By Oliver Lyttelton | The Playlist August 13, 2012 at 10:03AM
Not to get too Will McAvoy about it, but one of the things we lament about the level of discourse on the internet is the way in which people seem to be more and more allergic to the very idea of nuance. We seem to live in a world where things can only ever be awesome or sucky, rotten or fresh. Certainly the reactions to "The Newsroom" have fallen along these lines. The comments on these recaps to date have, for the most part, either told us that the show is the worst thing ever and that we're crazy for praising it, or that it's the best thing on TV and that we're biased and stupid for criticizing it.
But for the most part, the fascinating thing about "The Newsroom" has been how schizophrenic it is -- how it does so much right, and yet so much wrong -- and the eighth episode of the show, "The Blackout Part One: Tragedy Porn," is perhaps the best example of this. Aspects of the episode were perhaps some of the most thrilling that the show's produced so far, and yet the same old problems continue to creep along in the background.
We open up with another ace actor joining the show with Paul Schneider ("All The Real Girls," "Bright Star") as Brian Brenner, a former star reporter who's now on the outs after his Huffington Post/Daily Beast style start-up folded. Will wants him to write a New York Magazine cover story on the show, and on Will, in part because he knows he has him over a barrel -- Brian was Mackenzie's ex-boyfriend, and the one that she cheated on Will with. It's another device that Sorkin has used on previous shows, and Schneider's performance so far is, unsurprisingly, really solid. And yet it's infuriating that Will would have chosen him in the first place, and it's another example of Sorkin undermining these characters with this bullshit cheating storyline for the umpteenth time this series.
Elsewhere, "News Night" is taking a major hit in the ratings after refusing to cover the Casey Anthony trial, and Will and Charlie agree with boss Reese Lansing (Chris Messina) that they should "suspend our whole philosphy" and wallow in the sensationalist tabloid mire, in order to stay on top long another to secure a Republican presidential debate that they hope will change and elevate the form forever. Mac is horrified, but ultimately gives in, bringing in a smirking Don to teach the team how to take the Nancy Grace approach to the news.
We've said before that the show is far more interesting when the characters aren't saintly, and this was another good example; the debates over the ethics of the decision were some of the best of the series so far, giving Emily Mortimer her best material to date. And Don's deconstruction of Nancy Grace might be the show's finest moment so far, at least until the women in the room all show how they've all had their maternal instincts stirred up, which was another groaner.
A little more on the nose was the breaking of the Anthony Weiner scandal, which the new sensationalism-first approach dictates shouldn't just be a priority, but even take precedence over the upcoming vote not to lower the debt ceiling. The Weiner stuff felt a little tired and condescending, especially with the hypocrisy of Weiner tweet-ee Sandy (Alison Becker), but it was one of those moments when Sorkin was making such a good point, even if it was an obvious one -- the elevation of personal-life bullshit over what really matters -- that it was hard to begrudge it too much. Sloan's impassioned reminder that the Republicans holding the debt ceiling hostage was one of the most ludicrous, mercenary and traitorous moments in U.S. politics was a sign of real fire in the show.
Meanwhile, Charlie finally meets up with his secret NSA source (not Keith David or Jeffrey Wright as we guessed last week, but theater actor Stephen McKinley Henderson), who confirms that tabloid TMI (owned, like "News Night," by Jane Fonda's billionairess) has been hacking phones, all of which was personally ordered by Reese -- in case you were napping, the James Murdoch parallel was made explicit by the source, Solomon. This sort of conspiracy, "All The President's Men"-tone is a new one for the show, and it did feel a little fresher, particularly when Sam Waterston in a bow tie is the one doing the digging. His scene with Fonda in particular, full of veiled threats, was another good one.
But while the macro plotting was among the most compelling that the show's had to date, there were still a number of scenes that were real forehead-slappers, most, as always, involving the show's female characters. We honestly don't understand why Mac and Will can't have a real argument about issues and ethics without it being underpinned by the same old you-cheated-on-me-six-years-ago stuff. Maggie (while blissfully absent for much of the episode), added another shoehorned-in character trait by suddenly turning out to be a Christian, despite it never having been mentioned before; another example of Sorkin giving the illusion of balance and fairness, but only paying it lip service. And we shudder at the thought of where the Neal Sampat: Undercover Boy Reporter storyline is going, but it couldn't possibly have gotten off to a worse start than his exchange with Sloan, which might have been the most cringe-inducing scene in the show to date.
Sorkin is now at the point, as an Oscar-winner, where he can feel free to indulge his worst instincts along with his best, without anyone else stepping in. "The Newsroom" continues to be enormously watchable and entertaining, but our frustration with the show deepens every time that a borderline-great scene is followed by a deeply terrible one. [C+]
Bits & Pieces
- While we're obviously on the side of "News Night" 2.0, that line-up of prospective stories on the whiteboard did look incomprehensibly dull. No wonder the show-within-the-show is hemorrhaging viewers.
- It would help us be more invested in the Republican debate storyline if Sorkin let us know exactly how the characters plan to change the debate format, rather than just repeating that they will.
- Will mentioning "Camelot" made us remember that virtually every week has seen Sorkin make some kind of Broadway musical reference. Is it a by-product of his work on the Hugh Jackman-starring "Houdini" show that opens next year? Or is he simply trying to get someone to ask him to write on "Smash" instead?
- "The Dark Knight" reference was something of an oddity, if only because it made the NSA storyline feel more like science fiction than anything else.
- So presumably, we'll see the phone hacking stuff, and (maybe) the Republican debate peak in the season finale, which is two weeks away. Is Will's death threat going to come back? Is there any way to get Maggie caught in the crossfire? (If so, the show would be improved immeasurably in the second season if Sorkin pulls a Moira Kelly in "The West Wing" and simply writes her out and never refers to her again.)
- You may have seen it in the last week, but there was a good piece last week by writer Mandy Stadtmiller on how she was the basis for Hope Davis' evil gossip reporter in the show. The bit that stuck out for us was an email by Sorkin, where he wrote to Stadtmiller, "I asked you what you were working on and you told me about the take down piece and I got preachy and condescending (so unusual for me), and instead of being insulted, defensive or telling me to go fuck myself, you said that you understood completely, but that it was your job." It was an interesting insight into both Sorkin and Will McAvoy, and a good indicator that we're not meant to celebrate everything that Will says, as well as a fascinating admission of his own flaws by the writer. Certainly worth a read.