Like many of his characters, Aaron Sorkin has a thick-skinned, tough-talking, “that large rectangle to your left is the door” attitude toward public opinion.
It was very much in evidence last year when the reaction to his high-wattage HBO drama “The Newsroom” was frantically divided; love and hate seem words too small to describe the varied opinions. In a bit of unintentional satire, Sorkin blamed the media for the bad reviews, claiming that the press just didn’t like being on the pointy end of the skewer.
And yet, from the get-go, the second season of his show, which begins Sunday, is immediately, and undeniably, easier to like in ways that could certainly be construed as a response to criticism. If this weren’t, you know, Aaron Sorkin.
That the get-go includes Marcia Gay Harden playing a high-stakes, spare-me-the-drama attorney is instantly reassuring. The Academy Award-winning actress could ground a sock-puppet production of “Hamlet in Space.”
More important, she is proof that Sorkin has A Plan for Season 2 — a story that transcends the need to engineer moments in which certain characters deliver speeches that Sorkin might make on Twitter, if the social media platform weren’t so confining.
This was the main criticism of the first season of “The Newsroom”: That the various characters working for the fictional “News Night” were manipulated to serve as mouthpieces for their creator’s socio-political views. Also, that they all talked the same.
The fact that these characters were inhabited by some very fine actors, including but not limited to Jeff Daniels, Emily Mortimer, Sam Waterston and Alison Pill, only made matters worse. Jane Fonda, as the owner of the media empire to which “News Night” belongs, was granted a certain steady complexity, and it would take an act of God to make Waterston look bad.
But the rest of the cast was too often forced into monologues usually reserved for Super Villains — the kind that provide that one excessive beat in which the hero finds his weapon. Oh, and the female characters behaved like something out of “Looney Tunes.”
Which is why the presence of Harden is so immediately soothing. Not only is she no man’s Looney Tune, she quickly sets up the season’s very clever construct. Apparently, “News Night” falsely accused the government of using Sarin gas on civilians and Harden’s character is there to fact-find and prep the staff for a major lawsuit.
It’s a brilliant move, both narratively and logistically, foreshadowing a season in which viewers will see how a series of small and sometimes seemingly inconsequential events lead a group of very smart people to do a very stupid thing. No conspiracy, no Jayson Blair mendacity, just the ordinary, organically horrifying timeline of a Big Mistake.
Catnip to both the purveyors and consumers of today’s smorgasbord of news content.
The flashback structure of early episodes also allows the show to both gracefully pick up where it left off and push the action 14 months forward. The show continues to follow real events, but the new time frame puts us smack in the middle of the presidential primary campaign and the rise of Occupy Wall Street. Both provide rich and promising process pieces that offer the news cred Sorkin wants, but won’t make the audience feel anxious about something that happened a year or two ago.
Most important, everyone at “News Night” seems to have split a Xanax with one of their peers. A Tommy gun of truth, trivia and whatever the male equivalent of sassiness is called, Will McAvoy (Daniels) still considers himself the smartest guy in the room (which he sometimes he is).
But he appears to be at least aware of his word count. He even occasionally defers to his executive producer Mackenzie, played by Mortimer, who is mercifully allowed to behave as if she is actually a professional television journalist, rather than a clumsy, lovesick savant.
That role is being handled now by Sloan Sabbith (Olivia Munn), who is still stuck with beautiful-but-socially-inept, but is finally showing signs of the personal ambition required by even upstart cable stations.
Maggie Jordan (Pill), of course, remains a wreck, now topped by a very unfortunate haircut and, as episodes proceed, a particularly histrionic back story. And Neal (Dev Patel) is finally getting the props a good blogger deserves, especially in this media climate.
Oh, there’s still a lot of craziness and rants designed to resonate with a certain demographic. But an air of if not humility then self-awareness pervades, softening everything it touches, even Will. Romance, breakdowns, showdowns and epiphanies still occur at an alarming rate — this is television, after all — but at least it now looks like some work beyond all the speechifying is getting done.
Which should make even those cranky journalists happy.
When: 10 p.m. Sunday
Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)