“5/1,” which tells the story of the night that President Barack Obama announced the death of Osama Bin Laden to the world, ends with the most poignant moment The Newsroom has constructed to date. Will McAvoy, after delivering an opening address reflecting on the news, turns it over to the President's speech, and the episode’s credits roll as Obama’s address continues. As someone who was on my living room couch glued to the television for the two hours of speculation captured in tonight’s episode, I was transported back to that moment, reliving what will be considered one of the defining moments of the early 21st century.
However, does this make “5/1” a defining moment for The Newsroom? During his session at the Television Critics’ Association press tour, Aaron Sorkin defended his decision to feature real news events from the past two years as the basic structure of his series (which was something Phil Dyess-Nugent discussed in his recent For Our Consideration). Dismissing claims that he uses hindsight simply to demonstrate the superior intelligence of the News Night staff, while acknowledging the show often gives that impression, Sorkin made the argument that the show would simply mean less if it featured fictional news instead.
There are two implications of this argument. The first is that Sorkin considers the subjects of the series to be irrevocably tied to our reality, a claim I can understand if not a claim I think is worth the perception—misperception or not—of hindsight as a contrived storytelling device. The second is that he considers television storytelling as insufficient or incidental to the meaning of the series. The presence of real news events provides a shorthand that overwrites any other narratives. The show doesn’t integrate news so much as it plays real events like a trump card, a strategy that might work in later seasons but feels disruptive as the show and its characters are just beginning to be established. The meanings feel too dominant and overwhelming for the characters to emerge from beneath them, trapping solid performances and potentially interesting stories beneath the weight of something too big for the show to contain.
This is no more apparent than in “5/1.” There is a wealth of story to be told here, regarding both our emotional connection to the night in question—as reflected in Obama’s address, no less poignant than it was last May—and the journalistic ethics of reporting this story. I wrote an article last year based on my experience watching MSNBC while reporters struggled with the ethics of reporting from Twitter live on-air, a moment that Sorkin dramatizes in MacKenzie’s decision to cut off the Washington reporter who is about to go rogue. As a show that offers a behind-the-scenes look at how news is made, the Bin Laden announcement offers all of the uncertainty and chaos that could create tension, discord, and the kind of dramatic material that organically occurs when you are part of a high-pressure, high stakes industry.
“5/1” fails to capture this for two reasons. The first is that Sorkin’s hindsight is occasionally at its most obnoxious, spending so much time trying to drop in symbolic markers to real-life events that he never stops to consider the logic behind them. Case in point: the fact that The Rock, through a strange set of circumstances, tweeted about Bin Laden being dead well ahead of the announcement. It’s there as an historical signpost to establish the “realism” of this retelling, but the logistics of working it into the script are ridiculous. Who reads a tweet from The Rock to their girlfriend at a party? How does Charlie Skinner know that The Rock has a cousin who’s a Navy Seal? Sorkin literally blindfolds Natalie Morales’ Kaylee to justify the former, whereas the latter is just a piece of information that Charlie happens to have so that he can piece together it’s about Bin Laden and demonstrate his superior intellect (and get the episode to that point faster). The episode bends over backward, all in order to claim a connection to the “real event,” and yet doing so only calls attention to how artificially constructed that process is at the end of the day.
The other problem is that “5/1” wants to tell two stories. The first is the story of how America felt when Osama Bin Laden was killed, a sentiment marked by relief, jubilation, solemn reflection, and a wide range of other emotions. The second is the story of how the staff at News Night work to pull that story together. The reason “5/1” fails is that it never bothers to connect the two stories, embedding all of the emotion within characters we’ve either never or barely met, and using the News Night staff as comic and romantic foils. It’s not exactly a new pattern for the show, but it has never been so blatantly at odds with the big picture. When Gabrielle Giffords was shot at the end of “I’ll Try to Fix You,” it forced the characters to put aside their personal lives and focus on the news. Here, even though we’re told early on that this is one of the most important news events of the century, the pacing of the episode requires us to spend time with Maggie forcing Jim and Lisa to break up. Whereas the trivial was swallowed up by Giffords’ shooting, here it’s spit back out every 10 minutes, undermining the thematic work Sorkin wants to accomplish.
It’s also thematic work that lacks any mooring in the characters we’ve (still barely) come to know. As much as I love Natalie Morales, we know nothing about Kaylee outside of her Guitar Hero skills and her love for professional wrestling (which makes her my ideal woman, but that’s neither here nor there). And so when we find out that her father died in the World Trade Center and that she doesn’t want to be around everyone celebrating, it’s a token way of evoking the victims of Sept. 11. When the control room operator puts on a conveniently located FDNY hat before the broadcast, we know nothing about him and everything about Sorkin’s desire to reflect the FDNY’s involvement on Sept. 11. The same goes for the police officers who randomly escort Will’s bodyguard into the building.
To be fair to Sorkin, it would have been equally hackneyed to have one of our main characters have these personal connections, but at least then we could have offset the contrivance with a sense of forward development. With no connection to the specific emotion of the moment, our regular characters get caught up in their own shenanigans. This is no more apparent than when Will gets high (and bumbles around before managing to hide it on the air). Every time the show cuts to these honestly silly stories, it clarifies that The Newsroom has not coalesced to the point where we can say it’s about a group of people who put together the news. Rather, it’s about the news, and a group of people, and only occasionally about the moments where those two ideas coincide.
What’s frustrating about this is that I like both sides of that equation, more often than some other critics. I find there to be some real truth in Jim’s relationship with Lisa, truth that I’d like to see explored when they’re not in the middle of reporting on the death of Osama Bin Laden. Similarly, I enjoyed the scenes on the plane with Don, Elliot, and Sloan (all of whom I’d like to see in a spinoff at this point—they can bring Lester), but the tone never worked with the subject at hand. Sorkin can write good banter, but he’s conceived of a show where banter feels fundamentally disruptive, and where the impact of that banter is erased when “real life” intervenes and Don turns serious at the sight of the pilot’s uniform. For every moment of Charlie reflecting on the dangers of reporting too soon in the Gulf War, there’s a scene with Neal suggesting it could be aliens (presuming, I’m sure, that it would have been too soon to return to Bigfoot), and it ends up a zero sum game.
If The Newsroom could bring these worlds together successfully more often, episodes like “5/1” could show signs of the show’s potential. Even when most viewers would know that this was about Osama Bin Laden, and therefore any uncertainty wouldn’t be reflected in the audience, there is a thrill in the way breaking news operates. However, Sorkin never captures that thrill for any consistent span of time, oscillating between the logistical—interesting but underserved—and the personal—disruptive and trivial—without ever finding a way to bridge them together. He may find poignant moments to reflect on the meaning of the event, but he never finds a way to tie those to the characters we’re going to spend future seasons with, and therefore never finds a way for the meaning of the news event in question to resonate with the meaning of the show going forward. This episode doesn’t tell the story of Will, MacKenzie, Jim, Maggie, Neal, Don, Sloan, Elliot, and Charlie reporting on the night of Osama Bin Laden’s death, which will only be possible when those characters are developed more fully (suggesting, in fact, this could have played better later in the show’s run). Instead, this tells the story of Aaron Sorkin retelling the night of Osama Bin Laden’s death, a far less interesting notion at the end of the day.
While I promise to connect this back to the episode, I want to make one larger point about the criticism surrounding the series. While Twitter was alight with buzz ahead of the aforementioned TCA panel with Sorkin, Jeff Daniels, and producer Alan Poul this Wednesday, the actual results proved tame. Sure, Daniels revealed a skewed understanding of why we write criticism—hint: it’s not for actors/writers/producers—and Sorkin defended his female characters through highly selective—and therefore insufficient—criteria, but Sorkin is self-deprecatory enough to be able to navigate a difficult room without getting into an active confrontation with the people present. Reflecting the fact that the show’s characters often speak as though they’re debating against whatever straw man Aaron Sorkin has constructed in the corner of his office, Sorkin loves too much about being part of a debate to entirely discredit the other side, meaning that with every defense of his show came a respectful—rather than dismissive—disagreement with the criticism being levied.
I can relate to Sorkin in this matter, as his enjoyment in defending his show is mirrored by my enjoyment in deconstructing it. Too often, negative criticism is dismissed as “hate-watching,” as a bad faith gesture that dismisses the text out of hand but continues to lambaste it for the sheer thrill of drawing blood week-after-week (which I discussed with TV Club contributor Ryan McGee last week). However, I continue to watch The Newsroom because I find engaging with its flaws to be constructive as well as deconstructive, helping us understand how and why Sorkin’s attempts to create meaningful social, cultural, and political critiques are so polarizing. Whether in Scott’s regular coverage, or Phil’s For Our Consideration, or in the cogent comments in both spaces, The Newsroom is creating two separate debates: one about the state of the media and culture in our society (the debate Sorkin intends to start), and one about the show’s capacity to activate that meaning (a debate Sorkin unintentionally started during Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, which continues on in earnest).
While I have seen some criticism of critics for focusing on the latter at the expense of the former, which is perceived as a rare case of explicit and progressive social commentary within television programming, to disconnect them would be to ignore the series’ televisuality, holding it to a lower standard and allowing HBO’s self-identification as “Not Television” to perpetuate in unproductive ways. The Newsroom is a television show, and to my mind a flawed television show, and that inflects and disciplines its sociopolitical and sociocultural projects—full stop. As a time machine back to the moment of Obama’s address to the nation, “5/1”—especially in its closing seconds—displays the potential of The Newsroom model; as an episode of television happening around that event, it embodies the show’s flaws, failing to connect any of its sentimentality with what I’d consider to be fundamental qualities of a truly great television drama.
- I’m curious: Is there anyone who had no idea what this episode was about going in? If so, at what point was it clear it was about Osama Bin Laden? Sorkin didn’t show the date until Charlie outright said his name, but even that opening phone call seems like a pretty clear tell (although I knew based on the preview for last week, so I’m a poor judge).
- Interesting that the phone call Charlie receives turns out to be a red herring in this episode, and less interesting that Sorkin is haphazardly transposing the News Of The World hacking scandal onto the company’s tabloid to give them leverage in the larger arc surrounding Will’s job.
- I wonder if the script got Will high just to find an excuse to have Daniels and—Tony winner—John Gallagher Jr. duet on Jonathan Edwards’ “Sunshine.”
- It says something that The Newsroom did the same basic “Premature I Love You” storyline as Awkward., the teen comedy I cover for the site.
- I thought the “Obama Good, Osama Bad” signs on Will’s desk were a fun little touch—I often feel the show would be better if it focused more on small details like those.
- Natalie Morales intimated on Twitter a while ago that her role was substantially cut from how it was written on the page, so I’m wondering if we potentially had more foreshadowing of her connection to 9/11 in previous scenes that were cut for one reason or another.
- I am curious to know how those who watched the rather substantial preview for the rest of the season HBO aired after the episode. Were any skeptics convinced? Any fans discouraged?
- Scott's basement flooded, but he will be back next week.