Tuned In: HBO drama returns to spread the news

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Love it or loathe it, HBO's "The Newsroom" is back for its second season at 10 p.m. Sunday. The drama series turned out to be a polarizing pop culture touchstone last summer. Not politically; it was pretty obvious that it would have more appeal to liberals than conservatives given its author, Aaron Sorkin ("The West Wing"). His creation of moderate Republican news anchor Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels) is pretty much a liberal's dream character.

No, the big surprise was how critically reviled "The Newsroom" was. Smarty-pants critics derive great glee from hate-watching the show and snarking about their dislike on social media sites. And it's understandable because "The Newsroom" is rarely great television -- but it did grow on me over its first season.

The characters, while still falling short of believable, became more multidimensional, but many of the gags (Neal loves Bigfoot! Will can't put on his pants! Mackenzie doesn't know how to use email!) were embarrassingly forced, often landing with a thud.

Even though some critics hated the show, enough viewers seemed charmed by it. Plenty of viewers told me how much they admire the series and wish there were more episodes made each year. To some degree, this feels like a generational divide; often younger viewers and those inclined toward cynicism hate-watch the show while older viewers and those who appreciate earnestness are more likely to embrace the program.

"The Newsroom" last year was a mixed bag and mostly disappointing. Mr. Sorkin's "The West Wing" remains one of my favorite series of all time, but reverence for White House workers didn't translate well or believably to cable news employees.

I didn't even watch all the episodes last summer, catching up on the balance of the first season in just the past few months. It might have been wise to let the dust settle.

Upon returning to "The Newsroom" it didn't seem as bad as I remembered. The characters showed growth, and the capturing-Osama-bin-Laden episode hit an emotional high for the season that most clearly evoked the same feelings as an hour of "The West Wing."

As season two begins, there's fallout for Will McAvoy and his ACN bosses for his comment at the end of last season calling the Tea Party the American Taliban. But it turns out there are even bigger fish to fry.

The new season is framed by "News Night" staff interviews with a lawyer (Marcia Gay Harden) in advance of depositions in a lawsuit. It's not immediately clear what the lawsuit is related to, but some hints emerge through flashbacks to investigations into a report on American troops using chemical weapons in the Middle East. It's a story pursued initially by Jerry Dantana (Hamish Linklater, "The New Adventures of Old Christine"), a Washington bureau producer who moves temporarily to New York while Jim (John Gallagher Jr.) goes on the 2012 Republican primary campaign trail with other reporters covering Gov. Mitt Romney.

Jim asked for the assignment outside of the "News Night" newsroom to get away from his feelings for co-worker Maggie Jordan (Alison Pill), who also leaves for a bit to go on an assignment in Uganda that appears to have gone badly, given that she now has a haircut that makes her look like Neelix from "Star Trek: Voyager."

And Will has a crisis of confidence stemming from the decision his boss, Charlie Skinner (Sam Waterston), makes regarding Will's participation in ACN's coverage of the 10th anniversary of 9/11.

Yes, "The Newsroom" continues to live in the recent past, chronicling events in mid-to-late 2011 through its early second season episodes. This includes opportunities for McAvoy to destroy an unfocused Occupy Wall Street representative in a live interview and to shame attendees at a Republican debate who booed a gay soldier ("How many different kinds of disgusting do you have to be to boo a man who volunteered to fight and die for you?") and the presidential candidates who did nothing to defend the soldier.

Will's former lover, Mackenzie McHale (Emily Mortimer), "News Night" executive producer, agonizes over a message Will inadvertently left for her on someone else's voicemail last season (it's super-annoying). And she pushes the newscasts' Web producer, Neal Sampat (Dev Patel), for reasons the show should cover Occupy Wall Street (much better to see her as a competent newsroom manager).

After introducing Don Keefer (Thomas Sadoski) as a seeming jerk, "The Newsroom" has softened his presentation and often gives him a worthy sparring partner in financial news analyst Sloan Sabbith (Olivia Munn), who also has a teasing relationship with Charlie, who refers to her as "Money Skirt."

This brings us to one of the complaints about Mr. Sorkin's writing: He can't write for women. The existence of C.J. Cregg (Allison Janney) on "The West Wing") might have ended this line of thought, but the criticism lingers for good reason. While some may be offended by Charlie calling Sloan a "Money Skirt," it's clear that it's playful banter between colleagues who respect one another and a play on the nickname for a real-life cable business news reporter who was once dubbed "the Money Honey."

Still, there's merit to the argument that Mackenzie sometimes seems like a dithering worrier, but Sloan has a backbone, and this season Maggie, though unfortunately coiffed, displays guts, too.

The show's biggest distraction continues to be its attempts at humor that continue in the same painful manner (Don falls out of his desk chair! Twice!) and the smug pomposity that sometimes seems to emanate from Will's well-written but highfalutin monologues.

But although "The Newsroom" may present a cable news fantasyland, it also gives viewers characters who are, for the most part, fundamentally good people.

In a cable universe where antiheroes dominate the scripted drama landscape, there's something reassuring about spending time with characters who, though flawed, usually try to do the right thing.

Antihero shows, such as "Breaking Bad," can be great entertainment. But their appeal is to the brain. "The Newsroom" makes a case for television programs that appeal to the heart, even as its characters all try to look like the smartest, most competent person in the room. It's not always successful, and Mr. Sorkin's quirks and shortcomings as a writer may alienate some viewers, but in a TV universe where dark and ugly rule, there's got to be room for just a little bit of goodness and light.

Emmy nominations

Emmy nominations will be announced Thursday at 8:40 a.m. by actors Aaron Paul ("Breaking Bad") and Kate Mara ("House of Cards"), who has a tangential Steelers connection. Ms. Mara is the great-granddaughter of late Steelers founder Art Rooney. She's also the granddaughter of Wellington Mara, the late owner of the New York Giants.

A list of this year's nominees will be posted in Tuned in Journal shortly thereafter at http://communityvoices.post-gazette.com/arts-entertainment-living/tuned-in.

Pittsburgh in prime time

This week I received an email from former Pittsburgher Sarah Tarkoff, who wanted to let local viewers know there will be Pittsburgh sports references in upcoming episodes of ABC's "Mistresses" (10 p.m. Monday).

"I figure people from Pittsburgh always appreciate the little showings of hometown pride," she wrote in the email.

Ms. Tarkoff, who grew up in Franklin Park and graduated from North Allegheny High School in 2005, worked as a script coordinator on "Mistresses" and said she had "a decent-sized hand" in making the Pittsburgh sports references happen.

She said the show's costume designer, Roemehl Hawkins, is also from Western Pennsylvania.

Ms. Tarkoff previously worked on The CW's "Gossip Girl," and she's currently working on the upcoming Lifetime series "Witches of East End." As a script coordinator, a job many aspiring TV writers take when they first break into the business, she acts as a liaison between the show's writers and the production team. She proofreads scripts for grammar and continuity and handles some other tasks, including legal clearances for shows and working with network standards and practices.

Extras for 'Kill'

The production office for A&E's upcoming drama series "Those Who Kill" opens next week in Pittsburgh, and production is expected to begin at 31st Street Studios this fall, likely in September.

Mosser Casting will handle casting for stand-ins, photo doubles and extras on the drama series that stars Chloe Sevigny. Anyone interested in being considered for such work should create a profile at www.mossercasting.com under the Talent Registration tab.

Fireworks score for WPXI

WPXI's "Flashes of Freedom Fireworks Fantasia" -- televised in HD for the first time -- blew up the ratings on July 4, coming in first in household and demographic ratings. Channel 11's airing of fireworks more than doubled ratings of its closest competitor in households (10.9 for WPXI vs. 4.0 rating for KDKA), and the special telecast had four times the age 25-54 demo rating (5.5 for WPXI vs. 1.3 for KDKA).

Channel 11 program director Mark Barash said outside of a Steelers or Penguins game, no other local event draws the viewership of the fireworks show. But really, who's surprised? Pittsburghers do love their fireworks.

Channel surfing

MTV will offer some coverage from Comic-Con International in San Diego next week, including "MTV's Comic-Con Live!" streaming coverage at Comic-Con.MTV.com beginning Thursday and "Guy Code Honors" on air (8 p.m. July 21). ... "NCIS" star Cote de Pablo, a Carnegie Mellon University graduate, is leaving the CBS drama. She'll return in the show's upcoming 11th season to wrap up the storyline for her character, Ziva David. ... The Sundance drama "Rectify" will get a marathon airing of its first season on sister network AMC beginning at 9 a.m. Sunday. ... Ion has acquired reruns of USA's "Burn Notice" and "White Collar" for future airing on the channel. ... The final season of TLC's "What Not to Wear" debuts at 10 p.m. Aug. 9; the series finale is slated for Oct. 18. ... Former CNN contributor Roland Martin will host the hourlong morning talk show "News One Now" starting in September on cable's TV One. ... NBCUniversal plans a new syndicated daytime talk show for former "Today" co-host Meredith Vieira to launch in Fall 2014. ... Comedy Central will tape a roast of actor/writer/producer James Franco for airing on Labor Day. ... Fans of WQED's "Pittsburgh From the Air" programs, take note: Smithsonian Channel debuts a new season of "Aerial America," which takes flight over assorted American states, at 9 p.m. Sunday. Episodes devoted to Ohio (July 28) and West Virginia (Aug. 18) are scheduled.

Tuned In online

Today's TV Q&A column responds to questions about "Hell on Wheels," "Top Gear" and local TV news. This week's Tuned In Journal includes posts on "Get Out Alive With Bear Grylls," "Dangerman," a new "Star Trek" book, "Hollywood Game Night" and "Orange Is the New Black." Read online-only TV content at www.post-gazette.com/tv.

This week's podcast includes conversation about "Dexter," "Defiance" and "Drunk History." Subscribe or listen at http://old.post-gazette.com/podcast.

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TV writer Rob Owen: rowen@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2582. Follow RobOwenTV on Twitter or Facebook for breaking TV news.


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