There is perhaps no better encapsulation of the many flaws and tremendous promise that Aaron Sorkin's "The Newsroom" contains than "I'll Try To Fix You." The last of the first batch of episodes sent to press, as the credits roll, it's easy to see why advance reviews were all over the map, because the show itself is an unwieldy mess of liberal politics, sitcom comedy, media commentary and genuinely affecting drama. And all of those thing swirl together in what is perhaps the most representative episode of the show so far.
Let's start with the bad, of which this episode has more than a few things to talk about. First up, despite being a seasoned news veteran who presumably has years of experience within the industry, we're led to believe that Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels) is completely clueless as to how tabloid journalism works. Introducing himself to Nina Gordon (the always awesome Hope Davis) at the network's New Year's Eve party, he learns that she's the editor of the parent company's tabloid magazine TMI. With minutes to go until midnight, she all but guarantees him sex that night, but Will learns she's writing a "takedown piece" on one of the "Real Housewives Of New Jersey." In Sorkin's fantasyland, we have to suspend disbelief that Will has no idea what that means, and when Nina explains it to him he's appalled. And thus we enter a patented Sorkin Lecture, wherein Will runs down how awful tabloid journalism is (yawn), says Nina is lower than a heroin dealer (c'mon), and appropriately winds up with champagne in the face. I dunno, something tells us in real life the penis would've superseded the brain on New Year's Eve and just taken the sure thing home.
Next up on the agenda of Things That Don't Work is the episode's cringe worthy running gag involving the so far thoroughly wasted Dev Patel and his still vaguely constructed character of Neal who has mostly been on the sidelines, serving as some kind of comic foil to Jim (John Gallagher Jr). But in tonight's episode he's given his own completely unfunny, stop-the-narrative-dead-in-its-tracks subplot, where he keeps trying to pitch a story about the possibility that Bigfoot is real. Not only is this, again, simply not believable -- the new vision of "News Night" has been firmly established, more than once, and Neal wouldn't be ignorant that a Bigfoot story wouldn't play -- but perhaps more unforgiving, is that it's just not funny. Sorkin is a great writer, but comedy is not his strong suit.
Meanwhile, the increasingly gruelling, blue balls saga between Jim and Maggie (Alison Pill) shows no sign of being resolved. Having committed to trying to make her relationship with Don (Thomas Sadoski) work, Maggie is technically unavailable, but even her boyfriend realizes there is still some kind of attraction she has for Jim. So Don uses the opportunity of the New Year's Eve party to set Jim up with Maggie's roommate Lisa (Kelen Coleman), who it should be noted, knows of Maggie's feelings for Jim. Of course, Maggie is reluctant, for obvious emotional reasons, but also because Lisa isn't exactly on the same level intellectually as Jim. But the set-up happens, and Jim and Lisa hit it off -- at least physically -- and when Jim lies about seeing her a second time, Maggie reacts like a hormonal teenager/spurned lover in the middle of meeting. Alison Pill is so good in the role (easily one of the best performances on the show so far) but the writing constantly lets her down. Her character has so far wavered from tough as nuts, confident team player on "News Night" to flustered newcomer -- with little rhyme or reason as to which Maggie we'll see at any given moment -- while the Jim/Maggie thread feels reheated and tiresome, for the most part. Both Pill and her character deserve much better.
Finally, let's circle back to Will. We won't bore you with the details (except to say that Kathryn Hahn comes in and pinch hits another guest spot to perfection), but Will winds up in a minor media tabloid frenzy (oh the irony) after a series of incidents with women (including the aforementioned run-in with Nina) get blown out of proportion and spread on the New York Post's Page Six column and other similar, sundry outlets. It has reached a fever pitch, and when a meeting is convened to get to the bottom of it and figure out what's going on, Charlie (Sam Waterson) puts the pieces together and realizes that Leona (Jane Fonda) is making good on her word from the last episode, in which she promised to manufacture a reason to get Will fired if he kept targeting members of Congress that she does business with. This is all news to Will and Mackenzie (Emily Mortimer), the latter of whom is mortified to learn that as part of the deal to get firing power over her, Will also agreed to a non-compete clause in his contract. "Just how much do you hate me?" she exclaims. And thus enthuses another bickering battle between the pair. Sigh.
Until this point, "I'll Try To Fix You" has largely built to be the season's worst episode by far but goddamn if the last eight minutes aren't an absolute knockout. Yes, it shouldn't work, especially being scored by Coldplay's anthem ready weepie "Fix You," but if it doesn't move you in the slightest, you've got a heart made of stone. Just as the various personal issues are about to spin the "News Night" family out into orbit, the story comes in that Gabrielle Giffords has been shot, and watching the team mobilize to investigate and report is unbelievably riveting. This is more of what "The Newsroom" needs to be -- watching a breaking story come in, and seeing how the producers take the disparate pieces of information from various sources to try and get it right. Of course, this idea of getting it right, rather than running with a sensational headline, goes counter to the ideaology of the suits upstairs, with Reese (Chris Messina) racing down and asking why, when MSNBC, Fox and CNN have all declared Giffords dead (based on one unsubstantiated report), ACN hasn't done the same. "It's a person. A doctor pronounces her dead, not the news," Don declares. And when word comes in a few moments that she's alive, it's a narrative slam dunk, and moving, not only because ACN got it right, but because this real person survived a heinous moment. The stakes are real, and even though we already know the outcome, the filmmaking here is so good we're on the edge of our seat anyway.
It's a breathtaking finale to the episode, one in which you can see Sorkin's gears firing at their best, with a distillation of the politics, drama and yes, even personal woes of the characters, sharply honed and focused. It's just great television, the kind we've been waiting for from "The Newsroom" (and also a tremendously respectful tribute to Giffords at the same time). Hopefully a sign of change for the rest of the season? Let's hope so. [B]