The Newsroom: Season 1, Episode 10–The Greater Fool

“The greater fool is someone with the perfect blend of self-delusion and ego, to think that he can succeed where others have failed. This whole country was made by greater fools.”

NewsroomMackenzieWill

Now that’s how to do a season finale. In a day when I’ve seen two such beasts, it was reassuring to know that, despite my equivocal feelings on the True Blood one, The Newsroom came up trumps with a stirring finale that seemed to encapsulate all the strengths (and, yes, weaknesses) of the show so far. Plots were resolved, character arcs completed, and a sense of closure achieved, even while leaving avenues open for the story to continue.

Of course, this is probably because The Newsroom finale, unlike True Blood, was written before it was known whether the show would be renewed. That closure was needed in case this was the last we ever saw of Will, Mack and the gang. Aaron Sorkin has presumable learned from bitter experience that a TV showrunner doesn’t always manage to finish those ambitious multi-season arcs, and the result is an ending that the viewer can feel satisfied with that doesn’t preclude further stories.

How much you enjoyed this depended (like the series as a whole, in fact) on your tolerance of two things. Firstly, Aaron Sorkin using the drama as a platform for grandstanding his own political views. That one I have no problem with. Secondly, the fact that the storytelling, characters and direction are unashamedly old-fashioned. Will and Mack are basically Tracy and Hepburn. Charlie Skinner is every wise old mentor in every news drama. Leona is every grasping corporate executive with a hidden heart of gold. And every problem can be solved at the last minute by the basic common decency of the people involved, who all pull together and make it right.

That kind of storytelling can often rankle with me, particularly because of its heartstring-tugging sentiment. In my early reviews of The Newsroom, it was a style I did find somewhat objectionable, but it’s a measure of how much I’ve come to like the show that while I still see those flaws, they matter less to me now.

Which was fortunate, because that need for character closure meant that this finale was lighter on the actual news stories than most episodes. After all, we had to deal with all the soap opera. Can Will and Mack overcome their past and get together, as they’re plainly meant to be? Can Maggie and Jim? And in a shock reveal this week, can (gasp) Don and Sloan?

The ‘rom com’ aspects of the characters have always been the biggest stumbling block for me – it’s a recurring Sorkin trope that various major characters must behave as though they’re constantly in a Richard Curtis movie. But by this point, I’ve come to care about the characters enough to genuinely want to see how it all plays out.

Not that it doesn’t still make me gnash my teeth with frustration every time that Jim and Maggie just miss out on getting together. This week, they came closer than ever before, due to a Freudian slip in a restaurant and a surprisingly vitriolic diatribe against Sex and the City.

So Maggie ‘accidentally’ let slip to Lisa how hard it was to see her with Jim, meaning she’s not only admitted her feelings to Lisa, but more importantly, to herself. Which was where Sex and the City came in. Having been soaked by a passing tour bus for that show’s NYC locations, Maggie totally went off on one about what it’s really like to be a single girl in New York: “Not all of our jobs revolve around shoes and gallery openings!” I’m guessing Aaron Sorkin’s not a big fan of Sarah Jessica Parker and the girls…

Unfortunately, Maggie’s rant included her feelings about her best friend’s boyfriend, who she now knows came to see her that fateful night in the last episode. I say ‘unfortunately’ because in a genuinely funny (if hugely contrived) moment of high romantic comedy, said boyfriend was actually atop that same tour bus, trying desperately to cram up on Lisa’s favourite TV show.

Yes, it was very much the stuff of traditional rom coms as Maggie realised and tried frantically to backpedal on her declaration. But I still laughed! And to cut a long story short, they kissed, dear reader. I mean, thank God! At last! They’ve finally worked out who they want to be with!

But oh no, Jim knows that the commitment Maggie finds lacking in Don is just round the corner, as he’s going to ask her (for all the wrong reasons) to move in with him. And so, her mind is changed back. Again. Just as Sloan has, quite unexpectedly, revealed not only an insight into Don’s personality (he thinks he’s a bad guy and tries to hard to be ‘good’) but also that she wants to go out with him herself! Just when you thought it was all resolved, the Don/Maggie/Jim/Lisa quadrangle is now a pentangle.

Ah well, I’ve resigned myself to the fact that this is obviously going to run and run – at least as long as the show does. Arguably more important is the relationship between Will and Mack, as the de facto leads of the ensemble, and slightly more progress was made there. In a script full of shout outs to the opening episode (I love a good circular narrative), Will revealed that the whole Don Quixote-like quest for his own integrity started with that ‘hallucination’ of Mack at the University seminar. And wouldn’t you just know it, Mack happened to be carrying the exact same pad she was that day, with her prompts to him still written on it.

So Will now knows that Mack was really there, and cares for him as much as she believes in him. Not sure that justifies such overwhelmingly sickly dialogue as “I bet your heart’s melting just now, isn’t it?”, but it turned out to be germane to the wider plot as Will made Mack aware of the message that he’d left her while stoned on the night of Bin Laden’s death. A message, it turned out, that Mack hadn’t received but bitchy gossip columnist Nina had. There could be only one explanation – Mack’s phone had been hacked and the message deleted.

That was a typical last-minute save after Charlie’s NSA source had been shown as lacking credibility, then actually killed himself apparently in desperation at the uncaring attitude of his own children. That’s more of that old-fashioned storytelling, right there – spend most of the episode dashing Charlie’s (and our) hopes of getting the upper hand over Leona Lansing, then pull out the save at the last minute.

And ‘hand’ really is the correct term here – the final showdown with Leona and Reese turned out to be as good a poker bluff as I’ve ever seen. The envelope full of ‘evidence’ Charlie brought along turned out to be Hancock’s recipe for beef stew. But by the time Leona found that out, Reese had already admitted to having ordered the hacking (after some James Murdoch-like slippery equivocation about “maximising profit”).

Given that this makes Leona effectively the Rupert Murdoch figure here, the script wrongfooted me by actually giving her more of a conscience than the genuine article. She was appalled at Reese’s methods (I notice the list of hackees involved some very emotive ones like relatives of Somali kidnap victims). And she finally succumbed to Charlie’s appeal to her integrity by letting the News Night crew just get on with it, but only with the stern warning that Will shouldn’t miss the target. Good advice from Jane Fonda, whose unfeasibly fit body had been the subject of Will’s opening remarks at the meeting – a nice sly reference to all those ‘Jane Fonda Workout’ videos so prevalent in the 80s.

And that target, as it has been throughout, was the Tea Party. The actual tangible news story the criticism was hooked to was the increasing use of a photo ID requirement to disenfranchise poorer voters in Republican states – not coincidentally, those voters least likely to vote Republican. This despite the fact that a Bush-era survey taken over several years revealed a mere 86 instances of voter fraud in a country of 314 million people.

Like so many of the issues the show addresses, this is still absolutely relevant, especially with the 2012 Presidential elections mere weeks away. As Will pointed out, some 33 Republican controlled states have instituted similar measures which make their poorer citizens less likely to be allowed to vote. It is, and should be, an absolute scandal – voter manipulation to ensure a doctored result. Jon Stewart has been rightly focusing heavily on it on The Daily Show, pointing out the same absurdities that Will McAvoy has; the motives seem very clear when you realise how little voter fraud actually happens. It is, plain and simple, to stop those who would vote against Republicans from voting at all. As an amusing side issue, there’s now a theory that Mitt Romney himself may actually be one of that tiny minority of actual electoral fraudsters, and that’s why he refuses to release his tax records from the period concerned…

Still, it’s really just the tip of an iceberg that is the Tea Party’s seizure of the Republicans. This final episode served to let Sorkin really let rip as to his opinions of that – Mitch McConnell’s asinine outbursts came in for scathing criticism, as did the repeated Tea Party insistence that the USA was founded as a “Christian nation” – despite evidence to the contrary from the Founding Fathers, and not least from the US Constitution itself. Sorkin’s indignation was neatly summed up at the end by Will on air, speaking the show creator’s words:

”Ideological purity. Compromise as weakness. A fundamentalist belief in scriptural literalism. Denying science. Unmoved by facts. Undeterred by new information. A hostile fear of progress. A demonization of education. A need to control women’s bodies. Severe xenophobia. Tribal mentality. Intolerance of dissent, and a pathological hatred of the US government. They can call themselves the Tea Party. They can call themselves conservatives. And they can even call themselves Republicans – though Republicans certainly shouldn’t. But we should call them what they are – the American Taliban. And the American Taliban cannot survive if Dorothy Cooper is allowed to vote.”

Yes, the shots of everyone watching (including Leona) looking tearfully moved were cheesy in an Airplane-style that’s easy to mock. But it was stirring. And in a week which has seen the Republicans settle on the most reactionary political platform in their history, it’s absolutely relevant and frighteningly true. This, for me, is what makes The Newsroom compelling drama, week after week – an address to real world issues that, in actual US news media, are worryingly neglected.

There’s an element of confirmation bias, of course – I already feel the way Sorkin does about these issues, and I doubt anyone who holds the views he despises will be much inclined to change them on the say so of a fictional character like Will McAvoy. But by using drama to give us facts that are all too often overlooked by an increasingly partisan press (the liberal side becoming every bit as bad as the conservative one, it seems), Sorkin sweetens a bitter pill that we all need to swallow. The medicine’s easier to take if administered by the charming likes of Will, Mack and Charlie, and I’ve enjoyed it so much I’m looking forward to more next year.

The Newsroom: Season 1, Episode 9–The Blackout part 2: Mock Debate

“The story is this: Will is a heavyweight, and for a long time he pretended to be a lightweight.”

NewsroomDebate

I still think it’s an odd/brave decision to have The Newsroom’s first two-part story at this point – in the first season before the show has properly proved itself, but late in that season so that there’s actually only one more episode after it. But actually the rationale holds up a little more strongly than I thought now I’ve seen ‘Part 2’ – because apart from the somewhat contrived cliffhanger last week, it doesn’t really feel like a two-part story at all, merely another episode in what’s basically an ongoing drama serial. In fact, given that it’s hard to point to any episode that feels totally self-contained so far, the whole idea of a two-part ‘story’ seems rather redundant.

Having said all that, how does this stack up as a ‘conclusion’ to The Blackout? From a straightforward perspective of dramatic structure, not all that well. We open with the studio in darkness, the evening’s broadcast jeopardised at the worst possible time, with ratings dropping and the network execs circling like sharks scenting blood. But Mack insists that, with a little ingenuity, they can carry on. Generators can be procured. Permissions can be obtained from the NYPD. And the show can be broadcast, from a single camera, right on the streets of New York City. Yes, Goddammit, let’s do the show right here!

It was an inspirational speech – but a contrived seeming one, like Bill Pullman’s toe-curling effort in Independence Day. Thankfully, just as it really was starting to look like an old Judy Garland musical where they stage the show in the barn, the lights came back on, to Mack’s disappointment. It was a belly laugh moment, and worked well at that; but having the ‘crisis’ of last week’s cliffhanger resolved (with no intervention from the heroes) in the first five minutes of the episode seemed to not only undermine the cliffhanger, but make the ‘two-part’ format seem a bit of a contrived cheat.

Further, it seemed to make the title a bit of a nonsense too – why call it The Blackout when said blackout, presumably intended as the dramatic pivot of the episodes, came and went in a couple of minutes? Still, Aaron Sorkin’s a clever man, so I immediately started looking for a more metaphorical meaning. Was it the ‘blacking out’ of honest news? The ‘blacking out’ of Mack and Will’s integrity, in their compromise over Casey Anthony to keep their proposed GOP debate? Had I missed something?

Still, if the ‘blackout’ of the title was a metaphor that passed me by (assuming it was more than a reference to a momentary plot blip), at least the second part of the title made sense on two levels. Yes, it was about a ‘mock debate’ staged by the newsroom staff to gain RNC approval for ANC to host it; but it was also about ‘mocking the debate’, as it became clear that the RNC shills sent to evaluate ANC’s proposal were never going to approve this in a million years, and the US voter would be left with such penetrating questions as CNN’s, “Miss Bachmann, do you prefer Elvis or Johnny Cash?”

Yes, after last week’s plethora of news story targets, this week the show focused down on just a couple, most prominent of which was those interminable Republican Primary debates that seemed to take up most of last year. The older of the two RNC officials (Adam Arkin as Adam Roth) sent to evaluate ANC’s approach used to work with Will in the Bush (1) White House, and shared his distaste for the pablum that passes for political debate on TV these days. But principles can be a costly thing; he can’t afford to stand up for them when the GOP’s wages are paying for his son to attend Stanford.

Sadly, it was obvious to anyone with a knowledge of how this kind of drama works that Will and Mack’s proposed debate format was never going to get off the ground. The Newsroom can comment on recent history, but to show our fictional characters taking an active part in such real events would stray too far out of the real world Sorkin’s so intent on commenting on. Nonetheless, it made the frustration he felt about the debates perfectly clear. As Roth commented, Will’s approach would “clear out the clown car” of the more outlandish Republican hopefuls. No such luck; instead we got a seemingly endless series of debates which began increasingly to resemble the theatre of the absurd, at the end of which the Party settled on the candidate least likely to cause offence. That Mitt Romney was that man tells you quite something about the electability of his competitors.

A shame we never got to see more of the mock debate, but I concede that Sorkin had already spent a fair bit of time last week demolishing the bizarre rhetoric of some of the more eccentric contenders. Instead, there were a few more tidbits on the newsworthiness of the Casey Anthony and Anthony Weiner stories. In particular, the absurdity of singling out the Casey Anthony trial as ‘tragedy porn’ was highlighted when it (highly conveniently) turned out that Maggie’s roommate (and Jim’s ‘Schrodinger’s girlfriend’) Lisa actually went to school with Casey, and was therefore summoned to appear on air as a promotable interviewee and an exclusive.

Her appearance was secured following a somewhat protracted comic scene showing Jim and Maggie pestering her at her job (selling insanely expensive dresses for commission only). Yes, it was quite amusing, but felt a bit dragged out – even though the script managed to work in an almost-quote from British comedy legends Morecambe and Wise. After Maggie spewed out various media jargon about ‘promotability’ and Lisa commented that she’d never hear Maggie use such words before, Maggie retorted that she certainly had, “but not in that order”.

That aside, Mack cleverly turned Lisa’s interview into a Trojan horse (at Maggie’s suggestion) by furnishing the interviewee with a detailed list of all the recent child murder trials that weren’t being reported sensationalistically coast to coast. Unfortunately Lisa, carried away with crusading zeal, then unwisely decided to shoehorn in her views on why abortion should be more acceptable. Given that this is one of the most incendiary subjects in US politics right now, it was little surprise that she found a brick being hurled through the window of the shop she worked at, and ‘Baby Killer’ sprayed all over the storefront.

This again gave Will a chance to show how moderate he is as a Republican. He may be ‘pro-life’ rather than ‘pro-choice’ (gotta love the linguistic contortions each side goes through to ensure they’re not seen as ‘anti’ anything), but he’s certainly anti-throwing bricks through windows.

Moderation, however, is not a big part of his emotional makeup when it comes to relationships. Following the trend last week, this episode saw yet more delving into the motivations behind Will and Mack’s breakup and inability to sort out their current feelings for each other. Will unloaded (again) to his therapist Dr Habib, who perceptively worked out that he’d been scouring internet dating sites for advice; meanwhile Mack intermittently fumed at her ex Brian, perhaps inadvertently giving the impression that she’s some kind of a ‘news groupie’, and prefers Will because he’s a more important journalist.

Despite yet another ‘reconciliation’ scene at the end of the episode, it’s plain that Sorkin thinks this plot has plenty more mileage in it yet. As indeed does the Maggie/Don/Jim/Lisa one, which is beginning to be actively frustrating in all of its participants’ inability to tell each other the truth and reach some kind of conclusion. Steps at least were made in that direction this week, as Mack’s inspirational quoting of a 17th century poem made Jim resolve that he was going to go for Maggie after all.

But with the inevitable comic timing of classic farce, he turned up at her apartment to tell her this just as A) Don was already there and B) Maggie had talked Lisa into giving Jim another go at dating. Just as I was about to scream with annoyance, Don, in a rare moment of empathy and perception, twigged that Jim had actually come to see Maggie, and spilled his guts about his own recent infidelities in an attempt to do the right thing. Perhaps some good will come of this. On more recent form though, Maggie will probably decide to take the plunge with Jim just as he’s got back with Lisa. And round and round it goes, until someone (possibly me) brains Aaron Sorkin with a tea kettle.

Speaking of violence, Neal’s comic quest to infiltrate the online community of trolls took a turn for the serious. Having tried and failed to gain their respect by trolling a discussion on economics and altering Sloan’s Wikipedia entry to say that she started out as a stripper, he was in the chatroom trying to claim responsibility for the death threat against Will. But he may have stumbled on a bigger story than he anticipated, as one user knows he’s lying – because that user was the real culprit. Cue Neal’s frantic call to Will’s bodyguard Lonnie, and the episode closing on a shot of a pensive Will, still a target.

This was an uneven episode with its none-too-convincing form as the second half of a two part story, but as an ongoing drama it was still pretty compelling. There’s just one more episode to go, though thankfully the show’s been renewed by HBO and will be back next year. News of the renewal may have altered the form of the final episode – I dread the possibility that the various ‘near-miss’ relationships’ resolutions will be artificially extended yet further. But there’s also the genuine drama of the death threat against Will, who seems to have been ditching his bodyguard with alarming regularity, and the impending exposure of ACN’s parent company as a News International-type phone hacking operation. However it goes, I think there’s going to be plenty of excitement next week.

The Newsroom: Season 1, Episode 8–The Blackout part 1: Tragedy Porn

“The choice is to do nothing or do something. If we do nothing, the audience turn to the first guy who’s doing something.”

NewsroomCharlieLeona

After last week’s tight focus on one news story – the death of Osama Bin Laden – this week The Newsroom was firing in all directions, arguably biting off more than it could chew in one episode. The Republican debates, the debt ceiling deadlock, Michelle Bachmann’s ‘divine inspiration’, the Casey Anthony trial, internet trolls, Antony Weiner’s Twitter ‘sexting’, illegal wiretapping and tabloid phone hacking were all in there somewhere, with various characters spouting what were obviously Sorkin’s own views on the issues. Too much? Perhaps, but then this isn’t, as it turns out, one episode. It’s the first of a two-parter, a brave thing to do in just the eighth episode of a prestigious new show.

And yet I suspect it’ll work. The story’s length not only gives all these issues time to breathe, but also means Sorkin can comfortably cram in some more character development without the script feeling too crowded. After the focus on Maggie/Don/Lisa/Jim last week, that thread was completely absent (for now) in favour of some long overdue movement on the Mackenzie/Will thing.

We’ve known for a while that Mack’s breakup with Will was precipitated by her sleeping with her ex, but this episode gave that a mite more complexity by rather surprisingly introducing said ex as a major character. Brian Brenner (Parks and Recreation’s Paul Schneider) is a former Newsweek columnist turned internet blogger specifically recruited by Will for a behind the scenes expose on News Night, presumably to counter the negative stories being planted in the tabloids by his own boss Leona Lansing.

Choosing the man who broke up your relationship with your now-colleague and ex-girlfriend is a pretty odd thing to do, but Will acknowledges that himself with an impetuous trip to his therapist to ask him why he’d do that. Further to his advice on Will and Mack’s relationship a couple of episodes ago, Dr Habib points out that Will has definitely not sorted out his feelings yet, and that, until he does, he’s going to be hurting those around him (“I’m fine with that”), especially Mack herself.

Since this is the central relationship on the show, it’s nice to come back to it after several episodes of bitchy snarking but no actual development. Brian is a pretty cool customer, and obviously a mirror of Will himself, suggesting that Mack has a very definite type. His interactions with both Will and Mack serve as a catalyst to much self-examination and dissection of the past, which will obviously continue nest week.

But he’s perhaps found the worst time to pay a journalistic visit to the newsroom, which is in turmoil (again). The problem this time, as revealed by mother’s little helper Reese Lansing, is a massive drop in ratings because News Night isn’t covering the then-ongoing trial of Casey Anthony, a feckless young Florida mother accused of the murder of her own daughter. Instead, they’ve turned to former prosecutor turned TV lynch mob coordinator, Nancy Grace, who’s covering the story about as exploitatively as possible.

At first, I couldn’t quite see what Mack’s problem was with covering this story. “It’s not news, it’s entertainment,” she declared angrily. “And it’s just, just this close to being a snuff movie.” The murder, and the trial, got far less coverage here in the UK, and I couldn’t see Mack’s problem. Surely the trial of a parent accused of her own child’s murder qualifies as news? It always does here – we’ve even had one in the last few days.

But the US is a much bigger country than the UK. A bit of research, and I discovered that Casey Anthony was propelled to the status of national news item over and above similar cases that occur all the time, and are only reported on at a local level. And further, Don’s merciless analysis of just a few minutes of Nancy Grace’s coverage of the issue was enough to make one fairly queasy. Her selective reporting, clever editing and insertion of damning shots at just the right time to stir the vengeful emotions of the public looked like the skills of a latterday Dr Goebbels. It was an obvious case of trial by television, with Grace having already decided the verdict and cleverly twisting viewers to see it her way.

Casey Anthony was eventually acquitted of the murder charge (after a trial lasting six weeks, a duration Will predicted with the uncanny accuracy of having his lines written from a year into the future). As with OJ Simpson, the public still seem to have a deal of doubt as to her guilt or innocence. But there’s undeniably an issue about the way some news outlets presented the story as ‘tragedy porn’, with constant  live updates making a murder trial more like a sporting event, something for the viewing masses to sit back and watch with a beer and a tub of popcorn. In that sense, I began to see Mack’s point.

But the story was to go on to News Night anyway, much to Mack’s distaste, because the drop in ratings was yet another excuse for Leona to fire Will if it continued. And Will has an upcoming strictly-regulated series of ‘mock debates’ for the then-competing contenders for the Republican Presidential nomination, something he and Charlie don’t want to lose.

Aside from the Anthony trial, the episode showed another trial by news just beginning – the excoriation of unfortunately-named Democrat Congressman Anthony Weiner after he rather foolishly tweeted an image of his underwear-clad groin to 40,000 Twitter followers. This was a blackly comic news narrative in real life as well as on the show. Tweeting the image, however accidentally, was obviously a bloody stupid thing to do for a man in Weiner’s position, revealing the tip of an iceberg (so to speak) of marital infidelity with a string of women. To follow up, Weiner’s squirming, untruthful attempts to weasel his way out of the situation did not reflect well on him as a politician or a person.

On the flipside though, once the news media were done with him, ordinary Americans across the country were reacting to him as though he were the Antichrist, rather than just another politician to cheat on his wife. Bill Clinton survived adultery and actually increased his popularity; Weiner ended up resigning after a couple of weeks of media persecution.

I suspect it was the ‘in-your-face’ sexuality (oo-er) that was a large part of the problem. Clinton didn’t have photos of him in flagrante plastered all over the news, unlike the slavering greed with which they printed the Twitpics of Weiner. Mainstream American culture is, if anything, even more squeamish about explicit sexuality than the British; it’s notable that Labour MP Chris Bryant survived a similar manufactured scandal in the pages of News of the World with his political integrity and Parliamentary seat intact (if not his dignity). Still, Weiner’s inept handling of the issue arguably justified his resignation. When all was said and done, he hardly came across as a skilled political operator, which counts for rather more than fidelity to your wife – as Bill Clinton could attest.

Another less than skilful politician, aspiring Republican nominee Michele Bachmann, got served by Sorkin fairly early on, with an offended Maggie lambasting her for her claim to have been told by God to run for President. “What did God’s voice sound like?” she angrily demanded of a cowering Jim, who was roleplaying Bachmann for interview prep. “What language did he speak in? Hebrew? Aramaic? If you make those claims, those are absolutely the first questions you should be asked.”

Bachmann, one of the Tea Party’s more extreme doyens, was obviously trying to court the large Christian vote in the US (or she was just plain nuts). And Maggie’s point was absolutely valid – as a Christian, you should be offended if someone claims to have been spoken to by God for purely political ends. Either the claim was true, in which case Bachmann was a genuine prophet (unlikely unless God has suddenly chosen to concern Himself with issues like deregulating the financial sector); or it was cynical opportunism, which should be offensive to Christians everywhere. It was another case of Sorkin’s voice coming through loud and clear above the actual fiction of the drama, but the point was well-made.

Meanwhile, Sloan was running around the newsroom like Chicken Little, desperately trying to get anyone to listen to her concerns about the impending doom of the debate on raising the US debt ceiling. As we now know (and Sloan can spider-sense from the year into the future in which her lines are written), this is a huge deal; it’ll be the first real demonstration of the now-standard procedural deadlock in which partisan US politics have been locked since the Tea Party took the Republicans hostage.

Although ultimately resolved, it will lead to a massive loss of financial confidence in the efficacy of American government, and the downgrade of the country’s treasured AAA credit rating (for what that’s worth). Mack says she knows all about it (she plainly doesn’t), but there are more important things to deal with. I’m betting that next week will prove her wrong.

But for me, the most interesting part of this week’s show was Charlie’s lengthy clandestine meeting with his NSA source from last week. Yes, it was dramatically clunky; the source, Hancock by name, was mainly there to spout shady, top secret exposition in a manner inescapably similar to Donald Sutherland’s shadowy defence official in Oliver Stone’s JFK (a resemblance so obvious that Sorkin just shrugged at the typewriter and had him actually mention it).

However, the information he had to impart was pretty explosive, both in reality and in the context of the show’s ongoing story. It’s a double whammy of stories for Charlie. First up, Hancock has been trying to oppose an NSA data mining program known as ‘Global Clarity’ (you can almost picture The X Files’ Smoking Man saying it while exhaling a cloud). This program has been routinely data mining and wiretapping innocent US citizens, without warrant or process, since the inception of the PATRIOT Act, and with no oversight is prone to shocking abuse and invasion of privacy.

I’ve been able to dig out no information on a program of that name in my research (though if it exists, the NSA would hardly broadcast the fact). But it is true that the PATRIOT Act legitimised exactly this kind of behaviour post 9/11, all in the sainted name of ‘National Security’. Sorkin, speaking through Hancock’s mouth, put it extremely well: “I fought the Soviets. The way that government made their people live their lives made them worth fighting. After 9/11 we started doing exactly the same thing.”

Hancock’s aggrieved that no amount of testifying before Pentagon and Congressional Subcommittees on the subject has had any effect, so he’s prepared to turn whistleblower to Charlie and have it all exposed on the news. And there’s a bonus for Charlie, a vital titbit discovered during the data mining that could be explosive for ACN – its parent company, AWM, has been engaged in exactly the kind of phone hacking the News of the World was then being found out for. The orders went all the way up to Reese Lansing, son of the CEO, now obviously an analogue for James Murdoch. The difference is that, unlike with Murdoch, Hancock claims to have actual proof that Reese gave the orders.

This could massively tip the balance of power in the struggle between Will and Charlie’s quest for integrity and Leona’s quest for political influence and profit.

CharlieEleven

But Charlie being the good egg he is (he dresses like the Eleventh Doctor after all), he at least tried to get Leona to drop her vendetta in a last ditch meeting at the door of her limo. Back for the first time in weeks, Jane Fonda was as formidable as ever as the ruthless CEO, now revealed as a female version of Rupert Murdoch (as if that wasn’t obvious before). Leona’s having none of it; she plainly hasn’t a clue what Charlie’s got. Or does she? To be honest, I wouldn’t want to play poker with either of them…

The ep came to a dramatic climax as Will started to prerecord an interview with another Weiner gold-digger claiming to have been ‘sexually harassed’ by the lusty Congressman, and the studio was plunged into unexpected darkness. Well, it would have been unexpected if not for the episode being called ‘The Blackout’ and various characters having warned that the excessive summer heat could easily knock out NYC’s power grid. Expect some Sorkin-preaching on climate change next week, and hopefully some more focus on the characters, what with the news gathering equipment all out of action. Oh wait, there’s always their Blackberries and iPhones…

The Newsroom: Season 1, Episode 7–5/1

“America thinks Bin Laden’s alive. If I can make him dead one minute sooner, my entire life in journalism will have been worth it.”

Newsroom

It didn’t take long to work out what big news story from a year-and-a-bit ago The Newsroom would be covering this week. If you didn’t get it from the portentously earnest date-only episode title, the opening scene let the cat out of the bag fairly early on. After a sub-Watergate mysterious phone call to Charlie (“I’m not calling you Deep Throat, that name is sacred.”), we were ushered into a party at Will’s to celebrate “one year and one week” since the first broadcast of “News Night 2.0”.

It looked like a fun bash, though some of the US party games left this Brit a little baffled. What was that thing with everyone flapping their arms up and down? I was on more familiar territory when Will was presented with a bag of highly strong ‘hash brownies’, only to disclose that he’d already eaten two. After taking Vicodin. This set in motion a slightly bizarre but rather funny plotline of Will being pretty much baked throughout, leading to a beneficial state of Zen-like calm only hampered by his inability to tie a tie or distinguish between the names ‘Osama’ and ‘Obama’.

For indeed, as Charlie waited anxiously for the call from the White House promised by his mysterious informant, the clues began to stack up that this was, definitely, the night the President announced Osama Bin Laden had been shot dead by US Special Forces. It was interesting to see how this announcement played out, since it took place in the middle of the night for us in the UK, and we awoke to find it leading story on the early morning news.

But as I saw from this episode, it was played very cagily by the White House in the US, as they announced that the President would be making a very important broadcast (important enough to interrupt Desperate Housewives), but wouldn’t tell anyone what it was about ahead of time. This led to the basic plot of this episode, which took place over a mere three and a half hours of time, as the ACN crew scrambled to try and work out what was so important.

If you had worked out what the story was going to be already (and did The Rock really scoop everyone with an enigmatic Tweet hours before the announcement?), then there wasn’t much suspense in watching them trying to figure it out. But I suspect that wasn’t really the point; what Sorkin was doing here was showing what happens in a news room under such dramatic and unusual circumstances. Well, in the ultra-perfect ACN news room anyway – he couldn’t resist a dig at Fox News by showing the contemporaneous clip of Geraldo Rivera confirming that the President was about to announce the death of Colonel Gaddafi.

It was clear that, for an American news outlet, this might be the biggest story they could ever broadcast, so they had to be sure. This led to a scramble of research into any likely contingency – and I do mean any. Asked to think “outside the box”, Neal (predictably) suggested that the President was about to announce first contact with extra terrestrials (“get back in the box, Neal.”). The other, more plausible story was the death, as announced by Fox, of Muhammar Gaddafi (“Why can we never reach a consensus on how to spell his name?” Will asked, rhetorically).

But Will had already ruled this out with a call to the NSA (while buying a falafel to sate his munchies), so clearly Bin Laden it was. With other news outlets beginning to gain confirmation, Mack was impatient to run with the story, but Charlie had more caution. He remembered broadcasting missile locations during the 1991 Iraq war, and thereby giving the enemy exact targets to aim for. The point was clear – the White House could be embargoing the story for a reason, perhaps involving danger to troops in the field, and it shouldn’t be broadcast until the go-ahead was given.

Which it actually had, but Will had been too stoned to remember to check his email and discover the message confirming this from none other than Joe Biden (apparently they used to play softball together). So it was on with the story that Will went, intoning the news solemnly with a short but distinguished speech that (with contrived convenience) happened to end at the exact second Obama stepped up to the lectern to begin his address. This being a story of great import, Sorkin made the decision to let Obama’s speech play out over the end credits, which might have worked better if there’d been a climax to end on rather than just fading the President into the distance for the HBO logo.

It was a somewhat uneven episode, its convincing attempt to show a news room hard at work in a crisis rather undermined by the reverence for the story’s subject matter. This is the first time the show has done an episode dealing in depth with a single news event, and while this was a good candidate to do that with, the air of mounting jubilation as the certainty grew about the President’s announcement left me faintly uneasy – as uneasy, in fact, as I was at the time, watching frat boys partying in New York streets to celebrate their leader’s execution of a major criminal without due process.

Now, I can see that this might come across as ultra-liberal whinging from a Brit who was thousands of miles away from the emotively charged crime of the 9/11 attacks. I can also agree that we in Britain acted in a pretty similar fashion on April 30, 1945, after hearing of the death of Adolf Hitler. But Hitler had been raining death on the UK, Europe, Russia and Africa for the last five years, and his death was at his own hands. I still think it would have been far preferable to bring him to trial at Nuremberg, alongside his lackeys.

And I felt/feel the same about Bin Laden, who (unlike Hitler) had not been consistently killing thousands more since his initial attack, but hiding away. Yes, finding him was (as it should have been) a matter of paramount importance. But not state-sanctioned execution without trial. To be fair, the details of what went on that night in Pakistan are still hazy, and it may well have been that the Special Forces troops had no other option than to kill him. But at the time, even suggesting the alternative was tantamount to admitting support for Al Qaeda, as though it was a binary choice – you either wanted Bin Laden killed without trial, or you supported him.

I know that this was felt very differently in American culture than it was here, with a proud country still smarting from the realisation that it was neither invulnerable nor impregnable, and catapulted into fear and paranoia as a result. I can see how Bin Laden’s death came as a huge catharsis. But getting drunk on the streets? Smiling as though you’ve been given the best news of your life? It made me uncomfortable then, and it makes me uncomfortable now.

Even at the time, there were voices saying this, even in the US, and I’d hoped Sorkin might be even-handed enough to address that. For a moment, it seemed that he had, with Neal’s girlfriend Kaylee (The Middleman’s Natalie Morales) leaving the room quietly. But no, it turned out that she only felt it a huge anticlimax – her father had died in the Twin Towers, and the perpetrator’s death hadn’t been the all-purpose cure for her grief that she’d expected. Still, it was a note of scepticism, and we should be grateful for that.

All that aside, the big news story angle meant that there was little room for the ongoing ‘romcom’ aspects of the show. But they weren’t entirely absent. The Don/Maggie/Jim/Lisa ‘love quadrangle’ was a major player for screen time, with Jim having to admit that he’d been surprised by Lisa’s declaration of love for him into saying that he reciprocated the feeling. Which he didn’t, leading a horrified Maggie to insist that he should break up with Lisa immediately.

As it turned out, Lisa had worked half of this out (from seeing Maggie’s horrified expression in the background of her and Jim’s Facetime conversation), and graciously but improbably offered Jim an out. She could tell (like every character on the show and its entire audience, but not the characters concerned) that Jim and Maggie were made for each other, and offered to stand aside in their best interests.

This seemed slightly less than believable. Yes, I know we’re often prone to saying “I love you” a bit too early for one partner in a nascent relationship, but it’s usually because the partner saying it really has that depth of feeling. I’m doubtful whether that would be so instantly negated, or whether the partner concerned would bow out of the relationship quite so sanguinely as Lisa did. It smacked a little of a disturbingly male-compliant fantasy woman. Still, I thought, at least the plot’s finally working itself out. One down, one to go – we only need Maggie to realise what an asshole Don is and get together with Jim instead. But then – d’oh! – Jim feels guilty enough to offer Lisa another try, with a new ‘first date’. Damn, I thought this thing was working itself out!

And Don certainly was being an asshole this week, in a surprisingly effective B plot which saw him, Elliot and Sloan stranded on the tarmac at La Guardia, unable to exit their plane, while the biggest news story of their lifetimes unfolded without them. Early indications of Don’s continuing assholery came as he turned on his phone while the plane was still in the air (“I can see the runway. Do you need navigation to drive from your garage to the street?”).

This unfortunately led to him, Elliot and Sloan finding their emails as to the Bin Laden story, and trying frantically to swap seats so they could confer about it confidentially. Opposing them was a harried cabin stewardess who initially seemed like a bit of a jobsworth for not letting Don undo his seatbelt on a stationary plane. But I’ve worked in the service industry, and I’ve had to deal with customers as obstinate and annoying as Don was – my sympathies were with the stewardess the whole time.

There was also much frothy toing and froing with their seatmates, stuck unwillingly between them. Sloan had to contend with the attentions of a cute (but far too young) guy called Lester, played by Ashton Moio – usually a stunt player, but on this basis, I’d like to see more of him.

It was a fairly disposable plot that could have been excised without any detriment to the episode, but it worked both as a counterpart to the frenzy of the news room and as a piece of drama in its own right. Don was finally convinced (again) to have some sort of empathy with his fellow human beings by the sight of the Captain’s wings and name badge – not being a frequent flyer, I had to Google it, but yes, it was United Airlines. Recalling the bravery of the 9/11 aircrews finally gave Don some sort of perspective, and he quietly explained to the crew what was happening rather than peremptorily broadcasting it himself to the concerned passengers.

As I say, a slightly unbalanced episode, if undeniably exciting, though this probably comes as much from my own misgivings as any fault of the writer’s. I had expected a little more perspective from Aaron Sorkin, but I recognise that, for many Americans, there is no bad side to this story. My perception is that of an outsider, and one from a different culture at that.

Still, at least during the drama, we had the seeds of another plotline which sounds really interesting, and definitely a subject for timely debate. Charlie’s mysterious NSA informant, it transpired, had only forewarned him of the White House announcement to prove credibility for his real revelations – that ACN’s parent company AWM has been merrily hacking people’s private phone messages with the gleeful abandon previously displayed by News International.

With the various inquiries into this issue still ongoing in real life, together with the show’s own gossip magazine’s vicious campaign against Will, I can see this being an interesting twist that could come back to bite the network’s would-be saboteurs of Will and Charlie’s campaign for integrity.  Not to mention being a very interesting subject for debate about the press’ right or need to intrude on privacy in the public interest…

The Newsroom: Season 1, Episode 6–Bullies

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 6 YET.

“I know what you think of this. But I really urge you to spend an hour a week faking it.”

NewsroomCharlieSloan

Give me some balance, I said in last week’s Newsroom review, and lo and behold, this week I got some. And from a most unexpected source – who’d have thought the most dignified speech in the episode would come from a committed former aide to Rick Santorum?

But we’ll come back to that. The theme this week, as less than subtly alluded to in the episode title, was bullying – and how even the most sympathetic of people have it in themselves to be bullies, as we see this week from the unlikely examples of a fuming Charlie and an overcompensating Sloan. It could be argued that Charlie at least is a bit out of character, given his previous ‘channelling-James-Stewart’ folksy adorability, but it actually made him more plausible for me. He’s a high ranking journalist in charge of a major TV news operation. You don’t get to that position just by being nice.

Of course the biggest (and least surprising) bully is Will McAvoy himself. It’s unsurprising because the character has been portrayed as crassly insensitive, along with impassioned and idealistic, from the start. Here, Will gets to put the story in perspective himself by means of that hoary old dramatic standby, the therapy session that functions as a framing narrative. I mean really, this was pretty old as a dramatic device even when being used by the mighty Sopranos, which at least subverted and abandoned it fairly early on. The tropes of the scenario were present and correct – the awkwardness, the ‘comic’ dialogue about dusty old waiting room magazines, the Freudian slips that the super-attentive therapist pounced on to reveal deeply-hidden aspects of his patient’s personality. Oh, and the bodyguard.

Yes, that last is more unusual. Turned out that Will’s been having a stressful time, hence his sudden desire to visit a therapist he’s been paying but not actually seeing for four years (hence his failure to notice that said therapist has actually died and been replaced by his son in the mean time). Will’s not sleeping, as we discover in an opening broadcast where he’s suddenly incapable of reading the autocue (“thanks for washing us”). My credulity was somewhat strained by that as a clue to Will’s mental state – isn’t he meant to be a consummate professional no matter what the stresses? Reading an autocue, even with insomnia, shouldn’t be too onerous a task.

Be that as it may, the episode was spent examining (primarily) the reasons for Will’s stress. Turns out he’s received a death threat on the internet for having the temerity to debunk criticism of the so-called ‘Ground Zero mosque’ (actually a community centre) then following that up with a montage of all the nasty things done in the name of Christianity. Hence the bodyguard, a former football-playing giant named Lonnie. Terry Crews was a lot of fun as Lonnie, trading acid barbs with his unwilling client (ACN’s insurance company had forced him on Will). Sloan even popped in to check out his remarkably firm pecs.

Ah, yes, Sloan. It’s fair to say that in the show’s ensemble cast, there are some characters that could reasonably be called ‘secondary’, but Aaron Sorkin is determined to expand them with their own little subplots. Last week it was Dev Patel’s Neal, and this week the spotlight was firmly on Olivia Munn as Sloan Sabbith, a character whose ridiculously alliterative name actually rings all too true in the US news media. I didn’t know this about Olivia Munn (though I guess Sorkin did), but she’s fluent in Japanese, making her a handy candidate to explore this week’s big retroactive news story – the crumbling infrastructure of the Fukushima nuclear plant.

At this point, Tokyo power company TEPCO was still trying to downplay the severity of the crisis, but it turned out that Sloan had a friend who worked as a spokesman for the company. Off the record, she got him to admit that the problem was far worse than currently being stated.

Then, to her surprise, Don asked her to fill in for Elliot in the 10 0’clock slot (as fourth, or maybe sixth, choice). A bit daunted, she asked Will for advice on probing journalism, receiving his opinion that she didn’t challenge her interviewees’ obvious falsehoods enough.

Unfortunately, her brief stint as a main anchor saw her veer in completely the opposite direction, while interviewing her friend in Tokyo, coming across less as a truth seeker than a simple bully. Confronting him on air with his own off the record remarks was bad enough for a professional journalist, but anyone knowledgeable enough about Japanese culture to speak the language should have known what a massive loss of face it would be for a Japanese professional to be accused of lying on international TV. Obvious result – her friend felt honour-bound to resign from his job. Clearly she had Gone Too Far.

Given Will’s advice (which he admitted to his therapist was not well-put), Sloan’s sudden ferocity was reasonably convincing, as was (for reasons I mentioned earlier) Charlie’s furious tirade at her. Nevertheless, he too came over as excessively harsh, and it was left to the unlikely figure of Don to play peacemaker. As the season progresses, Don seems to be gradually evolving into a human being as he gains sensitivity; this week, he finally spotted the glaring neon signs of the chemistry between his girlfriend and Jim Harper. Shame he chose to ask Sloan about it – he’s not sensitive enough yet to work out that she has little concept of emotional empathy.

Biggest empathy vacuum this week (as every week) was, of course, Will. But the script went further than usual in examining this, and for the first time portrayed him in a genuinely unpleasant light. Up till now, he’s been shown as an asshole to work with, but a humanitarian of idealistic principle for all his (moderate) conservative politics.

This week, all that changed with his on-air bullying of a former aide to Rick Santorum. The aide was still a Santorum supporter, but Will, like an attack dog, kept aggressively pressing his point – how could he be, as a black gay man, when Santorum had described gay marriage as “a threat to marriage everywhere”, and equated it with bestiality and incest in a Congressional speech?

Tired of being ever more aggressively attacked, the aide came back with his own fierce, impassioned speech that served to make Will take a step back and look at his behaviour. “How dare you define me by my blackness or my gayness?”, he fumed, at one stroke piercing the often-patronising liberal agenda of reducing people to uncomplicated cyphers that need protecting. Turned out he still supported Santorum (even though disagreeing with him about gay rights), because he saw Santorum as the best spokesman against abortion, a position he strongly agreed with.

Sorkin didn’t use this moment to make any point about his views on abortion – it really wasn’t the point of this exchange. The point was that the liberal media can so easily simplify people into single issues, then patronise them by suggesting they are incapable of standing up for themselves. It was a very necessary moment of balance in a show that has been preachily canonising its own liberal heroes up till now – and nice to see that same preaching flung back at them from someone who doesn’t share their viewpoint.

And even in the face of that, Will couldn’t let it lie, finally just about reducing the man to tears with his last, quiet question – “Does Santorum think you’re fit to be a teacher?” Of course, he doesn’t. But by this point, winning the debate seems less of a moral victory than an unnecessary beating.

All this comes out via the medium of that framing narrative in the therapist’s office, at which point we learn something new about Will himself. His father was a violent, abusive drunk, and when Will was in the fifth grade, he had to be violent back just to protect his mother and brother. Now, in the classical style, he’s followed in his father’s footsteps and become a bully himself; he just uses words and intellectual points rather than fists. It’s not a very original dramatic observation, but unfortunately it’s a cliche because it’s too often true in reality; the bullied become bullies themselves.

To an extent, the suddenness with which we see these more unpleasant aspects of characters who have, till now, been so likeable, is a little jarring. It might have worked better if Sorkin had at least hinted previously that these ‘nice’ people could turn with such sudden ferocity. That had at least been the case with Will, but Sloan and Charlie came across as much more of a surprise, and perhaps not an entirely convincing one, as a result.

Nonetheless, it was good to see that balance I’d been wanting, even if it felt like the show had perhaps swung too far and too suddenly in the opposite direction. It continues to be a dramatic platform for Aaron Sorkin to espouse his own political views via his characters, but this episode was a good reminder that not everything is as black and white as it often seems in his ‘liberals=good, conservatives=bad’ universe.

The Newsroom: Season 1, Episode 5 – Amen

SPOILER WARNING – THIS IS FROM LAST NIGHT’S US BROADCAST, AND MAJOR PLOT POINTS ARE DISCUSSED. DON’T READ AHEAD IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN EPISODE 5 YET.

“I’m just a middle aged man who never lived up to his potential. You don’t want to be on the wrong end of me if I ever do.”

NewsroomNealMackenzie

After last week’s character heavy episode, it should perhaps have been a relief to find the focus of this week’s The Newsroom more thoroughly on actual news. And yet, Mr Sorkin’s skill with characters means that I’ve come to enjoy the ‘soap opera’ aspects of the show too. This week, the show managed to balance that with its critique of news and politics, together with its ongoing narrative, just about right. For this viewer at least, it lurched a little too far into Sorkin’s frequent mawkish sentimentality at its climax, but the rest was strong enough for me to forgive it that.

The big news topics covered this week were as important as ever (Will McAvoy might be aware of Justin Bieber, but you’ll never see him treated as news) – the emergent Arab Spring and the aftermath of President Mubarak’s resignation in Egypt, along with Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s undemocratic public sector union-busting bill with the spurious justification of balancing the state budget. As we now know, neither of these stories ended well, at least if you’re of the political leaning shared by Sorkin and myself. The Egyptian people managed to topple a dictator and end up with a military junta that dissolved an uncooperative Parliament, while an attempt to recall Governor Walker recently met with defeat. As usual, the slightly unfair advantage of ACN news in being written from a year into the future allowed the show to cast a few notes of caution on both stories.

Along the way, the script, as cleverly constructed as usual, allowed for musings on journalistic integrity and courage, particularly when it comes to journalists putting themselves in harm’s way to report the facts. Will’s former colleague Elliot was reporting from Cairo, but stuck in his hotel room and unable to see the hell breaking loose in Tahrir Square below, much to Don’s frustration. After generally behaving like an asshole in the control room (his signature move), Don disappeared only to re-emerge later with the news that Elliot had after all ventured outside and got himself seriously beaten as a result.

It didn’t take a genius to work out that this must have been on Don’s instructions – as Will pointed out when Don finally confessed, everybody had known already. But it allowed Don to once again make amends for behaving like an asshole by overcompensating with acts of contrition throughout. I may have been wrong in my earlier assessments of Don as a one-dimensional asshole; at least he’s learning. And to be fair, his flaws here probably make him a more realistic character than half the staff – who hasn’t screwed something up at work and then tried to justify it afterwards?

The difference here being that screwing up can get people killed, an echo of similar storylines in The West Wing about shouldering responsibility for sending people into danger. As a former war correspondent, Mackenzie presumably knows all about that, but it was Neal’s turn to learn the lesson when he made contact with an underground Egyptian blogger and suggested they use him as a correspondent in the injured Elliot’s place.

After being reduced to stereotypical nerd comic relief with last week’s Bigfoot obsession, this week saw Neal restored as one of my favourite characters by giving him some truly meaty dialogue and storylines. We learned some of his news background as an amateur cameraman caught up in the 2005 London bombings, giving Dev Patel the chance to expertly deliver some well-crafted dialogue that truly captured the horror of that situation. It also gave him every reason to draw parallels between himself and the Egyptian blogger calling himself ‘Amen’ – as Neal pointed out, not the Christian blessing, but an Egyptian word meaning ‘hidden one’ (deriving from the god Amun, the ‘hidden’ form of Amun-Ra).

But Neal’s experiences in London hadn’t been in the context of a state in anarchy, and he soon came to realise the danger ‘Amen’ was putting himself in – especially when Mackenzie apologetically insisted that, for his reports to have validity, he’d have to reveal his real name and his face. So off came the bandanna to reveal a handsome young guy called Kahlid Salim (Amin El Gamal), and from then on it was pretty predictable that he was going to find himself in some danger – if not actually killed.

Predictable it may have been, but it was well played when Kahlid inevitably disappeared after being sent to military HQ chasing a story. Dev Patel was so good at showing Neal’s anguish that I just wanted to give him a hug. And his mounting anger at a clip of right wing pundit/moron Rush Limbaugh making light of the situation led him to punch the monitor with Rush’s visage so hard that he broke two fingers, adding him to the ever-growing list of injured ACN staff.

This was a peculiar little running plot point, perhaps meant to (hamfistedly) indicate that being in the studio can be just as dangerous as being in the field. Since this is plainly not true, I can only hope it wasn’t the intent, but that was how it came across. Still, it did allow for some blackly comic moments as a mounting number of ACN staff found themselves bandaged, splinted or in slings (or some combination of all of these). It started with Maggie tripping up (a slapstick character trait I’d hoped we’d left behind), and bashing Jim on the head with a door, which later required stitches. Elliot returned from the field looking pretty battered, and Don managed to sprain his shoulder trying unwisely to break into Reese Lansing’s office (in another attempt to assuage his guilt by trying to secure ransom money for Kahlid). By the end of the episode, the newsroom was starting to resemble a hospital emergency room, there were so many bandages and slings in evidence.

While all this was unfolding, Will and co were doing some digging into Gov Walker’s reasons for trying to shut down public sector unions in Wisconsin, coming up with an interesting conspiracy theory I hadn’t come across before. Will noted the involvement of conservative lobby group Citizens United in the Walker campaign, along with some carefully circumspect speculation about the alleged funding for the organisation from the billionaire Koch brothers (yep, them again).

He followed that up with some more carefully circumspect theorising about the 2008 Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United’s favour, which for the purposes of free speech gave corporations the same rights to fund political campaigns as individuals. It has been alleged that Supreme Court justices Thomas and Scalia had a conflict of interest in ruling on the case, particularly Thomas, whose wife Virginia’s own political group was apparently in receipt of significant donations from the Tea Party, and by implication the Kochs. Having secured a judgement that would allow corporations the same freedoms as individuals, the only thorn in the corporate side was the fact that it gave the same freedoms to unions. Unions like those Walker was trying to drive into the ground, for reasons that now seemed obvious.

This had no real bearing on the story per se (and the Walker story wasn’t given as much prominence as the Egypt one anyway). But it was an interesting collection of information to have, whether or not you accept the conspiracy theory (and I’m inclined to). Yes, it was Aaron Sorkin once again using the show as a political platform, but it still worked as drama, I thought, in much the same way as similar scenes of speculation in Oliver Stone’s JFK.

This was some heavy stuff, but the tangled love lives of the characters at least provided some light relief. Maggie is still, bizarrely, trying to salvage her relationship with Don, shooting herself in the foot by trying to set up the much nicer Jim with her roommate Lisa instead. This week, this manifested itself in a somewhat contrived plot of Maggie determinedly trying to set up a date between Jim and Lisa so Lisa wouldn’t spoil her own night with Don. Inevitably, in sitcom style, it didn’t work out because Jim was so busy working he forgot to meet Lisa. But not to worry, the storyline can be strung out further yet, because Lisa’s initial fury soon melted with her confession that she was wearing edible underwear. Perhaps I’m beginning to see some reason behind those criticisms of Sorkin’s female characters…

Mackenzie wasn’t helping much there either, as it turned out her boyfriend, who she’d had on the show repeatedly as a guest, was running for Congress, leading to inevitable speculation as to her political bias and corruption. This fed into the running plotline of ACN’s attempts to discredit News Night and Will by using their own, vicious, gossip columnists. Charlie stepped in with a voice like thunder in the earpiece of a smarmy daytime show presenter when he repeated these allegations on air, but the damage was done – so badly, in fact, that Will was considering the option of actually paying the columnist in question to buy her off the story.

This led to another of those scenes in which Will confronts hypocrisy with the cheerable but improbable eloquence of a signature Sorkin character. On the point of paying the woman, he balked when she referred to herself as a journalist, going on a long rant about how real journalists (ie his staff) were honest and altruistic (possibly not true of all journalists in reality).

It was another wish-fulfilling moment, common on Sorkin shows, of being able to batter your opponent down with your intellect and your moral integrity; realistic it may not be, but satisfying it most definitely is. Mackenzie, of course, realised she’d been had and told the boyfriend to “go to Hell”, while Will made better use of his money to pay the ransom for the captive Kahlid.

This was where the schmaltz came in, rather too heavily for my taste. Earlier in the story, much had been made of Will’s fondness for a tearjerking sport movie called Rudy. Sorkin’s use of sport and sporting drama as reference/metaphor is always rather lost on me for a variety of reasons. I don’t really like sport, most American sporting dramas are about sports we know little of in the UK (baseball, American football), and the vast majority of sport movies are mawkishly sentimental in the extreme (Rocky, Jerry Maguire, A League of Their Own).

So I was unfortunately completely unmoved at what I presume to be a recreation of the heartstring-tugging ending of Rudy – staffer after staffer came in to Will’s office to pay what they could towards the $250,000 Will had paid to secure Kahlid’s release. To be fair to Sorkin, it felt less contrived when it was revealed that Mackenzie (knowing Will’s fondness for the movie) had orchestrated the stunt as a Valentine’s present. It still felt unpalatably sickly though.

Still, as usual there was enough good stuff for me to forgive the comparatively infrequent Sorkin excesses of sentiment. I can understand the objection that the show is “too preachy”, but for me that’s a huge part of its appeal. Yes, Sorkin is using the drama as a political platform, but he’s also using the drama to inform, to debunk widely held conservative myths using facts rather than ill-informed rhetoric – the very mantra of the show within the show, News Night. Of course, your tolerance for this is probably in direct proportion to your agreement with Sorkin’s leanings, and I fear he’s preaching to the choir and unlikely to change the minds of any watching conservatives. But for liberals like me, there’s something very entertaining in seeing your views borne out with actual research, and that polemic is at least half of the show’s appeal. With February 2011 out of the way, I’m looking forward to seeing what issues will be addressed next.

The Newsroom: Season 1, Episode 4–I’ll Try to Fix You

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.”

NewsroomWill

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.