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 2–News Night 2.0

SPOILER WARNING – THIS IS FROM LAST SUNDAY’S US BROADCAST, AND MAJOR PLOT POINTS ARE DISCUSSED. DON’T READ AHEAD IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN EPISODE 2 YET.

“We don’t do ‘good television’, we do the news.”

NewsroomMeeting

Critical reaction to last week’s premiere of Aaron Sorkin’s new show, The Newsroom, was, to put it mildly, mixed. While many liked the sincere, heartfelt performances, powerhouse speeches and super-eloquent characters, just as many were annoyed by its departure from reality in presenting an idealised version of a real environment (a TV newsroom) filled with idealised, too-wonderful characters who, as one common criticism put it, “talk like nobody in the real world”.

To be fair, these are all legitimate criticisms. I noted quite a few of them myself, in my own review last week. But that’s Aaron Sorkin’s style, and it seems a little harsh to have the knives drawn quite so early on a show whose flaws (if you see them that way) are no more than a repeat of those on the hallowed West Wing. That show too presented an idealised, ‘preachy’ version of a real environment – the White House, with the obvious intent being its writer telling us that this is how it could – and should – be. The Newsroom aims to do the same for a TV news environment dominated by pundits and opinions rather than facts and objectivity. That its first episode aired the same week that Fox and CNN managed to totally fumble reporting the Supreme Court’s decision on ‘Obamacare’, because they hadn’t read past page one of the judgement, seems curiously apposite.

That said, you couldn’t have week after week of the guys and girls at ACN doing perfect, crusading reporting unique in its integrity. Aside from problems with believability, it would be boring and formulaic. So this week’s instalment, after last week’s powerhouse broadcast of the BP oil spill disaster, showed our heroes, stumbling over the reporting of Arizona governor Jan Brewer’s draconian anti-immigration law of 2010, producing a mesmerising spectacle of car crash television that was an exemplary case of doing the news totally wrong.

It’s good to be shown that these people are fallible. That idealised version of reality can be both a blessing and a curse, and it’s hard to truly like characters who are, essentially, saints. Having said that, I’m afraid I can’t resist the criticism that, after last week’s excess of perfection, the similar excess of fallibility on display here seemed similarly implausible. The most obvious example was a running subplot about the recent setup of email distribution lists that only resident tech geek Neal seemed able to understand. This intersected with the increasingly romcom aspects of the plot to give us the moment when Mackenzie accidentally sent an email intended for Will, about the breakup of their previous relationship, to everyone in the company. With hilarious consequences.

Now, the plot really couldn’t have moved forward without this conceit, both from a professional and personal perspective. And yes, I’m sure that this kind of slip up does happen among office staff that aren’t very technically minded. But these people are meant to be seasoned professionals who are presumably perfectly conversant with email. And tellingly, it was essential to the plot that these people’s Blackberries never leave their sides. It seems unlikely that anyone so reliant on mobile email would be so incompetent in its use. But then, this is drama, and Sorkin’s style of drama often does depend on contrivance to move the plot forward.

Again, we saw that here as the script upped the ante in the romance stakes this week. Aside from the constant butting heads of Will and Mackenzie (who even compared their situation to a romantic comedy), the manoeuvring of Jim and Maggie into a relationship shifted up a gear. Their impossibly witty, quickfire bickering (actually reminiscent of that by a certain Steven Moffat) was funny, but perfectly demonstrated a common criticism of Sorkin – nobody in the real world talks like that. But again, it’s a dramatic and stylistic device – who’d want to watch a show where everyone stumbles over their speech with frequent pauses, coughs and “errm”s? Amusingly, this very point was put to Sorkin on a recent episode of The Colbert Report, and Sorkin responded to Stephen Colbert with a similarly contrived ‘naturalistic’ retort that, basically, said nothing. It’s a question of dramatic style, and how well you like it is probably subjective.

All that said, it was still a dynamic, gripping piece of television, with the actual broadcast, as last week, the dramatic highlight. Predictably, Jan Brewer dropped out (I hadn’t expected them to take actual interview footage of her and use it out of context), leaving Will with a trio of ill-informed ‘average citizens’ to defend her policy. Said policy was the subject of this week’s sermonising (always an essential ingredient for Sorkin), and in keeping with Mackenzie’s new Rules, both sides of the issue were looked at. It’s clear which way Sorkin himself swings, but it was an interesting choice to have the opposite viewpoint (immigrants steal jobs from hard-pressed Americans) put by Will himself.

The counterpoint, that this is basically a nasty bit of divisive racial profiling, was first stated by Neal early on in the episode – an interesting, or cliched choice depending on your viewpoint, Neal being both Indian in ethnicity and British in nationality. His impassioned plea to include an outspoken ‘illegal’ who’d had his travel to work removed for speaking his mind initially fell on deaf ears. But it was hardly a surprise that, by the end of the episode, Will’s opinions had swung Sorkin-wards, and he was up for anonymously providing said transport. A nice gesture to be sure, but to this cynical old curmudgeon, it also came across as desperately patronising: “Don’t worry, Latinos, the rich white guy has sorted it all out for you. You’re welcome.” That the episode climaxed with Radiohead’s ‘High and Dry’ juxtaposed with a long shot of the Statue of Liberty was, I’m afraid, one sickly heartstring-tugging gambit too much for me.

It may sound like I’m being pretty harsh on the show myself, but I should make it clear that I’m still enjoying watching it, for all the flaws that I (and, it seems, many others) see in it. The characters may be stock, but they’re likeable (except Don, who continues to be a one-dimensional asshole). They may speak with a degree of wit and passion rarely seen in reality, but it makes them more entertaining, in this kind of show, than the bumblingly naturalistic ones in other (equally valid) dramas. And that’s because they’re Sorkin characters – how you cope with that depends on your tolerance for his style. It’s interesting to note that his recent excursion into characters based on reality – The Social Network – contrived to do precisely the opposite, presenting all its characters as venal and unsympathetic. The Newsroom, like The West Wing before it, really is about idealism. It’s not perfect, and Sorkin may not be the god of dramatists many hold him up to be. But this week, like the last, still entertained and informed in a way that’s increasingly unusual in actual US news.