they could serve democracy by doing their jobs honestly, conscientiously and independently every day. Their smartphone "selfies" — snapshots of themselves that they send out via social media — define their technologically enabled narcissism perfectly.

Once again, Sorkin being Sorkin, he mocks himself and the series for believing in a better media with his constant references to "Don Quixote."

No mocking or irony here. This year, I make no apologies for saying "Newsroom" reminds me how important it is to keep believing in a better media — and to testify to that belief whenever you can.