From the opening credits, it was clear something was different. This past Sunday was the HBO premier of The Newsroom Season 2 – and there’s quite a lot to be said. The most apparent difference between this episode and the previous season was the chronology: with the exception of last season’s finale (which started at the end before going back to the beginning), Sorkin writes most of his television in real-time. The audience learns things at the same time the characters do. This episode, however, started at the penultimate scene, rewound to two weeks after the end of last season, and then finished in the future, but sometime after the opening scene. It’s been a year since The Newsroom first premiered, and having had nothing between last August and this past Sunday to keep us going, the change in chronology was abrasive and at times confusing. I watched the last three episodes of Season 1 in preparation for last Sunday (which I recommend you do if you still haven’t seen it), which helped ease the transition. Having said this, the sequential change in Season Two was deliberate – and necessary.
Full disclosure: I loved Season 1. Many critics grumbled and groused about how Season 1 was just a soapbox for Sorkin’s pedantry. Frankly, I think some of the greatest people this country has ever seen once stood on soapboxes and I sure as hell don’t mind hearing Aaron Sorkin’s. His pedagogy is undeniably dense, but it never condescends: Sorkin never sacrifices nor dumbs down his words, and as a result, it gets me to think, to analyze, to rewatch and reconsider (and occasionally to research). But what is pivotal in creating that affect is Sorkin’s real-time writing. Romantic, personal, and ethical fiction arose in the midst of actual news events – actual events that the audience could reach into their memory banks to retrieve. What happened on May 1st, 2011 in real life happens on May 1st, 2011 in the show. The dates were all the same, the news stories were all the same and it created an opportunity for the audience to consider Sorkin’s analytical critique by using material that had already happened in the lives of every single audience member. Unless you just woke up from a coma and nobody’s filled you in, it’s literally impossible for the viewers to not relate to the events in the show, which is not something most television can boast.
It’s excruciatingly clever – so why bother to change for Season 2? Sunday’s premier set up a new format and what is presumably going to be the pivotal event of the season: ACN’s report of the Genoa Black Op. So far it seems that Will, Mac, and Jerry (the Senior Producer temporarily replacing Jim) were approached with information concerning illicit US military activities – the kind of information that “makes careers and ends presidencies.” But the Genoa story they were given turns out to be false, and so ensue the legal battles. Though the dates and specifics of “Genoa” are inherently fictional, Aaron Sorkin explained last night on The Daily Show with John Oliver that it is based on a real, controversial report by CNN in 1998. In brief, some CNN news producers were given a story and testimonies that the US military committed war crimes in a 1970 invasion of Laos during the Vietnam War. The report claimed that in Operation Tailwind the US military had used sarin gas, a chemical classified by the UN as a weapon of mass destruction, to destroy a group of Americans who had rebelled and joined the enemy. After thorough investigation, the Pentagon concluded that the claims made by the CNN journalists were false, and CNN retracted their statement and apologized, not before firing the head producers. Bottom line is, ACN’s Genoa report is rooted in reality, but unless you caught onto the comparison or remembered the CNN report from 1998 (which my parents did not, by the way, and I could not have seeing as I was 4), it simultaneously acts as an essentially fictional event.
Where Season 1 used dozens of real events to spawn fictional subplots, Season 2 will use a fictional event to spawn its fictional subplots. Though the shift in chronology may have been unusual and abrupt, it seems to be the only successful way to underscore the importance and narrative structure that Genoa will have in this season. Mac and Will both make it clear in their interviews that a series of seemingly insignificant events – Jim’s going to New Hampshire to cover for the reporter who broke his ankle, Jerry Dantana’s coming to New York to cover for him, Cyrus West’s guest appearance on the Drone Panel – coagulated into what would become the Genoa story: “If 17 different things hadn’t conspired in just the right order we wouldn’t be sitting here.” These 17 different things were cooked together in a crucible of chaos until what came out was Genoa, and it comes out with such a vengeance that it fractures everything around it. The only way to truly understand the significance of all the minutiae is to know its consequence: if the episode hadn’t started at the end, if we hadn’t known the outcome, we wouldn’t have paid attention to the detail. The only way to truly understand the effect that Genoa will have on the characters and the narrative is to see the before and after side-by-side, to be confronted with the juxtaposition, to see Maggie in one scene with her blonde locks and in the next with her [heinous] red moptop.
The episode left us with questions. What the fuck happened to Maggie in Uganda? What will happen to Will and Mac (both romantically and legally)? What will happen to Jim on the road and will he come back? What is the involvement of Cyrus West and Jerry Dantana in the Genoa report? What happens to Neal at Occupy Wall Street? Though the premier might have been chronologically confusing and perhaps a little messy, what the structure implies is that Sorkin sacrificed some initial clarity for what will be a narratively beautiful outcome when all these questions are answered by the end of the season. I’ll keep watching because I’m curious to see how Sorkin fares in this new realm, to see how he can affect the audience now that he’s stepped off the soapbox. I’ll keep watching for the quick-witted dialogue and the multi-dimensional characters. But most of all, I’ll keep watching because Aaron Sorkin thinks that Northwestern students are what make America the greatest country in the world, and obviously he’s right.