After last night’s episode ended, a friend turned to me and said that The Newsroom isn’t a TV show, it’s a TV tell. All the bloviation, all the deus ex machina, all the straw men: The Newsroom is more op-ed than fiction. Sorkin is putting together something so different than what we usually see on TV that we don’t know how to evaluate it. Yes, it’s bad television. But is it bad tell-evision?
Maybe it’s all the vapors coming from The Newsroom’s hot air factory, but I’m thinking maybe not. Last night’s episode was as enjoyable as it was dysfunctional. It had pace, elegant structure, and wit. (When Mack rejoiced that Will had made a joke, I did the same. Sorkin sometimes forgets to be funny when he’s channeling fury.) It had a lot of people using fax machines. And, most important, it had the introduction of a real villain, and that villain just so happens to be a fabulously capitalistic Jane Fonda.
But we begin where the show begins. What other show would have the audacity to use Richard Clarke as a warm-up act? And then what other show would think to follow Clarke with a 720-word, five-minute monologue? When some enterprising fan makes an “Aaron Sorkin: The Monologues” supercut, I hope Will’s apologia gets its due. It wasn’t the president screaming Latin to the gods as a storm gathers, but it was a news anchor comparing the mediocrity of his profession to 9/11. What’s next, comparing the “courtroom” of News Night to the Nuremberg trials?
The monologue itself is like something from Olbermann’s Countdown days, but stripped of all the rage. The overblown language is there — “We'll be … the mortal enemy of innuendo, speculation, hyperbole, and nonsense” — but without Olbermann’s burbling derangement. Will has replaced it with his special brand of paternalism. “We're not waiters in a restaurant serving the story just the way you asked for it prepared,” Will says. “We are the media elite.” He was generous enough to edit out his original line: “We know better than you, you sniveling pieces of proletariat.”
Nevertheless, the speech is great, the kind of rhetoric that soar(kin)s so high you want to ignore its minor logical flaws. (Even if Sarnoff and Paley had secured ad-free news, there’s no way it would have lasted decades of media deregulation.) News Night’s staff is energized by the new call to action, reeling off a series of shows that lay the tea party bare, Koch brothers be damned. Will, too, seems to have his mojo back, trotting out cheerleaders, brain surgeons, and any other one-dimensional floosy Sorkin can offer for sacrifice.
But six months of the new Will has made Leona so nervous she’s calling mysterious meetings in a windowless conference room. (Purgatory? Hell? Torture chamber?) There she lurks silently while henchmen do her bidding, a Cruella De Vil who knows how to delegate. She’s a competent woman who’s somehow not flighty; an avowed Democrat but conniving political player; and a coddler and devourer of her son (who has a hint of an Oedipus complex going) — could it be that Leona is a brand-new Sorkin archetype, impervious to Sorkin Character Calculus™? Certainly Fonda plays her like one. She read her lines like she had just swallowed some Icy Hot. Her cool detachment can transition to an angry flash as quick as she can say, “Careful with the lectures.” (Sorkin’s superego, this Leona.)
Most important, Leona offers the show something it’s sorely been lacking: stakes. No matter how persuasive Sorkin makes Will, it’s clear that, unless Sorkin breaks from history, he’s ultimately going to lose his battle against fluff news. Sure, Will spent the weeks leading up to the midterm elections devastating the tea party, but the tea party still won. Sure, News Night did yeoman’s work covering the BP oil spill, but we still found deformed fish in the Gulf two years later. Sure, Maggie’s nuanced coverage of the Times Square bomber story was noble, but Americans are still as nervous about Muslims as they always are.
Up until now, the show has been about doing good news so that it can change the country — but we know that the country can’t be changed. The past is the past; fictional events rooted in past realities have to lead to a future rooted in that same reality. This is The Newsroom’s stunted arc — all talk, no resolution. The show is nothing more than a time capsule that won’t shut up.
But Leona alters the equation a bit. Because while we’ll always know what comes next in the news, we won’t know what comes next for Will. Her “I’ll fire him, Charlie,” was exactly the kind of grandiose existential threat that the show has been missing. We’ve been told this show is about whether principles can succeed in a world of low standards and base capitalism. But until now, defeat just meant that Will didn’t get people to watch the news. Leona’s threat suggests a more existential scenario.
This stark delineation of good and evil, hero and villain, right and wrong, is not what we’re used to seeing on cable TV. HBO, after all, brought us Tony Soprano, the founding father of moral ambiguity. But The Newsroom is too busy being a morality play to be ambiguous, as it’s all too happy to tell you.
Fine, I suppose there should be some mention of the characters’ predictable personal lives:
- Will: Sleeping with women to get back at MacKenzie; disappointed when MacKenzie is doing the same to him; having trouble sleeping because Charlie is prank-faxing him.
- MacKenzie: Disappointed Will is sleeping with women to get back at her; sleeping with Wade to get back at him; still has no friends.
- Maggie: Living with a woman who only brings home Xanax-addicts; calls Don “babe”; breaks up with Don, gets back together with Don, kisses Don inappropriately while in uncomfortable positions on stairwells; has panic attacks.
- Don: Wears a necklace to bed; gets drunk and talks about “mandates” like he’s John Roberts at a holiday party; has relationship with his anchor that is directly correlated with his relationship to Maggie.
- Jim: Is known as “him” among Maggie and her roommates; is even worse at romance than he is at telling war stories; can recall entire sections of the Army field manual at will; uses “I’m going to check your pulse” as a pickup line.
- Neal: Shtupping some girl who wears a bra to bed; is the only able-bodied blogger in the world to use voice-transcription software to write his posts; murmurs the name “Julian Assange” in his sleep.
And some other thoughts:
- There were yet more stupid Republicans in this episode. Maybe this is why Will is so convinced that we don’t have a well-informed electorate— because the only voters he meets are the idiots to whom Sorkin introduces him.
- In a nice moment of art imitating life, HBO this week canceled a movie on Fox News. “As we thought about proceeding, it became clear to us that given that we and CNN are part of the same company, it wasn't appropriate for us to develop further.” You do not come down on the Murdochs without checking upstairs!
- Anyone else trying to perfect a Charlie imitation? It’s a little churlishness with a lot of neck wobble. Bow tie optional, whiskey mandatory.
- A record-setting name-drop episode, and it may be a record that stands all season. My count: Edward R. Murrow, Harry Reasoner, Chet Huntley, David Brinkley, Walter Cronkite, Dan Rather, Tim Russert, David Sarnoff, William Paley, Media Matters, Think Progress, Howard Kurtz, Columbia Journalism Review, Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), Little Shop of Horrors, Sharron Angle, Peabody Awards, Federico Fellini, David and Charles Koch, Gomer Pyle, Dr. Phil, Burgess Meredith, Momma Rose in Gypsy, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Inception, Brigadoon. What’d I miss?