SPOILER WARNING – THIS IS FROM SUNDAY’S US BROADCAST, AND MAJOR PLOT POINTS ARE DISCUSSED. DON’T READ AHEAD IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN EPISODE 4 YET.
“What you do is a really bad form of pollution, that makes us dumber, and meaner, and is destroying civilisation. I’m saying, with all possible respect, that I would have more respect for you if you were a heroin dealer.”
After being pushed very much to the background last week, the soap opera aspects of The Newsroom pretty much dominated this week’s episode. And you know what? It was actually very entertaining, and as ever, the character drama came to have a real bearing on the points Aaron Sorkin was trying to make, and the larger issues of the plot as a whole.
For most of the episode, the actual news reporting was fairly thin on the ground, eclipsed for the first time by the drama/comedy surrounding the characters. But the Sorkin sermonising (not necessarily a bad thing) was very much in evidence both in these occasional flashes of the news and in the drama throughout.
Targeted again this week was the extreme right, and particularly its outspoken mouthpieces in the media. Hence, Will had a pop at the media narrative that Obama is fanatical about gun control, debunking that myth and adding that those who propagate it benefit by gaining viewers and a massive upswing in gun sales. The point was not to take a stance about gun control (though later events in the story made Sorkin’s views on that pretty clear) but to highlight the media lies about it from many hyperbolic rightwing institutions. Considering that the show is primarily about media integrity, this was an important distinction to make, one that was hammered home repeatedly by characters within the show not ‘getting it’ themselves.
To follow that up, Will took an indepth look at the media myth current at the time that Obama was spending $2 billion of taxpayer money on a trade negotiating trip to India. Again, this was thoroughly debunked with actual facts rather than rumour (“travelling with 34 warships, or 14% of the US Navy?!”). These retorts were aimed at actual clips of hard right pundits such as Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh, which intrigued me a little. Do these guys need to give permission for footage of them to be used on a drama show, I wonder? If so, it seems remarkably magnanimous of them to allow that use in such a damning context on such a liberal-leaning script! Mind you (and again, I’m not too clear on the state law here), I spent a while early in the episode marvelling that Will McAvoy can so freely smoke in the workplace. Having been to New York City, I know that smoking is banned in most such places…
I must say though, that the show’s consistent focus on debunking the myths of the right is in danger of making Will McAvoy and co seem as partisan as those whose work they’re decrying. OK, Will is employing facts rather than rhetoric or opinion, but the repeated target of his (admittedly well-constructed) arguments seems quite one-sided. Is the US liberal media (small though it may be) not guilty of any similar transgressions? I’m no rightwinger, but I’ve seen plenty of left wing polemic that could equally easily be demolished by the use of actual facts. Sorkin has the getout clause that Will is a centrist, moderate Republican, but thus far we’ve seen scant evidence that he holds much in the way of conservative views. I suppose it’s fair to say that the liberal media play a far smaller part in shaping the American political narrative as a whole, making them less of a viable target. Still, some balance would be welcome.
Having said all that, the politics seemingly took second place this week in an episode primarily devoted to advancing the character drama. This it did very well, and I’m warming to this aspect of the show more than I did at the beginning, when the characters seemed little more than cyphers.
It all began at a typically awkward workplace New Year’s Eve party, which at least means the story has now advanced to 2011. Much relationship-based skulduggery was unfolding, as Don (still, at this point, being an unperceptive asshole) tried to set Maggie’s roommate Lisa up with Jim, while Neal was functioning as the comic relief nerd, in his overly earnest attempts to convince his workmates that Bigfoot is actually real. I thought this thread, returned to throughout the episode, did his character something of a disservice after having skewed the stereotypical perception of ‘nerds’ last week. But aside from giving a few cheap laughs, it did ultimately have a payoff at the end of the show.
As did Will’s comically hilarious attempts to date various women, with the dubious advice of the none too helpful Sloan (The Daily Show’s Olivia Munn). “This is not my area of expertise”, she commented – a reference to fellow Daily Show alumnus John Hodgman’s book The Areas of My Expertise, perhaps? In any case, a slight degree of contrivance, that put Will in social situations with women he was bound to disagree with, allowed us to see how his forthright principles make him a pretty lousy Don Juan. Each encounter started well, developed into an argument, and ended with Will having a drink thrown in his face. A bit forced maybe, but done so well by Jeff Daniels that it was hard not to laugh while simultaneously nodding in agreement with him.
Significantly, the first of these ill-advised pickup attempts was a gossip columnist for ACN’s own parent company, and it was she who held the key to the theme of the whole cleverly constructed script – the disturbing rise of the celebrity gossip culture, and its increasing precedence over news that that actually has any real import. As the episode progressed, Will found himself at the centre of a suspiciously well-informed campaign of gossip attack that had details of each and every one of his failed conquests.
Again, Will’s diatribes made Aaron Sorkin’s stance on this culture fairly clear – why, Will kept arguing, is a ‘celebrity’ personal life somehow fair game for the kind of invasion of privacy that most people would find monstrous? And why, when so many genuinely important things are happening in the world, do so many choose to focus on this instead? The whole ironic “guilty pleasure” thing was dismissed summarily (shortly before its exponent, Will’s second date of the week, threw the requisite drink in his face).
In the UK, we’re familiar with such arguments from the interminably long Leveson Inquiry into press standards, which despite its length seems to throw up new horrors every week. And yet, while I tend to share Sorkin’s views, I found his contempt for that public appetite for gossip a little difficult to deal with. It’s one thing to condone the tapping of a public figure’s private phone message, but quite another (and far less serious) to enjoy the glut of reality shows that came in for so much withering criticism from Will. I too think they’re asinine nonsense (as I wrote in a VERY ranting blog post once), but I’ve realised that I have no right to deny other people’s enjoyment of this stuff whatever my opinion of it. People have different tastes. And if enjoying the panem et circenses of reality shows is a choice freely taken (without underhand exploitation of their ‘stars’), who am I to deny it?
Still, the gossip campaign against Will continued to mount until, finally, it became clear that it was the advancement of a vital plot thread whose apparent abandonment I was ready to be critical about this week. Charlie suddenly realised that, given some of the information, the gossip had to be coming from inside their own organisation. And suddenly it became clear that this was the ‘context’ Leona Lansing had talked about manufacturing last week, the climate by which it would be seen as righteous for ACN to sack Will. This was a very clever way of both advancing the story and addressing the theme of invasive celebrity gossip, and it was at this point that I marvelled somewhat at Sorkin’s clever construction of the narrative.
The Maggie/Don/Jim romcom plot was also heavy throughout, but actually seemed more plausible than in previous instalments. Maggie is still inexplicably intent on salvaging her relationship with Don, but obviously hasn’t come to terms with her feelings for Jim yet. And plainly, despite his altruism in trying to salve her relationship, neither has Jim, hence feeling the need to lie about how well his date with her roommate went and whether he’d be seeing her again. Unfortunately for Maggie, Don chose this point to demonstrate that he’s still an asshole by underhandedly revealing to her that Jim was again with Lisa late at night (“she really should change that ringtone”). This led to an almighty slanging match in the newsroom which severely disrupted Neal’s latest attempt to promote the reality of Bigfoot in the meeting room (“this isn’t soundproof glass!”).
This may seem like pretty light stuff, but it was genuinely enjoyable to watch. And the show managed to pull an eleventh hour ‘serious’ plot thread from its sleeve with the sudden news of the January 2011 Tucson shootings at a rally for Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. Suddenly we were again into one of those electrifying, action-packed ‘breaking news’ moments that the show does so well. And along the way came another chance to reaffirm our heroes’ atypical integrity, as they refused to bow to corporate pressure to follow other news organisations’ lines in pronouncing Giffords dead without official confirmation.
Here again, the show’s setting in the recent past perhaps allowed too much perfection in Will and co’s reporting, but it also gave Don the chance to unexpectedly reveal that he’s not a complete asshole after all. In the face of corporate lackey Reece’s furious insistence that Will pronounce Giffords dead, Don spoke up to say, “doctors pronounce people dead, not the news”. It was an unabashed ‘punch the air’ moment, made more resonant by the sentiment being put forward by the show’s resident dickhead, and made Don finally seem like less of a cardboard cutout asshole. Mind you, I had to wonder at the time why Will couldn’t have commented with something like “some news outlets are reporting the Congresswoman’s death, however there is no confirmation for this at this time and we will update you when we have an official statement either way”.
It was another great set piece of reportage, but I did have one criticism. I really wish Sorkin would refrain from employing what’s by now a massively overused cliche of US drama – the climactic montage soundtracked by a ‘profound’ emotional song. In this case, it was Coldplay’s ‘Fix You’, which Sorkin obviously likes well enough to quote in the episode title. While it might work as dramatic shorthand, it’s such an overused trope by now that you’d think a dramatist of Sorkin’s skill wouldn’t fall back on it so easily.
Criticisms aside, this was another enjoyable episode of a show that, for me, is improving week by week from an already promising start. I’m glad to see that The Newsroom has definitely been renewed for a second season, as given time it might even rival the venerated West Wing in viewers’ affections.