Second Season of "The Newsroom" Starts Tomorrow Night

Saturday, July 13, 2013

One of the posts that I had sitting on the "back burner" was to be a critique of last year's premiere season of HBO's The Newsroom, a show that was supposed to give its viewers an inside glimpse into the personnel, logistics and purpose behind today's cable news programming.  Set at the fictional Atlantis Cable Network, we follow the lives of News Night's on- and off-air personnel in their complicated professional and personal lives.  I won't attempt to cover all of the season's highlights and plot lines but I'll let series creator Aaron Sorkin and others provide an overview.

The superior quality of the show's writing and acting was witnessed by numerous nominations for Critics' Choice, Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild awards but, unfortunately, Jane Fonda was the only winner when she took the Critics' Choice Best Guest Performer in a Drama Series award as Atlantis World Media CEO Leona Lansing, season one's primary antagonist.  Season #2 is promising to live up to those accolades and this HBO video clip provides a "tease" on what to expect for its second 10-episode run:

I looked back at my last posting about this show and I will admit that I have "mellowed" considerably in my personal criticism of Jeff Daniels' portrayal of the show's anchor Will McAvoy.  After seeing his very public humiliations at the hands of well-intentioned coworkers and a dubious gossip columnist and his full support of Mackenzie's 180-degree turn back towards doing real news (and that includes his hiring of the woman that he berated in the first three minutes of the premiere episode as an intern in the last three minutes of the finale), Harry Dunne no longer comes to mind when I see him behind the News Night desk.  As an HBO subscriber, I have access to all of the previous episodes through their On Demand feature but I also bought the DVD version to tangibly show my overall support for their show. 

The last episode of last season ("The Greater Fool") aired on August 26th of last year and it hasn't been easy to fill the long 322-day hiatus with other programs to fill that journalism television programming void.  While I wandered over to the big screen to occupy some of that time, I did find several offerings on smaller ones that kept my mind off of that absence.  The first one was a real surprise from the BBC.

The Hour was (unfortunately, I have to use that tense because the show was recently cancelled) an offering made available to American viewers on the BBC America cable channel's "Dramaville" lineup beginning in late November 2012.  During its two seasons (six episodes per), it centered on an eponymous fictional British current events program airing on the British Broadcasting Company's television network during the late 1950s.  Its three primary cast members (journalist Freddie Lyon, presenter Hector Madden and producer Bel Rowley--played by Ben Whishaw, Dominic West and Romola Garai respectively) are brought together, along with other interesting characters, to depict the journalistic environment that might seem strange to a 21st century American audience.  Issues such as overt government censorship of the news and legislated homophobia convey the extent of the journey that their society has made in the past 55+ years.  While espionage and organized crime are the primary story lines, these events are transposed upon the real-world activities surrounding the 1956 Suez Canal crisis and British denuclearization activities the following year.  I didn't start watching it until right before the second season debut in late November (fortunately, the first season was on my cable company's On Demand so I could get up to speed on the series before that debut). 

All in all, I thought that it was very well done, even though it became a more personality driven storyline as the second season ended and it moved away from the program itself and its historical surroundings.  Since I lived in the United Kindgom for a little over four years (and have been a fan of the BBC via shortwave since the mid 1970s), the show stuck a personal chord with me and had me fondly remembering just how refreshing non-American news outlets can be (and it is so much easier to find those these days thanks to the internet and applications on computers and entertainment devices like the Roku digital receiver).

My next televised journalism "fix" came via my subscription to Netflix, the video rental and streaming company.  House of Cards, an Americanized and updated version of the British mini-series of the same name from 1990, stars Kevin Spacey as fictional US congressman Francis "Frank" Underwood and the 13-episode first season traces the initially spurned legislator's strategic plotting and sometimes illegal activities towards his continuing acquisition and manipulation of political power in the nation's capital--up to and including the White House.  The storyline gets far too convoluted to do it justice in this venue but it is the story of Zoe Barnes (played by Kate Mara) that attracted my journalistic interest.  In the first episode, Underwood brings the frustrated yet eager reporter for The Washington Herald into his sphere of influence by giving her inside information on a controversial education bill that the lawmaker wants to derail.  With that and other "leaks", Barnes receives major kudos from her colleagues and superiors at the paper and begins to rise within the ranks of their reporters, demoting and drawing the suspicion of her more seasoned colleague Janine Skorsky (Constance Zimmer). 

Her rise was so meteoric that she was able to have the owner of the paper fire its "stuck-in-his-old-ways" editor because he canned her (and called her a very nasty name in the process).  She moves on to work at a blog (Slugline) that is fashioned after Politico where she continues to do Underwood's media bidding (and formally loses her impartiality by engaging in a full-blown affair with the congressman).  It isn't until she finds out that Frank's wife Claire (played by Robin Wright) actually condones this extramarital arrangement that Zoe realizes just how deep she's been pulled into this plotting and she befriends her former enemy Skorsky (even getting her a job at Slugline) to combine forces and help her expose everything that she knows about the devious legislator.  The final episode has them tracking down a lead within the Washington DC police department that is a direct link to the genesis of Underwood's Machiavellian-like scheme that resulted in several high-level political resignations and the death of a fellow House colleague at his own hands.

House of Cards was Netflix's groundbreaking experiment of doing a "batch" release of all 13 episodes at one time, adding an additional streaming facet to our society's current practice of "binge viewing" entire seasons (or multiple seasons) of television programs on rented/purchased/borrowed DVD or pre-recorded on home DVRs in minimal sittings (they recently followed this up with a release of a new season of the hit comedy series "Arrested Development" over the Memorial Day holiday weekend).  This new capability helps to further mitigate the decades-old paradigm of series viewing on a weekly basis that many in my age group (and older) grew up with and had no way of controlling until the advent of the home VCR in the late 1970s.  Its release date, February 1st, fell on a Friday and there were many people who completed the nearly 13 hours of viewing before they went to work the following Monday (it took me nearly five days to watch all of the episodes).  The only unfortunate detraction from this viewing scheme is that you must now inquire how far along into the series a fellow viewer is before you start talking about it around the water cooler to avoid any "spoiler" moments.

While I do take the journalism profession seriously, I am secure enough in that belief to allow myself to sometimes view it through a very thick layer of satire and parody (The Onion is one of my browser's most visited bookmarks).  This might be considered a slight confession but I do watch far too much programming on Adult Swim, the child-friendly Cartoon Network's grown up "after hours" alter-ego (with Family Guy and American Dad! being two of my "hardly ever miss" shows--I could do a post  on Tom Tucker, Diane Simmons/Joyce Kinney, Trisha Takanawa and Ollie Williams of Quahog's Channel 5 News or co-anchors/domestic partners Greg Corbin or Terry Bates of Langley Falls' W-ANG-TV but I'll put that off for the immediate future).  While those two are the mainstays of their nightly programming, a 15-minute per show series caught my attention when it played out its 10-episode run earlier this year.  Newsreaders, starring Mather Zickel as fictional journalist/host Louie La Fonda, is part of that animated network's live-action lineup that takes a direct lampooning aim at today's more popular television genres (for example, Childrens Hospital--the show it spun off from--pokes fun at TV's plethora of medical dramas and NTSF:SD:SUV:: does the same for police/crime drama programs). 

At the beginning of each show, La Fonda provides vignettes of two other fictional stories before focusing on the episode's primary one. The subjects of those highlighted segments range from a corporation's deceptive practice of viral marketing 15-passenger vans for carnal purposes to a private feud between a father and son that somehow entangles itself in the very public issues of abortion and gay rights.  The producers were able to have several high profile personalities participate (Dan Rather, Jane Seymour and Ed Begley, Jr. all made cameo appearances during their initial season).  Since I'm someone who likes to express opinions, I enjoy the closing segments with commentator Skip Reming (Ray Wise), an elderly Andy Rooney-ish curmudgeon who espouses very socially incorrect thoughts to the viewers.  I can't find out any information about if they were renewed for a second season but I will definitely be watching if they do.

P.S.  This post has taken a little while to compose and post so I've had an opportunity to rewatch "The Greater Fool" to re-acclimatize myself to The Newsroom's unique style and complex storyline.  I will admit that I got a little "misty" when the opening credits and theme music appeared on my screen and I was instantly transported back to August 2011 and the events that devoted viewers of the show need to have resolved or further flushed out.  A word to the wise...unless you are REALLY into what the show's cast or production staff might have to say about their on-screen work, I would avoid using the director's commentary feature on the DVD or Blu-Ray editions.  I absolutely did not need to hear prolonged international banter about Emily Mortimer's British pronunciation of "sphincter-clenching"!!!

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