Aaron Sorkin needs to be as satisfied with his work as anyone, confirmed by how he’s launching Season 2 of “The Newsroom.”
The Emmy-winning creator, producer and frequent writer of “The West Wing” and Oscar-winning writer of “The Social Network” literally went back to the drawing board after filming had started on his current HBO series’ sophomore round, which begins Sunday, July 14.
He restructured the first two episodes — which meant considerable reshooting and cost — and rewrote the third, as many employees of the fictional Atlantis Cable News are deposed by a network lawyer (played by new cast member Marcia Gay Harden) over an aired report, a framing device that runs throughout the new stories.
“It was a very comfortable structure for me,” Sorkin, whose play-turned-movie “A Few Good Men” is echoed by its use now, tells Zap2it. “With the courtroom dynamic, it’s clear what the stakes are and what the intentions and obstacles are. It’s a confessional setting as well, and I like using it.”
In its second round, “The Newsroom” applies its “What if?” take on news coverage to actual events between August 2011 and November 2012. Among them: the Benghazi crisis, the Occupy movement, American antiterrorism initiatives and the most recent presidential race.
ACN producer Jim Harper (John Gallagher Jr.) goes on the road to cover the Mitt Romney campaign, sparring with a rival reporter (Grace Gummer, one of Meryl Streep’s daughters) while often incurring the wrath of a Romney press aide (Constance Zimmer, “Entourage”) with his questioning.
“I know very little about what’s going on today. … I’m sort of becoming an expert in what was going on a year and a half ago,” Sorkin muses. “It’s the ‘What if?’ that I like dealing with, but you want to be careful that you don’t go and leverage hindsight into being able to make your characters heroic.
“That breaks all kinds of storytelling rules, but I also like the dynamic where the audience knows more than the characters do. It’s the same thing [Alfred] Hitchcock would do when we see the bomb under the table.”
For the typically packed plots Sorkin supplies, there’s still plenty of room for personal drama in “The Newsroom,” much of it referencing the show’s first season (now available on DVD and Blu-ray). Senior anchor Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels) struggles to come to terms with his feelings for his ex-flame and “News Night” executive producer, Mackenzie McHale (Emily Mortimer), and associate producer Maggie Jordan (Alison Pill) sees her on-the-street breakdown about her complicated love life come back to haunt her.
Also, financial reporter Sloan Sabbith (Olivia Munn) deals with her more-than-friends affection for producer Don Keefer (Thomas Sadoski), who now lives with Maggie; blogger Neal Sampat (Dev Patel, “Slumdog Millionaire”) experiences a merging of the personal and the professional on the Occupy beat; and boss Charlie Skinner (Sam Waterston) simply tries to keep the newsroom on an even keel, often causing him to confront the network’s mother-and-son operators (recurring guest stars Jane Fonda and Chris Messina, who return in the first new episode).
“We were all wary of a sophomore slump, starting with Aaron,” Daniels allows of coming back to play the sometimes explosive, always opinionated Will in Season 2.
“We didn’t want there to be a letdown, so it started with the work ethic. Because there’s so much dialogue, you have to prepare days and weeks in advance. As soon as you get a script, you’re getting ahead of it. The trap was that people might start to do half that work, and that was taken care of early.”
Mortimer notes that getting ready for another “Newsroom” stint as the often quick-speaking “Mac” was akin to an athlete being in training.
“It’s such a long thing, making a season of an hourlong drama for a cable channel,” she reflects. “It’s a whole process. The beginning was somewhat tentative and strange, to suddenly be back and wondering whether we could remember how to do it. Even being away just for the two weeks you get for the Christmas break – and Jeff and I both experienced this – you come back and feel rusty. The words don’t stick as easily. I compare it to my stomach muscles, having had two babies; you need to be doing sit-ups every day.”
Many critics and viewers were polarized by the first season of “The Newsroom,” some charging Sorkin with using the show merely as a platform for his own views on various issues. Maintaining such accusations lie far from the fact, he enlisted what he terms “a very eclectic group” of consultants for this season.
Among them: MSNBC’s Chris Matthews, CNN’s Ashleigh Banfield, media and politics commentator Jeff Greenfield, MSNBC personality Alex Wagner, political analyst S.E. Cupp (who recently left MSNBC for CNN’s upcoming reboot of “Crossfire”) and veteran network news producer Rick Kaplan.
“Because it’s a show that touches on things that people are very passionate about, they’re going to react to it differently than if it were a workplace story in an emergency room or a police precinct or a law firm,” Sorkin reasons. “You don’t often hear politics discussed on [dramatic] television … for good reason. It makes us a little bit uncomfortable, and television is supposed to be a sort of a welcome and polite guest in our home.
“I really get no pleasure at all out of antagonizing anyone, but I understand that some of these stories do that,” adds Sorkin. “I think we all got better at doing the show, and I hope that some of the people who didn’t enjoy the first season take a second look. And I hope they enjoy it more.”