A review of tonight’s “The Newsroom” coming up just as soon as I am the integrity…
“We don’t do good television. We do the news!” -Mackenzie
In my review of the premiere episode, I noted that “The Newsroom” is simultaneously trying to work as drama and as a critique of the current state of the news media and American political discourse. For the most part, the premiere managed to balance the two objectives so that the latter didn’t interfere with the former. With “News Night 2.0,” Aaron Sorkin’s twin objectives frequently get in each other’s way.
Last week, Sorkin assembled the characters and established their goals and the stakes. “News Night 2.0” is about them figuring out how to achieve those goals, which unfortunately happens in a series of incredibly dry, wonky discussions about journalistic ethics and bias. And in terms of the substance of her remarks, I agree with much of what Mackenzie has to say to the staff. The media in general and cable news in particular too often operate without thinking these days(*), and the idea that every story should present both sides – or, at least, that both sides should be be given roughly equal weight – is one that’s gotten way out of hand.
(*) And wasn’t it nice of Fox News and, especially, CNN to provide Sorkin with fodder for a future episode by rushing to report the Supreme Court’s healthcare verdict and getting it wrong as a result? Assuming the show is around long enough to bring the characters into the summer of 2012, is there any way that ruling isn’t the centerpiece of a “Newsroom” episode?
But what works as a policy statement and what works as a scene of dramatic television aren’t always the same thing, and too many of these arguments – Mac with the staff, Charlie with Reese from corporate(**), Reese with Will, Don with Maggie – felt flat and lifeless as drama – or, at times, comedy. With “The West Wing,” Sorkin had a good handle on how to argue his beliefs within an interesting dramatic context. There were either real stakes for the characters, or good jokes, or both, mixed in, so that whether or not you agreed with Sorkin’s politics, whether or not you were interested in this particular issue, there was some satisfaction to take out of these kinds of scenes. And that wasn’t the case here, for me.
(**) Played by Chris Messina from “Damages,” and from Mindy Kaling’s upcoming FOX sitcom “The Mindy Project.”
Sorkin tried to spice up the staff meeting, for instance, with the jokes about Will memorizing the wrong names and Mac not understanding the new email rules. But the former was part of a weirdly tone-deaf attempt to establish that for all his abrasiveness, Will is secretly awesome (more on that in a bit), while the latter was setting up a payoff that was A)painfully telegraphed and B)betrayed Sorkin’s continued discomfort with and misunderstanding of technology. In this day and age (to which I include the spring of 2010), who uses the asterisk when composing any email, and particularly one meant to go to one individual? Even if you allow for Mac having been out of the country for several years, nobody used email that way before she would have gone overseas, and certainly not on a Blackberry that would auto-fill the address. (Neal even mentions that auto-complete has now been enabled, which makes the asterisk redundant.) If he wanted to make it a joke about, say, Mackenzie forgetting not to reply-all to things, it still would have been an incredibly predictable joke, and part of an unfortunate descent from magnificence last week to bubbleheadedness this week (in an episode that wasn’t particularly kind to Maggie, either), but at least the internal logic of the terrible joke(***) would have made sense.
(***) One unintentionally funny part of the joke: because Gary Cooper is played by Chris Chalk, who played Tom Walker on “Homeland,” when Mac trashed Gary’s phone, I immediately pictured him going to get his sniper rifle.
And then the flip side to the drama/ethics issue is that there are times where the need to generate conflict winds up undercutting the very arguments Sorkin is attempting to make. So he has Mackenzie talk about not wanting to engage with the sideshow of American politics, and yet the story is constructed in a way where they can’t get anyone respectable to defend the Arizona immigration law, and instead wind up with a bunch of cartoon characters embodying the worst stereotypes of the right wing. I’m not saying those people don’t exist – each side of the aisle has plenty of wingnuts – but it becomes hard to take Sorkin’s arguments seriously about not indulging these people for the sake of entertainment value or a cheap point if he then does exactly that.
Similarly, Will tells Reese that Sarah Palin is irrelevant to the political scene at this point and doesn’t want to feature her on the show, yet we wind up seeing her Holland/Norway gaffe, and hearing Will very lamely try to defend it. On the character side of things, both the militia member who named his rifle “Jenny” and Palin help illustrate how “News Night” and Will aren’t where they want to be yet, stuck between the old way of doing things and the right way; on the media critique side, it’s Sorkin doing things the old way to score points for his side.
“News Night 2.0” also introduces Olivia Munn as financial reporter Sloan Sabbith. Munn doesn’t get much to do in this episode, and is mainly used to set up Mackenzie’s defense of Will as “the good guy,” all evidence on the show itself to the contrary.
Obviously, Mackenzie’s point of view on Will need not be the show’s point of view on Will. She does, after all, have reason to feel guilty about the end of their relationship. But Will’s behavior throughout the pilot, and through much of “News Night 2.0” isn’t that of a great guy, but an ass whose first instinct is to treat people badly, even if he can sometimes make a half-hearted effort to go against that instinct. He acts proud that he’s memorized everyone’s name, and it’s amusing to at least see that pride deflate instantly as he realizes that he knows so little about the staff that he had mostly memorized the names of people who aren’t on it anymore. But Mackenzie keeps calling him a good guy, even as he whips his Blackberry at the camera, tanks the immigration segment to spite her, etc. Even the scene near the end where he tells Neal he wants to pay for the Spokane man’s cab fare and keep it private reminds me of stories I’ve heard about incredibly famous, powerful people (George Steinbrenner immediately comes to mind) who famously treated people awfully but would from time to time do something amazingly generous like that and insist on keeping it private. That kind of good deed suggests Will is aware of his bad behavior and feels guilty about it, but it’s more of a Band Aid on a bigger problem.
“We Just Decided To” had its issues, but on the whole made me feel glad Sorkin was back on TV and back doing a show like this. “News Night 2.0” unfortunately magnified many of the problems I had with that first episode, while losing some of the elements (Mac being in complete command even in such an untenable situation, the staff coming together to do a kick-ass newscast) I had liked the most.
Before we open it up to comments, let me remind you again about the blog’s commenting rules – the parts about civility in general and politics in particular. As I said last week, it’s going to be impossible to discuss this show without discussing politics on some level, so the primary goals should be the following: 1)Try as much as possible to restrict it to the context of the show itself; I don’t want an actual debate about immigration policy here. 2)Remember, as always, to be polite. You may not agree with someone politically, or about the quality of this show or the way it presents issues you care about, but if you can’t discuss things without name-calling or other hostility, your comment gets deleted. (And please feel free to email me if you see a comment that you feel is out of line.)
With all that in mind, what did everybody else think?