A review of tonight’s “The Newsroom” coming up just as soon as I talk to you about Bigfoot…
“I’m on a mission to civilize!” -Will
I spent the first 50-odd minutes of “I’ll Try to Fix You” gawking at my TV set, both impressed and dismayed by the way that Aaron Sorkin had managed to incorporate so many of his worst tics into a single episode of television.
Then I spent the last 7 minutes getting wrapped up in the “News Night” coverage of the Gaby Giffords shooting.
Every time I think I’m out, they pull me back in!
Let’s take the bad first, because it so dominated the episode – and, because it was the last episode critics got to see in advance, so influenced many of the reviews. Just a mess.
We got scene after scene of Will lecturing superficial women about how superficial they are, and even though they all rightly think he’s an ass – and throw drinks in his face like they’re the biggest “Smash” fans in New York – and even though other characters give him a hard time about his behavior, there’s still a sense throughout the episode that Will’s message is the right one, even if his delivery of it is too abrasive by half. And given that the previous episodes already turned two of the show’s three female characters(*) into ninnies who need to be told by the men what to do (and who gaze adoringly at said men in the men’s moments of triumph), building the bulk of an episode around the lead character lecturing women only plays into the show’s worst impulses.
(*) Sloan doesn’t get enough to do to be turned into a ninny. On the one hand, I wish Sorkin was writing more for Olivia Munn, because I think her delivery works well with his material. On the other hand, given what kind of horrible material Emily Mortimer and Alison Pill have to carry, maybe Munn’s better off just being off in the corner and tossing out a sarcastic one-liner now and again.
And those impulses continue to be on display with the various romantic shenanigans involving Will, Mackenzie and Gordon 2.0(**), or Jim, Maggie, Don and Maggie’s insecure roommate, who needs constant reassurance that she’s smart enough to date a guy as awesome and wonderful and perfect as Jim Harper. (And I say that as someone who likes Jim Harper, though he winds up telling Maggie what to do nearly as often as Will does the same to various women.) Just lots and lots and lots of screentime spent on the characters being immature, irrational, obnoxious or all three, and as much as I like several of these performers, I am rooting for exactly zero of these couples to make it work, darnit.
(**) He even has Gordon’s old job as a federal prosecutor, and gets mocked for blowing easy convictions the same way Casey used to mock Gordon. Like I said last week, reusing certain turns of phrase is one thing; recycling whole scenes is much more problematic and weird.
Couple that with Neal’s Bigfoot obsession that just would not go away – and was improbably used as a device to get the full staff in the newsroom at the time of the Giffords shooting – and with “News Night” devoting a lot of air time to debunking stories that were debunked pretty quickly in the real world at the time they were happening, and you’ve got a long stretch of TV time that was tough to get through.
But then Maggie got the news alert about Tucscon, and the staff began to mobilize the way they did after the oil spill in the premiere, and the instrumental bridge to “Fix You” (a song I love despite being generally agonstic about Coldplay) began playing, and I found myself swept back up in it all. Aaron Sorkin did not magically forget how to write good dramatic television. He’s always had weaknesses, and both this show and “Studio 60” unfortunately have put those weaknesses on display more frequently than his first two shows or many of his movie scripts did, but the guy didn’t lose his fastball. He’s just chosen to throw a lot of less effective pitches because he thinks they’re as good. But when a crisis is breaking, and his characters are coming together like this, and he’s working with a good director like Alan Poul, it’s hard not to feel everything Sorkin wants you to feel in this moment.
That said, I still took issue with some elements of the Giffords sequence.
I think Sorkin absolutely has a point about how cable news rushes to report breaking news developments before anyone has complete command of the facts. That was evident in real life with this story, where the cable channels really did follow NPR’s erroneous story, and it was evident a couple of weeks ago when CNN and Fox News got the Supreme Court’s healthcare verdict backwards. But, to borrow one of Mackenzie MacHale’s pet phrases, “The Newsroom” didn’t present the best form of the argument for why Jim, Mac and even Don didn’t want to placate Reese and go along with the NPR report. As the NPR ombudsman explained in the aftermath of the mistake, NPR reporters got word of Gifford’s “death” from two shaky sources who were not identified in their story, and after that it became a game of Telephone. But Jim doesn’t ask Maggie anything about the nature of the report, just whether NPR is the only one who is reporting it. And when Mac explains to Reese that everyone’s going off the NPR report, at no point does she, Don, Charlie, etc. take issue with the nature of the report. They come across as working on gut instinct, and/or a reluctance to, as Don puts it (in the first moment of the series where we’re not supposed to hate him), let the news declare a woman dead before the doctors can. And that’s no more legitimate a journalistic approach than what Fox News, CNN, MSNBC, etc. did on that day. The decision was right; the motives as presented less so.
The other thing that bothered me was the way the sequence eventually turned into an excuse for the characters to feel good about themselves, to turn this shooting – in which six people died (including a nine-year-old girl), Giffords suffered brain damage that has (for now) ended her political career, etc. – into something that’s all about them and their problems. One of the pitfalls of using real-life stories, particularly a tragedy like this one, is that the problems of a few fictional characters don’t amount to a hill of beans next to them. I was glued to the TV the day Giffords was shot. I still remember how I felt watching the coverage. When I see those images again in this context, I don’t care that Jim’s instincts were proven right, that Will is going to fight back against Leona, that Mac is just so, so sorry about the many ways she injured Will. That becomes irrelevant in this moment, and the show and its characters seem self-indulgent, even though I imagine they would be feeling genuine professional satisfaction at covering a story, even one this gruesome, as well as they did.
On balance, though, I thought the emotions of the sequence worked, and if they didn’t erase my queasy feelings about the majority of “I’ll Try to Fix You,” they at least reminded me why I’m probably going to keep watching this frustrating show for as long as it’s on the air. Because Sorkin is like the girl with the curl, and when he’s good, he is very, very good. And when he’s bad… well, you have to hope the good is coming soon.
(Note: I’m taking much of next week off, and then press tour starts. So depending on my schedule and HBO’s screener delivery schedule, I might not be able to review the next few episodes. But it’s not being dropped from the rotation. Good or bad, there’s too much to write about here.)
What did everybody else think?