By Oliver Lyttelton | The Playlist July 23, 2012 at 10:03AM
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.