When Aaron Sorkin's cable news drama The Newsroom returns for its second season Sunday, things will look a little different.
"We broke one of our own important rules," executive producer Alan Poul tells TVGuide.com. "In the first season, we said there are no fictional news stories. ... We did very well with the 'What's the breaking news story going to be this week?' template, but we had some concern that would get a little bit old. [But] if we had one story that could serve as the through-line on which we could still hang our current event stories, that would give this season an essentially different character."
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Enter "Operation Genoa," a story about a military scandal that could "make careers and end presidencies." There's just one problem: The story — pitched by newcomer Jerry Dantana (guest star Hamish Linklater), a Washington producer asked to help out at the New York office — turns out to be untrue and heads roll. As such, Season 2's action begins 14 months after the events of Season 1 with Atlantis Cable News anchorman Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels), his executive producer and former girlfriend MacKenzie McHale (Emily Mortimer) and other staffers being prepped by corporate lawyer Rebecca Halliday (guest star Marcia Gay Harden) for depositions in a wrongful termination lawsuit.
"Rebecca is an incredibly idiosyncratic, opinionated, feisty personality," Poul says of the character, one of several new faces in Season 2. "She's able to shoulder a lot of the burden of introducing the steps of the Genoa storyline without making it feel like medicine because she puts her own spin on it. She seems like an adversary at times, but she's merely the devil's advocate. She fights them and asks them the tough questions, but they're all ultimately on the same team."
Anchoring the season with a colossal screw-up by the "News Night" team feels in some ways like a reaction to a major criticism of Season 1. Many argued that, by using news from the recent past and having his heroes more often than not make the right judgment call about a breaking story, Sorkin was taking cheap shots at the cable news industry while hiding behind the benefit of hindsight. (Poul insists those critiques had no influence on changing Season 2's approach.)
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Reactive or not, the show has also made some course corrections in the way it presents its female characters, another major bone of contention in Season 1. This time around, MacKenzie thinks and behaves more like the seasoned executive producer she's always been described as, and financial reporter Sloan Sabbith (Olivia Munn) is climbing the ACN ladder with impressive speed. While there are still problems — Will verbally beats up on a young female representative of Occupy Wall Street on the air and there's an entire Sex and the City fan fiction digression we wish we could forget altogether — the women in the office fall down a lot less. (In fact, the biggest pratfall in Season 2's early episodes is at the expense of a man. Progress!)
But has the show changed fundamentally? Not really. Because the season is formatted as one long-running flashback, viewers will be quickly thrust back into some of Season 1's dangling stories. Jim (John Gallagher Jr.) takes an assignment covering Mitt Romney's primary campaign to avoid seeing the woman he loves, associate producer Maggie (Allison Pill), living in co-habitated bliss with her boyfriend Don (Thomas Sadoski). That love triangle is complicated both by Jim's encounters with a competing reporter (Grace Gummer) he meets on the campaign trail and an assignment for Maggie in Africa that ends with hair-raising results.
Similarly, Will and MacKenzie continue to navigate their push-pull relationship, with Will spending much of the early part of the season refusing to admit what he said in a voicemail to MacKenzie that was intercepted and deleted by gossip columnist Nina Howard (guest star Hope Davis). "It's the elephant in the room no matter what's going on," Daniels says. "They still love each other, adore each other, and can't stand to be near each other. If it's Tuesday, then we must be almost ready to fall in love again. If it's Thursday, wait a minute, we hate each other. It's all over the place, but it does progress. They're getting a little closer to understanding each other more fully."
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But in other areas of his life, Will may be regressing. After he culminated his attack on the Tea Party last season by calling them "the American Taliban," Will's become a pariah. Worse, Charlie (Sam Waterston) is forced to take Will off the coverage of the 10th anniversary of 9/11 to appease CEO Leona Lansing (Jane Fonda) and her son Reese (Chris Messina). "He came out swinging in that American Taliban broadcast, which felt, in the moment, like a triumph," Poul says. "[But] that has spun around on him and created such a backlash that he gets taken off of 9/11, and that's the key incident in Will's arc for the season. In an overpowering way, it colors everything else. Basically, everything that Will got inspired to do ... begins to threaten to become undone and Will begins to second guess his mission."
Adds Daniels: "He's drowning in consequences. Will is a guy that's described in Season 1 ... as lonely, and he needs those people on the other side of the lens. They keep him from being completely lost. The one thing he loves about life is sitting in that chair and explaining what's going on to ... the people who follow him, to the people who are there for him. That gets taken away. The value Will thought he had in Season 1 is challenged and it cracks him. The lonely get lonelier."
And just how lonely could Will get when the Genoa disaster strikes? "One thing that Charlie says that everyone at the network agrees with is that we have nothing if we've lost the trust of the people who are coming to us for information," Daniels says. "That's what we're terrified of."
If indeed The Newsroom lost its viewers' trust a year ago, it seems to be trying to win it back in Season 2.
The Newsroom premieres Sunday at 10/9c on HBO. Watch a clip from the season premiere below: