On May 1, 2011, two very significant things happened to me. I, like the rest of the world, learned that American forces had killed Osama Bin Laden, and I also moved from my home city of San Francisco to New York City. Literally, May 1 was my move-in date. I arrived in New York the day prior to the spontaneous celebration and emotional introspection breaking out across the city. I've arrived in places around major events before--most notably moving to San Francisco as a child just after the '89 earthquake, and moving to Boston the week the Celtics won their first championship since 1986â€”but this one stands out quite a bit more. By a country mile, really.
Having seen the outpourings of emotion from the entire city (as a relative outsider, no less), it was strange to watch The Newsroom attempt to recapture those feelings in last night's episode, "5/1." Aaron Sorkin has received a fair amount of criticism for his use of the real news in a fictional show, with some critics (myself included) calling it exploitative, or at the very least, jarring. It's an awkward element of the show that doesn't always fall in line with Sorkin's over-the-top writing sensibilities. It's one thing when his characters are leaning into the Tea Party extremists or tabloid news. It's another when it's Gabrielle Giffords or the architect of 9/11.
Such is the double-edged sword Sorkin wields week after week. He believes that bringing the real news into the fold makes the stories he's telling more impactful. At times I think that's accurate, but in others, it makes for an awkward, sometimes downright uncomfortable juxtaposition between the weight of the news happening in the real world, and the lighthearted, often frivolous interactions between Sorkin's characters. Such a juxtaposition was prevalent throughout "5/1," and it wasn't always made in the most artful way possible. It's perhaps telling that the most meaningful moment of the entire episode came not from one of Sorkin's characters, but from President Obama himself, while delivering the speech that told the world one of the world's worst terrorists was now dead.
Before we got to that moment, however, we had to party. Hard. The episode opened with the News Night staff celebrating one year on the air under their new edict of Doing Journalism. Man, how a year flies by, right? Actually, it's only been seven episodes, but The Newsroom's first season hasn't been afraid to burn through pockets of time like they were freshly wrapped joints.
I assure you that pot reference is there for a reason. Specifically, because Will got really high. Exceptionally high. Ten Guy high. Neal and his girlfriend (the underutilized Natalie Morales) brought Will a little gift in the form of edible cookies featuring, well, you know. Will, being the tough guy that he is, quickly downed two of them along with some Vicodin. This concerned everyone, but Will assured them he would be fine. It was easy to see where the situation was headed.
On this subject, I'd like to briefly dart sideways and just talk about Jeff Daniels for a second. Will McAvoy is written as a notorious asshole, a middle-aged crank with no patience for anyone but himself. It takes a special kind of actor to make that kind of character likable, and Daniels has been making it work. I let out an audible groan (to no one but my generally disinterested cats) when I realized this episode was going to feature Will high out of his mind. Images danced through my head of lazy pot humor and abject silliness amid this watershed moment in American history. So it is a credit to Daniels that I mostly just laughed at his behavior. He deftly walked that fickle tightrope of funny--but not crazy--drug acting, mostly displaying an inability to remember things he'd said and a total lack of reflexes. It was perhaps a bit overly convenient that he was suddenly able to pull himself together for the big broadcast, but between his gleeful ditching of Terry Crews and amusing zone-outs, I think I can forgive that.
Less forgivable was the glut of recursive Jim/Maggie/Don relationship nonsense embedded throughout the episode. I get that Sorkin needed to fill some time, since most of "5/1" really just revolved around a bunch of people in an office waiting for the president to say something. And I get that we're not going to get any real resolution on this three-way-dance until the end of this season, at the earliest. I'm just tired of this storyline. All it's managed to do is make me like Maggie less and less as a character (Alison Pill continues to do good work, but man is she having to do back flips to stay remotely likable) and like Don more. I remain ambivalent on Jim, but I did like his mea culpa after idiotically telling Maggie's roommate that he loved her. Jim's a good dude, but so is Don. Maggie's a mess, and while her roommate is sort of a dim bulb, she's also one of the more genuinely funny characters on the show. I don't even know if I'm supposed to want Jim and Maggie to get together anymore. If they don't, then what was the point of any of this? If they do, I'm just going to feel bad for the two characters I like better than the two getting together. I genuinely have no idea how to feel about any of this anymore.
At least Don got to wait all that craziness out elsewhere, albeit trapped in an airplane that was stuck on a tarmac. For as much as I didn't like the Jim/Maggie stuff this week, I did like Don/Sloan/Elliot trying desperately to figure out a way to get off the plane while also trying to figure out what was going on at the White House and not alarming other passengers in the process. Yeah, things got a little awkward later in the show. Don probably didn't need to start taking pratfalls, nor did he really need dramatic music swelling behind him as he delivered the news about Bin Laden to the pilots of his United Airlines flight, but otherwise, these bits were by far the episode's funniest.
The trouble is, they were funny moments scattered among decidedly unfunny moments. Namely, the moments when our reporting team found themselves wrestling with the need to be first versus the need to be right. Charlie's wisdom of letting the president deliver the news when he was good and ready felt, again, a bit like armchair quarterbacking a year-old Super Bowl, but he also wasn't wrong. Thankfully, nobody was screaming about ratings and such this week, though we did have one Washington bureau reporter trying to go rogue and report on tweets supposedly confirming the Bin Laden news. Oh, those rascally Washington reporters, what antics will they get up to next?
It's only troubling to me in the context of a viewer still trying to get his head around the tone of The Newsroom, which has remained consistently inconsistent since the pilot. The last two episodes have been terrific television, but this week felt a bit like a nothing episode. That's perhaps kind of an insane thing to say when you're talking about an episode that centers on the news of Bin Laden's death, but think about what really happened this week: Will got high; the Jim, Don, and Maggie show continued to go more or less nowhere; and save for a blip of a subplot regarding Charlie finding a mysterious new source at the NSA, nothing really happened to News Night. Wacky stuff happened, the news was done, and that was that.
All told, "5/1" felt like an episode that crutched itself on the real world's news, rather than simply using it for inspiration. To keep the drug references going for a moment, the news is essentially Aaron Sorkin's drug of choice here--The Newsroom imbibes it weekly to help inspire a television plot, but at times, the drug takes over. That's okay, up to a point. Big news stories are going to happen, and sometimes plots will have to be written around them. Unfortunately, I've found that as Sorkin continues to bring the real world into his fictional one, he continues to push his characters to the sidelines in the process. Interestingly, the best episodes this season have been episodes where the characters drove the news story forward, and not the other way around. This episode went the other way around, and while it was certainly an amusement at times, it never quite found a way to deliver the significance of the Bin Laden news story through any of its own storytelling. Instead of inspiring something truly exciting or creative, it just left the cast on the couch for a week, doing the same old silly stuff.
- Will and Jim having an acoustic guitar singalong gave me terrible flashbacks to parties my parents had growing up. Granted, my parents never took edibles, but now I kind of wish they had.
- I have a hard time believing Will owns a video game system at all, let alone one recent enough to play any version of Guitar Hero. The Beatles: Rock Band on the Wii, maybe. Seems like it'd be more his speed, musically. Though I imagine the clearance rights for those songs were probably prohibitive.
- "I can play the real guitar!" is the most tragic, withered response one can give to losing at Guitar Hero. I've seen it happen many times, and it never convinces anyone.
- I was reeeeaaaalllly worried that the whole thing with Terry Crews getting harassed by the cops was going to turn into lazy racial profiling commentary. Thankfully, it didn't, and I thought the moment where Terry got to go tell the cops about Bin Laden was kind of sweet.
- I was less fond of the random other tie-ins to 9/11 the episode tried to pull together. Neal's girlfriend having lost a family member in the towers, Don dramatically delivering the news to United Airlines pilots, and a random control room guy just happening to have a FDNY hat to put on were all a bit much for my taste.
- HBO's preview of the last few episodes of the season has me feeling a mixture of things. I'm not thrilled at the thought of the News of the World phone hacking scandal getting dragged into Will's own storyline, but I certainly won't complain about more Jane Fonda.