Previously… On THE NEWSROOM: Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels) and his executive producer Mackenzie MacHale (Emily Mortimer), with the support and encouragement of News Division head Charlie Skinner (Sam Waterston) are trying to transform their nightly cable news broadcast into something new and admirable, one that focuses on putting accurate, important facts in context instead of wasting time with tabloid stories and false “fairness.” This is complicated by the fact that Mackenzie is Will’s ex: in last week’s episode, she mistakenly sent an e-mail to everyone on staff that told them she and Will had broken up when she cheated on him. Also, Mackenzie’s #2, nice guy Jim Harper (James Gallagher, Jr), has a serious crush on junior producer Maggie Jordan (Alison Pill), who sadly is involved with resident non-believer and asshole (and Will’s former executive producer) Don Keefer (Thomas Sadoski).
Episode 3: We don’t usually address a show here once its format is in place, but this week’s episode was worth noting, because it was markedly different from the 2 that came before, and presumably from those that are still to come. It took place over a period of 6 months rather than mere days (since the show is set in the recent past, it’s still more than 18 months from the present day). The script, written by showrunner/godhead Aaron Sorkin and Gideon Yago, and directed by pilot director Greg Mottola, had a tricky structure that wasn’t entirely clear until close to the end, intercutting between the events of the 6 month period and a meeting that Charlie was having with the viciously business-minded executive Reese (Chris Messina), who we’d met last week, some unidentified minions, and the owner of the network, Leona Lansing (Jane Fonda), who we were meeting for the first time. Charlie kept protesting that he didn’t understand what this meeting was or why it was taking place, and we were equally in the dark–although, probably like Charlie, we knew it couldn’t be anything good.
“The 112th Congress,” as the episode was titled, presented us with a series (already renewed for next season) that hasn’t yet degenerated from its pilot in the way that, say, Smash did, but provided all too many examples of Aaron Sorkin doing exactly what drives people crazy about his work. For one thing, in an episode that had a character address the subject of smugness, there’s a certain irony that Sorkin gave Will’s announcement that he’s going to change the face of TV news the same moral weight as Richard Clarke’s apology for not having prevented 9/11, by having an excerpt from Clark’s congressional testimony lead in to Will’s speech. It turned out, as the episode developed, that it was mostly about Will and Mackenzie using NewsNight to attack the Tea Party activists who have taken over the Republican party, literally making that the top story on each night’s show for months. (Charlie’s meeting was taking place the morning after Election Day 2010, when the Republicans had retaken the House.) The points Will made in the excerpts we saw were all accurate and important–that the rabble-rousing Tea Party candidates had little interest in or even comprehension of basic economics, that despite their claims to being “of the people,” they’re actually funded by a few billionaires, that voters supporting them were endangering their own best interests–but none of it was particularly dramatic in the context of The Newsroom. Rather, it was just Sorkin and his mouthpieces scoring points by beating up on clay pigeon targets. (When Will zings them with a tough question, they stare blankly at him, as though they’re overwhelmed by the laser power of his sheer intelligence; in real life, Tea Party leaders are usually quite able to hold their own in an interview, whether or not what they’re saying makes any real sense.)
Sorkin talks a good game, within the dialogue of the show, about wanting to challenge viewers with the best arguments on both sides of an issue, but in fact he can’t resist belittling anyone who disagrees with his position. This was best–or rather worst–demonstrated by the revelation, late in the episode, that Reese isn’t just a money-grubbing exec who lacks vision. No, he had to be Leona’s worthless son, so we’d know he’s not even worth our attention. Sorkin has to win every point: although it would certainly have been reasonable for Will to have lost viewers with his new approach, thus giving the network some logical grounds for objecting to him, instead we found out that his losses had been negligible and he’s still in 2d place (presumably to FOX), so that Leona’s increasingly vicious threats could be based on small-minded considerations like her own political interests. (On a practical level, it also made zero sense for Leona to explain this after what we’re told is a meaningless 3 hour group presentation, rather than just having an intense one-on-one meeting with Charlie alone, as she does in the last 10 minutes of the episode–except that it gave Sorkin, in the guise of Charlie, license to fulminate against stupid network executives and their presentations.)
The show’s personal stories continue to be train wrecks. Over the 6 months spanned by the episode, Will begins dating an assortment of gorgeous women, all of whom he has meet him at the newsroom in front of Mackenzie–although, as he self-righteously proclaimed late in the hour, it wasn’t because he was rubbing her nose in it, but because he wasn’t thinking of her at all. Mackenzie, for her part, turned out to have been dating someone seriously for 3 months even though not even her closest confidantes on the show had any idea until she had him turn up on the set as well (presumably not thinking of Will at all). In the other idiot soap plot, Jim continued casting longing looks at Maggie (when he wasn’t feeling for her pulse and talking her down from a panic attack, as he’d learned from soldiers when he was embedded in Fallujah), mostly seconds before she was about to reconcile with the odious Don.
Apart from the lack of interesting characters on The Newsroom (so far, when Sorkin wants something dramatic to happen, he makes one of the women act like her IQ has dropped 80 points), the show is running into a very particular brick wall. While the protagonists on The West Wing were integrally involved in the issues raised in each episode, because the decisions they made actually set national policy, on The Newsroom, the issues of the week are really window dressing, and every episode is about the same subject: covering the news with good guests and intelligent questions. That’s a worthy goal, but really, who disagrees with it? (FOX News would swear that’s what they do too.) It’s like doing a show that every week argues forcefully and eloquently for the precept that puppies are cute. Even Don has been reduced to braying that he could do a show like Will’s, if the network would only let him–which of course means if he had the moral integrity that Will and Mackenzie have and he lacks.
The Newsroom is going around in circles. But now that 6 months have passed on the show and we’re about to enter 2011, perhaps Sorkin will reboot himself into finding some news in his newsroom.