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Recap: 'The Newsroom' Halts Its Death Plunge With Its Least Terrible Episode Since The Pilot

Television
by Oliver Lyttelton
July 23, 2012 10:03 AM
24 Comments
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Season 1, Episode 5: "Amen"

So far "The Newsroom" has had two major problems sitting on top of a whole bunch of minor ones. Firstly, Aaron Sorkin's often-questionable approach to female characters has reached something of a zenith here. His shows have often featured strong powerful women undone by their love lives, but the leads of "The Newsroom" feel particularly and offensively bird-brained, and unlike CJ in "The West Wing," Sorkin's finest creation to date, haven't been shown to be particularly competent at their jobs either, mainly out of Sorkin's desire to show Will McAvoy to be right about everything. And some of them have been shown to be actively devilish, like Hope Davis' gossip columnist last week.  

The other issue so far, is that while "The West Wing" was an unashamedly and gloriously liberal fantasy, but one that was capable of presenting both sides of an argument, "The Newsroom" has pretensions of being centrist and even-handed but is principally a series of Sorkin rants on some of his favorite subjects, but written and delivered in an especially smug and condescending way (not helped in the least by Jeff Daniels failing to make his character particularly likable at any stage). And it's made worse because, rather than using fictional events, the show's set in the recent past, using big stories from the last couple of years, making some episodes feel like the world's longest "told you so."

And last week's episode saw the show at its very worst. Kevin, in his recap, found the show (which saw Will tackle gun control, and come into conflict with the tabloids, mainly by being horrible to women) to redeem itself in its final moments, as the team report on the Gabrielle Gifford's shooting but personally, I found it to be the rotten cherry on top of a shit sundae; a hijacking of a real-life tragedy in order to, once again, show how brilliant and perceptive McAvoy was, and how ludicrously evil Chris Messina's ratings guy had suddenly become. All scored to an ill-fitting Coldplay song.

And yet just as we were starting to switch off on the show, it came back with "Amen," which while still problematic, is the best and most satisfying, episode of the show to date, the first time it's really been firing on something close to all cylinders, and suggested that it's not worth giving up on Sorkin and "The Newsroom" just yet.

For the most part, the series is best when it's doing the news, and it helps that the episode drops us right in mid-broadcast. It's February 10, 2011, and the Arab Spring is underway. Will's fellow anchor Elliot (David Harbour) is holed up the Cairo Radisson, reporting from the ground, but pretty much stuck in his hotel room, to the frustration of his executive producer Don (Thomas Sadoski). Simultaneously, Wisconsin's Gov. Scott Walker is holed up in the offices of a newspaper (a storyline which plays out in the background, without ever being commented on too heavily -- the way it should be).

Things get worse in Egypt when Elliot heads out onto the streets, only to be beaten up by a mob. He's flown home immediately, with Don racked with guilt, and in order to keep telling the story, the team recruit a citizen journalist, going by the handle Amen, discovered by social media whiz Neil (Dev Patel). Meanwhile, Will and co. continue to get blowback from his run-in with gossip reporter Nina Howard (Hope Davis), who's running a story about Mackenzie's (Emily Mortimer) boyfriend Wade (Jon Tenney), who it turns out, is running for Congress and has appeared on "News Night" a disproportionate amount, leading to claims of bias, and that Mac's trying to use her position to get him elected. It might be the world's least likely gossip item for a magazine like Nina's US Weekly-style TMI, but it's also bad news, given that the higher-ups are already angling for an excuse to fire Will.

Even as Elliot comes home, battered and bruised, Neil, Will and Mac encourage Amen, whose real name is Khaled, to drop his anonymity and head out on to the streets. However, he disappears, seemingly captured in the military's round-up of foreign journalists, and soon what's essentially a ransom demand appears, for $250,000, and the network refuses to take any responsibility. Will, shortly after confronting Nina, who tries to get him to give her $50,000 to drop the story (he flirts with her demands, before she inadvisedly refers to herself as a journalist, which sees him vow to destroy her if she keeps chasing his team), pays the ransom, but his staff (inspired by an earlier reference to the jersey scene in "Rudy") line up with cheques to help contribute too. It's Valentine's Day, and the episode ends with Will and Mac seemingly starting to paste over their differences, embracing (and given that she's just broken up with the ambitious Wade, this may be the start of something more).

There were, we should re-emphasize, still plenty of issues with the show this week. Its depiction of women continues to be forehead-slappingly irritating; Hope Davis' character is villainous beyond the point of reason, and it begs belief that an award-winning news producer like Mac has neither the ability to send email (see a few weeks back), or any knowledge, whatsoever, of the economy. And the storyline with her boyfriend was both another way to seemingly show the character to be far dumber than you'd think, and also an excuse for Emily Mortimer to look doe-eyed for much of it. That said, we appreciate Sorkin's attempt to build a real friendship between her and economics reporter Sloane, even if Olivia Munn still seems evidently nervous on the show, not helped by the writing making the character seem more and more like a robot every week. Alison Pill's Maggie had a bit more fire to her this week, even if her sudden desire to keep the relationship between her flatmate Lisa (Kelen Coleman) and colleague Jim (John Gallagher Jr.) was entirely contradictory in light of her reaction to the storyline last week.

But aside from Mortimer's character and storyline -- which we really hope Sorkin sorts at some stage, because it's the giant anchor weighting down the series at this point -- things were relatively well-balanced. The Egypt narrative hit the exact right note of being topical, but by using fictional characters in the midst of it, never felt as crass and manipulative as the show has in recent weeks. It also meant that the soapboxing moments could stand down, bar Neil (who had his best showcase to date this week, finally gelling in the ensemble) trashing a monitor on which Rush Limbaugh celebrates the arrest of the journalists; but that moment felt truly earned.

Perhaps more importantly, the balance felt better. "The West Wing," at the height of its powers, could juggle a dizziying amount of diverse storylines, both personal and political, but "The Newsroom" has struggled so far to match it, even with, or perhaps because of, a longer running time. This time, the episode wasn't hung up on one particular theme or plotline, moving more deftly between love lives, Egypt and more domestic affairs (the Koch Brothers made a return, in what's clearly going to be a more serialized moment).

Even at its worst, the show's enormously watchable, but the irritations had been getting the best of it since the pilot. There's a long way to go for it to be seen as a triumph, but at the halfway mark of the season, "Amen" was the first sign of hope that the series might be ready to turn around. [B+]

Bits And Pieces

- A lot of the credit on the show's improved pacing has to go to the director, in this case Daniel Minahan. He turned heads by co-writing Mary Harron's "I Shot Andy Warhol," and directing the underrated "Series 7: The Contenders," before becoming something of an HBO stalwart with multiple episodes of "Deadwood," "Six Feet Under," "True Blood" and "Game of Thrones." He also was down to the last two to direct "Thor 2," although Alan Taylor beat him to the gig.

- Another good episode for Don; Thomas Sadoski's fast becoming the breakout actor from the show. He's got one of the more interesting, multi-faceted characters (far less saintly than Jim, but still sympathetic), and the actor, a theater veteran who's relatively unfamiliar on screen, has been killing it ever week, reminiscent of a young Peter Sarsgaard. Still, the show does keep trying to find excuses to keep him around -- maybe it's time to just bring him back into the "News Night" fold properly?

- Another actor we enjoyed this week was David Harbour as Elliot. He's been a bit underused til now, but showed his chops this time around. The moment when Charlie kissed him on the cheek to celebrate his return was rather touching.

- The "Rudy" ending was reasonably effective -- Sorkin's always good when writing about surrogate workplace families, and this was the first time that felt organic, rather than forced -- but it was also yet another demonstration of what a great guy Will is. I think he'd actually be more sympathetic if he actually made a mistake and had to deal with the consequences. In fact, the show would be helped enormously if they made some serious fuck up too, rather than being right every single week (although that was less of a factor this week, another reason it felt stronger).

- What is Aaron Sorkin's problem with Jennifer Aniston anyway? Is this building up to a cameo at some point or something?

- This was also the first episode in a few when we actively laughed out loud. Some of the gags weren't massively highbrow -- in a running gag, Jim kept bashing his head on things -- but the cast are good at that stuff, and it does make the whole thing feel less up its own ass. The reversal of the "storming an office" trope was particularly good.

- Mr. Sorkin, if you want people to think you take female characters seriously, stop referring to them with lines like "a grown woman who has to count on her fingers."

- This was the first episode that HBO didn't send out a screener for (they are actually not sending the rest of the season to press), and Kevin couldn't watch live, hence me reviewing it. I've been a little harsher on the show than he was so far. To put my grade in context, I'd give the pilot a B, episode 2 a C, the third a C-, and last week's a D.

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24 Comments

  • Jane | July 21, 2013 5:04 PMReply

    Ok, is it me or is Allison Pill absolutely one of the worst, most annoying and fuc$@ng annoying actress out there. I can't watch the Newsroom almost singlly handedly because she is such an awful, awful actress.

    She needs to go, otherwise, me and about 50 others "will go"......

  • Rethinking | December 4, 2013 9:07 AM

    I was thinking the same when I first watched this but reading some comments someone reminded me that she played the cancer patient in In Treatment and she did a damn fine job in that. I think what you're seeing is a character that is written annoying. She's playing the character. To blame her is perhaps unfair?

  • Kevin | July 21, 2013 5:53 PM

    She's actually a really good actress, given pretty terrible material on this show.

  • Jj | September 12, 2012 4:05 PMReply

    The idea this show portrays women badly is absurd. Idiotic articles like this continue to push the idea that every female character must be portrayed as a perfect superhuman or else the show's creators must hate women. What a joke.

    This idea was put forth by the former monopoly known as Hollywood. Hollywood is only going to shrink from here on out, so all you writers might want to start changing your topics. Otherwise, good luck finding work in 10 years.

  • Chloebug | August 7, 2012 12:01 PMReply

    Personally I like the show, but I find the character of Maggie to be obnoxious and find myself leaving the room during her rants and ridiculous faces; the character is terrible. The character of Mac is so-so, sometimes she is great, but the majority of the time not do much. I think Jeff Daniels is great, love Sam W, and the rest of the cast. I especially like yhe character interaction of Will and Lotti, and Will and Charlie. The female characters are expendable, but Lisa is growing on me. Love Don's snark.

  • Norman Horowitz | August 2, 2012 6:35 PMReply

    Not that it matters, but I have run divisions for major Studio Television Companies and I LOVE Newsroom.

  • Imeanreally | July 25, 2012 2:00 PMReply

    Yes! I WISH I could bring myself to stop watching this show, but clearly the same masochism that led me to see AMC's dreadful "Rubicon" through will keep me tuned in to this blasted mess. A few points of disagreement: I thought the final "jersey scene" was remarkably corny (I half expected a slow clap) and rather uncharacteristic of staff culture (that, of course, is if we believe for half a second that they are as sharp-witted and angrily earnest as Sorkin would have us believe).  I'm so fatigued with the cute, awkward, longing girl routine that I want to smash Maggie's face (and really Mac's, too) through a window. This character FAILS over and over - on this show and so many others, nobody finds her endearing.  In fact, I sort of caught a perverse delight at her momentary heartbreak when she discovered Jim was smashing her roommate who is much more legitimate or at least convincing at being a mess than Maggie. And I don't think Will McAvoy is unlikeable. In fact his lumbering effort at elitist snark shows all the ragged seams of a writing team that WANT him to be likeably unlikeable.  Aaron Sorkin's gift for bitchy but smart, rapid-fire dialogue and perspective is lost on these characters. "The Social Network" worked because our context was limited and we wanted to believe that Harvard computer geeks have it in them to be brilliant at everything, including assholery. NOBODY on this show, not even sexy economist Sloan even remotely convincing in that regard.  While we're speaking of Sloan: is the whole storyline about her hotness supposed to be a half-ironic commentary on the hullabaloo around Olivia Munn's actual stint on the Daily Show? And while we're still speaking of Sloan, what's up with these soap opera-ass names (Sloan Sabbith, Mackenzie "Mac" McHale, Leona Lansing) that try too hard in forcing me to find them exciting? At least Spike Lee's 0Gator Purify or  Jesus Shuttlesworth are unique and half interesting.  If this show wasn't so irritating, it'd be SUCH a yawn.

  • Shawna Watson | July 24, 2012 10:50 AMReply

    Wow, this guy is really off the mark. CJ was my least favorite character on the West Wing and one of my least favorite female characters on tv period. I actually found her to be precisely NOT a representation of women while many of the successful women I know are actually much much more like Mac and Sloan- excellent at what they can do, floundering at many things they cannot do, and putting on a veneer for the rest of it. While I am admittedly one of the biggest Sorkin fans on the planet, I recognize the moments when he fails, and this show is not one of those moments. Its great.

  • JL | July 24, 2012 12:32 AMReply

    Talk about whining for the sake of whining. You said it'd be nice to see the show fuck up? How about the second episode. But oh, right, that was terrible too. I happen to think Mac is portrayed as very competent at her job, even if she doesn't have her life together - but who does? You also spelled a bunch of names wrong.

  • pmo | July 23, 2012 11:24 PMReply

    I love this show! Utilizing the benefit of hindsight, headline news stories of our recent past are given the (Taleb) Black Swan approach and held up to the light with provocative insight and crisp dialogue. Is it real? Of course not, it's TV Drama! Enjoy a ridiculous retort or even a Coldplay song accompanying a scene transition of a dark day in our American history. We have enough real news to bring us down! Look back on these stories with objectivity and realize these TV characters are just that.

  • Cienne | July 23, 2012 10:42 PMReply

    I agree the best part of this show is the fast paced news developments themselves. One almost has to wonder if Sorkin is making a point by showing females the way he does, since he didn’t in past series. I almost wonder if he’s making commentary on how females are treated in new rooms. I’ve enjoyed watching thus far, thanks to the suggestion of a Dish coworker. I have my Hopper set up to record the show and what I love about it is when I play back I’m able to start watching a recording in one room and continue watching in another. This is so convenient and I’m able to get a lot of work done.

  • Oogle monster | July 23, 2012 10:29 PMReply

    He doesn't pay the ransom though. Right? He even says "restaurants are bad investments." I thought the checks were to help out with the money Will wired abroad to get the freelancer home safely. Also, can we all just collectively agree that Alison Pill's character is the most annoying Sorkin creation (and that's saying something). Olivia Munn is worthless as well... she has the most stiff line readings.

  • JL | July 24, 2012 12:34 AM

    Are you serious? Allison Pill is amazing. For my money, his most annoying character (from shows I've seen) was J.J. from Sports Night.

  • Gus | July 23, 2012 3:33 PMReply

    I think critics should admit to their sexual orientation.... only a raging, unhappy queen thinks this show treats women unfairly..... I've known enough unhappy queens to know of which I speak.

    This 64 year old entrepreneur thinks the writing is just fine..... why oh why do these gossip types all sound the same?

  • C Ward | July 23, 2012 3:11 PMReply

    Struggling? Death spiral? What are you watching??

    This is the best TV in a decade. [along with Luck]

    LOVE IT LOVE IT LOVE IT... the girls, the guys, the background stories... the econ major...

    LOVE EM LOVE EM LOVE EM>... Cannot wait for S01//E06

    Emmys for EVERYONE! Scripts, leads, minor players... WONDERFUL WONDERFUL

    you are NUTS... jealous ... or a Koch employee.

  • Dean | July 23, 2012 2:26 PMReply

    You're all crazy - I love it.

  • Christopher Bell | July 27, 2012 6:44 AM

    Most people -- which includes us -- were excited about it before it began.

  • Jack | July 27, 2012 4:32 AM

    As do I. Talk about snarky. Perhaps these reviews should be written by people who haven't decided they will hate everything about a show before it begins. The show isn't perfect, but it is entertaining and it tries to look inside the news business, a setting ripe for exploration.

  • Lilian | July 23, 2012 3:19 PM

    Me too.

  • Kerwood | July 23, 2012 2:11 PMReply

    Aaron Sorkin has been one of my favourite writers for years, and since The West Wing went off the air, I have to admit that I miss my weekly doses of his wit, intelligence, drama and perspective on the powerful people behind the curtain of Oz, in this case cable news. Each of the five episodes has had its moments of brilliance, but I'm getting tired and bored with the oscillations of that brilliance and the pedantic, relationship-challenged character development that brings all of the drama to a halt each episode. I hope this settles down soon, much in the way that the West Wing got rid of Mandy after the first season, she was deadweight. The same can be said for Maggie here, no matter how many lines he writes for her.

    The other thing is I wish that the direction would take a valium. An entire cast of people, no matter how smart, don't all have the same devastating witty repartee available and deliverable almost as they're hearing the last syllable being spoken to them. The dialogue is sort of an updated version of those old Film Noire movies in the forties with Bogart, Greenstreet and the like...where everyone is so damned witty and no one even breathes between their lines, just blurting out the dialogue as fast as they can do it, like they're trying to keep the picture as short as the script will allow. Be witty, sure, but not everyone, all the time. It detracts from the realism that so much effort is otherwise spent trying to create, somewhat successfully.

  • Allymax | July 23, 2012 11:40 AMReply

    1. Mac and Will have zero chemistry, so it's hard to buy into their torrid love affair that ended in such a devastating way for Will;
    2. Viewers are led to believe that cable newsrooms are nothing more than bars at happy hour, settings for young workers to hook up and argue about their dating lives;
    3. What sort of nincompoop in a state-of-the-art workplace doesn't know how to send mass email, let alone a producer of one of the most-watched cable shows;
    4. Most of us would be fired if we acted out the way these workers do - the sniping and personal attacks have no place at work and are usually dealt with behind the scenes as professionally as possible, and
    5. If I were in charge, I'd fire Mac, keep Jim and Will on a short leash and issue corporate directive that if workers can't keep their private lives private, they're fired. Unless you work for TMZ, there's no way any of us would discuss who's sleeping with whom at a business meeting.

  • C Ward | July 23, 2012 3:12 PM

    Mac and Will are FAB.... love em both - together or separated... love the chemistry

  • jimmiescoffee | July 23, 2012 10:18 AMReply

    this show is borderline unbearable. i cant stop watching in a "what will he do next" train-wreck kinda way. the way this show takes the high/moral ground on REAL LIFE incidents months after the fact is fucked up. the gabrielle giffords episode was monumental as a detached, idealistic, crass hour long seminar. and i agree, jeff daniels character (who is filthy rich somehow and apparantly a playboy..what?) is easily the most unlikeable asshole in TV history.

  • cward | July 23, 2012 3:29 PM

    But - the show TAKES the moral high ground!

    What? -- You think they don't show us both sides? They do.... and show us the moral high ground. And I take issue with your assertion that writing about events months after the fact - from a moral position is FUCKED UP.

    They went after Clinton... Obama... Clarence Thomas, the Koch brothers.... daytime talk ...

    who are they missing?

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