The Newsroom Episode 2: Buzzkill
Last week's debut episode of The Newsroom was almost like a master class in how to make every single little thing work exactly right when it comes to television journalism. It was an idealistic view of what TV news could be, a sort of opening salvo in the direction of all things cable news to say, "Here's why we hate what you've become." It was fun to watch, but it also made you wonder exactly how slick this show was going to be going forward. Were we going to get week after week of top-flight journalism? Or were things eventually going to start to fly off the rails? This week's episode, "News Night 2.0," answered that question in rather resounding fashion.
The events of "News Night 2.0" were a trainwreck. And I don't mean that as an insult to the writing, acting, or performances. I mean that all the forward momentum News Night grabbed from its coverage of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill was nearly destroyed thanks to a few careless mistakes and a staff still not quite on the same page. The show produced this week was a disaster. A painful, horrific, almost unbearable disaster that can only be described as sub-Nancy Grace in quality. I literally cringed in my seat as I watched it unfold, and that was exactly the response this episode needed to elicit. It needed to show the other side of the coin, to reveal what can happen if these guys aren't on the ball every week, and what the consequences of failure actually are. While "News Night 2.0" didn't necessarily follow through on all its potential consequences, it still proved to be exactly the kind of episode we needed coming off of last week's almost aggressively optimistic debut.
First, the set-up. Riding high on the sudden burst of energy in the titular newsroom, this week's story was Arizona's controversial immigration law. You know, the one where Arizona was going to start making immigrants carry their papers with them at all times and allow police to pull over anyone they might suspect of being an illegal immigrant (read: Mexican). The one that was mostly shot down by the Supreme Court. This week, it was up to the staff to bring in some heavy hitters to talk about the newly passed law on television, but before that, we had our first staff meeting to get out of the way.
Just to get it out of the way now, I'm going to lead with my one serious complaint about this episode, and potentially the tone of this series. Aaron Sorkin is one of the few writers out there who's well-versed in crafting stories that can both be high drama and high comedy. Unfortunately, I don't feel like The Newsroom is quite balanced yet. Most of this week's personal dramas pertained to MacKenzie's previous relationship with Will, and also her inability to understand a new email system. After talking with her new financial segment reporter for the show (Olivia Munn, making her first appearance), MacKenzie learned that gossip around the office is that Will is kind of a horrible human being, and that they broke up because he cheated on her. MacKenzie was horrified by this, not just because the staff has such a negative view of Will, but because the literal opposite is true. She cheated on him.
In an effort to try and rectify things, she sent an email to Will. Except because she doesn't understand the new email system (it involves asterisks, or something), she inadvertently sent an email explaining that she cheated on Will to the entire company. Whoops!
Look, we've all heard at least one of those horrible "sent my naked pictures to everyone I work with" type of stories, but the way this week's episode went about setting up this gag was incredibly hamfisted. The whole email system thing was just shoved into a completely unrelated segment, the jokes about it weren't funny, and MacKenzie's reaction to the accidental email blast was so ludicrously over-the-top (she actually smashed a guy's BlackBerry just to try to get him to not read the email) that I half-expected her to accidentally slip on a banana peel and go crashing through a window.
I've got to say that I'm just not sold on the comedic undertone the show has taken thus far. I like much of the dialogue, but when it feels like we're already getting within inches of Emily Mortimer taking pratfalls only two weeks in, maybe it's time to dial things back a notch. This episode was positively fraught with people losing their shit, and yet somewhere in there we were also supposed to just shift gears and take in the quieter, more dramatic stuff too. This is a show that lurches whenever it tries to focus on a single character. We want to learn more about these people, but the devices used thus far to try and dig into everyone's back story (boilerplate relationship conflicts, presumably hilarious misunderstandings) aren't serving the rest of the show well. Sorkin is capable of doing better.
I know this because much of "News Night 2.0" was actually pretty terrific. Allison Pill gave another standout performance this week as she tried her hand at, and ultimately dropped the ball on, a pre-interview with a staffer from Governor Jan Brewer's office. She screwed things up so royally that with an hour-and-a-half until air, the show's lynchpin guest was suddenly absent. The staff was left dangling, and forced to cobble together a motley crew of racist self-published authors, a former Miss America contestant voted off for her controversial views on the law, and a guy literally sitting in his easy chair holding a shotgun (played by the great character actor Marshall Bell). You can imagine how well this conversation ended up going, and how Will, not known for his forgiving attitude, handled it.
Pill is great because, despite the fact that she's spouting impossibly speedy dialogue, she still comes across as an emotional human being. Her freakout over the cancellation resonated because you actually felt bad for her. I commented last week that I was having trouble finding some humanity in many of these characters, but Pill's Maggie Jordan is clearly the best-realized character thus far. While I think her weekly relationship drama has the potential to wear thin pretty quickly, I love what she, as an actress, is bringing to the role.
My other favorite is still Sam Waterston, who sadly doesn't have much to do outside of playing online poker and not-so-subtly threatening a network executive known to feed Will ratings information week-to-week. Not much really happened in this section of the episode, save but to illustrate that Will is still torn on this new direction for the show, given the potential for a ratings disaster if he doesn't pander to the audience. This came back later when Will, on the fly, decided to insert a bit of commentary on a Sarah Palin gaffe from Fox News. MacKenzie wanted no part of it, but Will went ahead anyway, and the segment flopped as bad as, if not worse than, the whole immigration debacle.
I liked seeing these people fail. Not because I'm rooting against them, but because it gave necessary insight into how Sorkin plans to treat them for the duration of the season. We know that Will won't suddenly turn cuddly any time soon, but you can see him warming to his young staff, even as everything goes haywire. You can see that Maggie is going to be struggling with career and relationship issues for a while at least, and Pill is making those moments work. We know that MacKenzie is basically a great producer and a slightly unhinged personality, and that her desire to see News Night become something special will require a lot of effort on her part, effort that may or may not be undone by her own manic personality (seriously, can we get her some Xanax for next week?).
Other characters remain more opaque. We know that Don, Maggie's boyfriend, is a dick, but is he enough of a dick to eventually be cast aside for the nerdier, more sensitive Jim? Will Waterston have more to do than be the fun, maybe slightly insane alcoholic boss? And what, exactly, is Dev Patel's role going to be in all of this? The end of the episode suggested we'll see a good bit more of him in the near future, now that he's made something of a connection with Will. I hope so, because Patel's character is essentially a blank slate right now.
"News Night 2.0" showed me a lot of what I hoped to see from a second episode. It showed us another side to the equation of what this show can be, and it did so while keeping tonal and thematic consistency with what the pilot first showed us. I'm still hoping for a little less sitcom wackiness as the show moves along, but otherwise, the episode delivered on the promise of the pilot. Let's hope Sorkin keeps heading down this path.
– The arrival of Olivia Munn to the proceedings was far more tolerable than I was expecting. I am not generally a fan of Munn's acting work, but her introduction as the series' new financial reporter went off without many hitches. I actually rather liked her and MacKenzie's initial banter in her office. It'll be interesting to see exactly how much of Munn's character we get to see this season.
– I don't know how I feel about the fact that the only two African-American characters are essentially comic relief, at least so far. Look, they're arguing about Obama! Except they're doing it almost entirely in the background of these scenes! Can we find something more substantial for them to do? Maybe? Please?
– That said, I did enjoy Will's incredulous reaction when asking the African-American guy if his name was really Gary Cooper.
– Also on the subject of Will, has anyone else noticed that he scrunches his face up every time he's about to throw a fit? I'm predicting a Jeff Daniels scrunch-face video compilation popping up on YouTube by the end of this season.
– And speaking of YouTube, I'd be remiss if I didn't at least acknowledge the video circulating over the last week of the many repeated Sorkin-isms. If you missed it, it's embedded below. Hey, even the best writers occasionally forget things they've written. Or at least find ways to re-purpose them.
– Hey, remember Radiohead's "High and Dry"? Sorkin sure does.
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