DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. The HBO series "The Newsroom," begins its second season on Sunday. It stars Jeff Daniels plays Will McAvoy, the anchor of a cable news show that pledges to cover stories because they're important, not because they get ratings. It was created by Aaron Sorkin, who also created "The West Wing" and wrote the movie "The Social Network" about the founders of Facebook. In a few minutes we'll hear an interview Terry recorded with Jeff Daniels last year, but first let's turn to FRESH AIR's television critic David Bianculli for a look at the second season of "The Newsroom."
DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: The one major change series creator Aaron Sorkin made to "The Newsroom" between seasons was a structural one. Instead of having each week's show focus on a separate major story line, this year's edition of "The Newsroom" follows a single story over the course of the entire season. And it's a season-long plotline in which anchor Will McAvoy and the other employees of the fictional Atlantic Cable News Network get one important news report very wrong.
Most of the time, though, they're on what the producers of "The Newsroom" consider the correct side of history. That's easy for Sorkin and his team to write because they approach their real-life topics in hindsight, just as they did last year.
Season two begins a bit before the 10th anniversary of 9/11, and "The Newsroom" soon gets to focus on presidential politics. In the third episode of season two, Jeff Daniels as Will McAvoy delivers a commentary on the previous night's Republican presidential debate using actual footage from that event. McAvoy is a Republican but didn't like what he saw that night and especially didn't like what he heard.
As the scene cuts between McAvoy and the story and people watching him from the control room and elsewhere, we hear some very pointed commentary indeed. It's the kind of scene that polarizes viewers of "The Newsroom." Some love the show for its messages and its passion, while others think it's too overtly preachy.
But no question, it gives Jeff Daniels a really meaty scene to play, and he attacks it very well indeed.
(SOUNDBITE OF TELEVISION PROGRAM, "THE NEWSROOM")
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (As character) Steven Hill(ph) is a decorated captain in the U.S. Army, where he's been a reservist for 20 years. He is this very night serving in combat in Iraq, as he was last night, when he asked this question via YouTube at the GOP debate in Orlando, Florida.
(As Steven Hill) In 2010 when I was deployed to Iraq, I had to lie about who I was because I'm a gay soldier, and I didn't want to lose my job. My question is, under one of your presidencies, do you intend to circumvent the progress that's been made for gay and lesbian soldiers in the military?
(SOUNDBITE OF BOOING)
JEFF DANIELS: (As Will McAvoy) That was a big room full of Republican primary voters booing an American combat soldier who, as he was speaking, was in combat. The audience members who were booing were in Orlando. Soon they'll surely be in hell, though not soon enough.
(As McAvoy) Not everyone was booing. There were people in the audience who heard Captain Hill say that when he was deployed to Iraq he was worried that if his sexuality was discovered they might not let him go, as opposed to most of us, who, if told we were being deployed to Iraq, would go Corporal Klinger faster than you can pull on a yellow taffeta picnic dress.
(As McAvoy) I'm sure there were even some people in the building who stood up for Captain Hill, people who had the simple strength of character to turn to the fraction of a human in the seat next to them and say how many different kinds of disgusting do you have to be to boo a man who volunteered to fight and die for you.
(As McAvoy) I'm sure those people were there. I'm sure there were many of them. But unfortunately none of them were on the stage. Not one of these would-be commanders in chief took a moment to stand with a line officer. They let him stand alone. Soldiers never do that. Leaders never do that. Witless bullies and hapless punks do it all the time.
(As McAvoy) The only president on the stage last night was Steven Hill. God speed, Captain Hill, and come home soon. A grateful nation is waiting to say thank you. That's "News Night" for September 23. Terry Smith is up next with the Capitol report. I'm Will McAvoy. Good night.
BIANCULLI: In addition to the outright author's message passages, "The Newsroom" contains other Aaron Sorkin signatures. There are times when characters display way too much knowledge off the top of their heads and others where characters, usually the women and especially where romance is involved, display almost no knowledge about how to handle social situations and basic conversations.
Even some Sorkin fans respond poorly to these elements, but to make my own commentary viewpoint clear here, I'm fine with it. I can deal with the journalistic and emotional improbabilities because of what else "The Newsroom" gives me. Each week, just as "The West Wing" did, it examines in the context of a TV drama series serious and complicated subjects that truly matter.
On TV right now, that alone makes "The Newsroom" a standout.
DAVIES: David Bianculli is founder and editor of the website TV Worth Watching and teaches TV and film history at Rowan University in New Jersey.