By Kevin Jagernauth | The Playlist July 1, 2012 at 11:00PM
Season 1, Episode 2: "News Night 2.0"
We're only at the second episode and it seems everyone already has an opinion on "The Newsroom," and the fully transparent politics that Aaron Sorkin has on display, for better or worse, realistic or not. Yes, that has made the show uneven, but regardless, it's still an engaging (if at times exhausting) hour of television. But in this week's episode, let's credit Sorkin for doing something right: clearing up the source of Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels) and Mackenzie MacHale's (Emily Mortimer) divorce. In most other shows, this is the kind of thing that would've been talked around for a season, leading up to some kind of dramatic, climactic showdown. But here, it's a comedic moment and emotional release, all at once.
The setup for the reveal is almost painfully obvious -- the show opens with Will taking Mackenzie aside and making it crystal clear that he doesn't want anybody to know the details of how or why they broke up. No one. Gee, I wonder if this will be important later on? Anyway, with that gauntlet laid down, Mackenzie puts down one of her own, telling Will to forget what the other networks are doing when he disagrees with not leading the night's broadcast with the oil spill again. "We don't do good television, we do the news," she says. And she highlights what her approach will be in the first pitch meeting thusly: "That studio is a courtroom, and we only call expert witnesses. Will is the attorney for both sides, he examines the witness, and reveals facts."
And surprisingly, Will is willing to embrace change…to a degree. He's taken the time to learn everybody's names in the office (even the ones who he later finds out had quit or left), but his ego still demands an audience. He meets everyday with Reese (Chris Messina), the president of ACN's marketing/advertising arm (note: his job title doesn't really become clear until the third episode) to break down the numbers of the show. The network president Charlie Skinner (Sam Waterston) pleads with him to back off doing this daily dance with Will, to keep the newscaster's head clear of any notions of catering to an audience. But as Reese says, "Will McAvoy is the biggest ratings whore in the business." And true to form, they do meet, and Reese does break down the numbers, noting that conservatives like him because he doesn't take cheap shots at the right. So what does Reese want him to do? Go out of his way and give Sarah Palin a break while the rest of media slammed her for the comments she made about Barack Obama's response to the BP oil spill.
If there is any word to describe Will McAvoy, it's unpredictable, but the general consensus is that you better not cross him. And unfortunately for Mackenzie, she does, albeit accidentally. While offering Sloan (Olivia Munn) -- an economic analyst who could be working on Wall Street for much more money but chooses TV instead (yeah, right) -- five minutes each night on Will's show to talk about the economy, she learns that the rumor going around the office is that Will cheated on her. Mortified, she tries to set the record straight with Sloan (awkwardly, in the way that only Mortimer can sell it), before she decides to email Will, letting him know that the office thinks he cheated on her, when in fact it was the other way around. Unfortunately, she accidentally emails the entire staff, not just Will. Oops.
Needless to say, Will is livid that the details of their relationship are now common knowledge. And yet, despite the blowup, he gets over it pretty quickly (probably made easier by the fact that Mackenzie admits the affair only confirmed how much she loved him)…but what stuns him into silence is the extra bit of news that their big "get" interview for the night's broadcast -- Arizona governor Jan Brewer (to talk about their controversial immigration bill) -- has fallen through. Instead, he'll be talking to a self-proclaimed academic, a beauty pageant star and a member of a citizen's militia group about immigration. Margaret (Alison Pill) botched the pre-interview with Brewer's rep -- someone who she used to date that cheated her on while she was literally in the room. And while she fesses up the mistake to Will, and suggests she might just move to the 10 o'clock broadcast where her boyfriend Don (Thomas Sadoski) is now working, he surprisingly overlooks the error and says that he hopes she'll stay.
As for Mackenzie, she doesn't get off so easy. The interview with the three substitutes for Brewer is a trainwreck disaster, yet despite her calls from the control booth to cut it short, Will keeps it going, with each passing moment, question and comment getting more and more agonizing. And then with one more ace up his sleeve, he slips in a news item about Sarah Palin's BP oil comments behind Mackenzie's back, and then goes uneasily out of his way to be sympathetic to the governor's gaffe.
Running an hour long, we'd argue that the extra ten or twelve minutes that Sorkin has that he didn't get when he was on network television, is a bit of an issue (next week's episode will suffer from what we're about to mention). "News Night 2.0" takes forever to wrap up, with space given for a rah-rah call to arms by Mackenzie to Will where she tells him to be the leader and moral centre of the show, and we get more of the brewing and soon to be irritating Jim/Pam from "The Office" style relationship between Margaret and Jim (John Gallagher Jr.)
But perhaps worse, Sorkin continually feels the need to make us believe Will is a good person (instead of a conflicted one). To cap off the show (soundtracked to the poor choice of Radiohead's "High And Dry" for some reason), we see Will call Neal (Dev Patel) who pitched a story about an illegal immigrant who had his license taken away by the state, which prevents him from getting to work and driving his children to school. While the idea of interviewing him was shot down for the show, Will tells Neal to call the man and arrange a taxi service for him to get to work and deliver his kids to school, but to keep it on the downlow. Aww. It's just too bad that thus far, Will is either a tyrant or a softie, with little in between, making these wild swings between anger and kindness come off as bipolar.
As we've said before idealism is both the crutch and distinguishing factor to "The Newsroom" that Sorkin and the writers struggle with. The show works best and is at its most insightful when dealing with the messy middle ground, where ideals, politics and morals clash, but whenever it shifts to blatant speech mongering, or misty eyed nostalgia at the golden age of journalism, that overt directness of its stance actually diminishes the dramatic power. But it's still not enough to keep us from watching. Flawed as it is, the cast is uniformly excellent, it's energetic in a way that few dramas are and goddamn if it's not entertaining as well. But so far, season one is rolling out a bit patchy -- as often eye-rolling as it is brilliant -- and it will be interesting to see if it can level out. [B-]