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The Newsroom Recap: A Mission to Civilize

At least The Newsroom’s characters are as imbalanced as the show is. It’s New Year's 2011, and the whole office is, well, in the office. December 31, 2010 was a Friday, so perhaps they had just wrapped a show, ready to welcome the New Year with like-minded workaholics. Despite the fluorescent lights, everybody looks pretty good. Maggie is va-va-vooming in a red dress. Don, hair-slicked, is calling her over like a dog; she happily obeys. Jim is left behind, hunched over work that a senior producer almost always delegates. Neal consoles him until Tom Haverford’s on-again-off-again shows up and turns Neal into a frat boy — “BOOM!” — and off they go to reenact Bigfoot mating rituals.

And then of course there’s the $4,000-tux-wearing Will, cigarette in hand, channeling a journalistic Don Draper. Other than Don’s pursuit of a fulfilling personal life, it’s all there — shouting down anyone who challenges him, complicated relationships with his female colleagues, self-aware chauvinism. But Will is as morally rigid as Don is flexible, and this episode of The Newsroom suggests that the world favors Drapers over McAvoys, that balance beats zealotry. The ones who get ahead are the ones who are willing to compromise, not the ones who are overearnest, smug, self-congratulatory, moralizing, patronizing, paternalistic, principled, pretentious, and elitist patriarchs. Maybe Aaron Sorkin can learn something from his own script.

At the party, Will, despite bedding all of Manhattan, doesn’t know how to hit on a woman. (Such is the privileged life of the TV persona: It all comes to them.) Will’s only fodder for conversation is an in-depth discussion of the Department of Justice’s prosecutorial budget. (Speaking of, how convenient, and pro forma, that Wade works for the feds. Odds that that’s going to come in handy in a future episode? 1–1?) What Will needs is a wingman, but seeing as he doesn’t have any friends besides Charlie, he’s forced to make nice with the gossip reporter on his own. It ends in a drink to the face, justifying those critics that compared Newsroom to Smash. (This will happen again later in the episode.)

The drink splashes leave a stain. Will ends up in the gossip rags for being an ass — "Page Six" never lies — and the non-scandal makes its way into TMI, a TMZ and Us Weekly mash-up owned by the same company that owns News Night. But how did so much of Will’s personal life leak to the press? In Newsroom’s first effective plot twist, it dawns on Charlie that Leona was serious when she said she wasn’t fucking around last week. She was, indeed, planning to play some golf. She wants Will off the air so badly she’s going to throw a 3-Wood through his reputation.

This is new territory for Sorkin and the show. Until now, The Newsroom has been obsessed with the somewhat false dichotomy between commercialism and idealism. Leona’s motivations certainly spring from that eternal well, but it’s Will’s overzealousness that allows her plan to be set in motion. If Will believed in even the slightest semblance of balance — between work and life, between news and triviality, between men and women — Leona wouldn’t be able to assassinate his career. Could it be that Sorkin, after writing hundreds of hours of TV that suggest the imbalanced are admirable, has crafted a new show that’s a sleeper cell arguing the opposite?

If only. While Will, Charlie, Don, and MacKenzie are discussing the Leona situation, Maggie and Coldplay come bursting into Will’s office. Once Maggie sends News Night into BREAKING NEWS mode, it’s clear that Sorkin’s point is not that balance is the only healthy option — it’s that imbalance is sometimes necessary to produce great creative work. To be imbalanced is also to be selfless; Will is willing to sacrifice his personal, psychological, and emotional life for his professional one.

Poor Gabby Giffords has gone from national cause to narrative device in eighteen months. By using Giffords as an emotional climax, Sorkin has trivialized the news, exactly the kind of thing that Sorkin has spent four episodes railing against. As Will has told us dozens of times, wringing the news for its emotional juice and discarding the rest makes bad journalism.

But it does make good TV. The montage of News Night scrambling to get on air works for the same reason the BP scene worked in the pilot — it’s actually wonderful to watch these people do what they’re great at doing. All the romantic bumbling and the overblown speechifying belies these characters’ competence at delivering breaking news. Like real TV news, Newsroom is at its best when it has a sense of urgency.

So the crew kicks the entertainment reporter off the air — more evidence that a diversity of topics has no place in Sorkin’s newstopia — and gets to work. Other news outlets think Giffords is dead — but the News Night crew does not. Reese — keeping up his Sorkin Villain dress code in a blazer and T-shirt — doesn’t care. He wants them to say Giffords is dead for the sake of ratings. “It's a person. A doctor pronounces her dead, not 'the news,'” Don tells Reese, making me tingle. (I blame the Coldplay.) And, surprise, Don is right: Giffords isn’t dead.

At least until next week’s issue of TMI comes out, neither is Will’s career. His personal life, though, remains moribund. Such is the price to pay to be a “fucking newsman.”

Story Lines I Missed in 2010:

There’s now enough grist for a weekly Sorkin Chauvinism Watch, chronicling the most garish examples of Sorkin’s distaste for his female characters:

  • Poor Olivia Munn, already relegated to not doing very much besides wearing off-shoulder blouses.
  • Will to a conference room full of his employees: “Can I say in my defense, do you see her legs?” The room, like the audience, groans.
  • Lisa, before her date with Jim, wonders if she’s too dumb for him.
  • Are we really to believe MacKenzie doesn’t know Don Quixote was originally written in Spanish, not French?

In non-feminist matters:

  • When do we get our Brittany Giancarlo spinoff, Sorkin? Many would rather watch an acidic send-up of reality TV than a reverential send-up of TV news.
  • Was there any point to the episode-long Bigfoot subplot other than to eventually goad everyone into the office on a Saturday so that they could cover the Gabby Giffords shooting they didn’t know was going to happen? Serious question, was there some metaphor that I was missing there?
  • I suppose there were some things that happened between Maggie and Jim and Don and Lisa and Rod Stewart: Don gets Lisa and Jim together to make Maggie jealous; Jim takes the bait to make Maggie jealous; Maggie gets jealous; Jim — as pasty as Lisa is lacy — sleeps with Lisa but lies to Maggie about it; Maggie calls Jim while this is happening; Don calls Lisa while that is happening; Maggie hears Lisa’s phone; Maggie and Don look at each other meaningfully; Jim and Maggie look at each other meaningfully; the whole subplot continues to not be very meaningful.
  • Name-drops I caught this week: Oklahoma!, Annie Get Your Gun, Annie Oakley, Don Quixote (again), Carrie Bradshaw, Rod Stewart. What’d I miss?
Photo: Melissa Moseley/HBO