Revisiting the recent past, Aaron Sorkin has appointed himself ombudsman for both cable news and government with The Newsroom. Some have taken umbrage at that. But along with Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert and bloggers and YouTube, we now have the much-needed fifth estate—someone to watch the watchers, checks and balances to our checks and balances. With two years of hindsight, Sorkin’s criticisms can feel unfair with the advantage of perspective, but usually the questions it asks are valid.
Last night, they were: Why did it take nearly a year for anyone to question the legality of the Obama administration’s decision to target American citizens suspected of terrorism with drone missiles? How did the justice system seem to so clearly fail Troy Davis, who was executed in 2011 despite recantations from several of the eye witnesses?
At its worst during the first season, The Newsroom came off as too proud of its characters’ cleverness. But Sorkin seems aware of that during the second season—the main tension outside of office romances involves retracing his steps up to ACN’s incorrect reporting of the U.S. use of sarin gas during an extraction in Pakistan. We saw the first step last night, as Jim’s replacement Jerry gets a marine to admit to being there during Operation Genoa.
It’s one of the ways Sorkin works to provide counters to proceedings that could otherwise get thrown way off balance. The other has been to make the show’s main anchor a Republican (though most of his anger is directed toward social conservatives like The Tea Party). There’s at least a nod to the other side of the story (Anwar al-Awlaki was involved in terrorist operations. Troy Davis may have been guilty.) He defends his positions by accusing liberals of “the purposeful suspension of common sense” when it comes to things like terrorists getting killed by drones.
But what makes Season Two better than Season One is the development of the characters has taken them beyond the boy-meets-girl-who’s-already-with-the-wrong-guy stories. It allows for scenes like Maggie and Sloan confronting the YouTube videographer who captured her love-struck monologue on a Sex and the City tour bus. Or the pre-flirtations between the hang-dog Jim and a pretty reporter on the campaign trail. Or Will and MacKenzie finding a comfortable place as ex’es partnering on the news.
Jim is still hiding out on the Romney campaign trail, and Maggie is planning to run off to Africa (where we already know it won’t go well). Neal gets arrested during the early days of Occupy Wall Street, and Will gets him out of jail—needing to accomplish something when he can’t do anything about the other miscarriages of justice he sees.
In the end, of course, Will consents to confront the administration about the drone program. He acknowledges the failings of our legal system when it comes to black suspects accused of murdering white people. And Sorkin ends with a somber report on Troy Davis’ death. The show deeply cares about big ideas and big issues. Thankfully it’s learning to do that without coming across as sanctimonious or smug.