On the few occasions The Newsroom has been strong—the second half of the pilot, basically, and spots here and there in the other three—it been fully immersed in the caffeinated excitement of breaking a news story. I can’t speak to the authenticity of Aaron Sorkin’s fantasy TV camp relative to the real thing, but the syncopated rhythm of his dialogue well suits the mass coordination of effort from the executive producers, the reporters, the anchor, etc. And while some of the personal drama and running gags are interwoven into these scenes, they’re more about the excitement of journalists doing their work and doing it well. Sorkin’s romantic streak can drive (and has driven) The Newsroom off the rails, but there are times when his hopelessly idealized vision of broadcasting done right can be stirring. And “Amen,” the best episode of the series so far, has more of those moments than not.
It should be noted upfront, however, that “Amen” is absolutely shameless in using a subplot about a kidnapped freelance reporter in Cairo to replay the “jersey scene” in Rudy. In fact, its shamelessness recalls the last time one of Neal’s initiatives—the immigrant exposed in an alt-weekly story—allowed Will to demonstrate his big-hearted largesse. But at least here the subplot was reasonably well-developed, with solid allusions to the real-life problem of sending American reporters to hostile countries and the secondary problem of using foreign reporters working under terrible duress. There’s something vaguely offensive about using “Amen’s” disappearance and rescue as little more than an affirmation of Will McAvoy’s decency and the dignity and heroism of the Fourth Estate itself, and treating Will to his own scene from a beloved underdog sports movie is absurdly over the top and self-congratulatory. But at least the seeds for his triumph are well-planted.
“Amen” dives right into the broadcast on February 10, 2011, with the News Night crew covering two major stories about populist uprisings, neither with particularly heartwarming endings. At the height of the protests in Tahir Square, just after Hosni Mubarak defied expectations by refusing to resign, Will and company are relying on Elliot to give them the story from inside his Radisson hotel room. (Seeing Don, his EP at 10 p.m., react belligerently to his anchor’s cravenness is one of the strongest threads in the episode, if only for validating Don as a journalist who cares about more than the success of his man over Will.) When he ventures outside the hotel later, Elliot gets beaten within an inch of his life. This leaves the News Nighters to search for an authentic and reliable source within Egypt who can give them the information they need on the country’s dramatic upheaval. For that they turn to Neal, who’s heard of this thing called the Internet and happens to have a line on “Amen,” a young man whose name is both meaningful (“the hidden one”) and the source of a brief “Who’s On First” routine.
Meanwhile, Maggie is working on protests in Madison, Wisconsin over Governor Scott Walker’s move to strip public unions of their collective bargaining rights. This gives Sorkin not only the license to take shots at the Koch Brothers, Citizens United, the Supreme Court, and other guilty parties in our corporate sell-out government, but to explain its economic implications directly by having Sloan give Mac a straight-up tutorial on economics, complete with an unpacking of the Glass-Steagal Act and references to Gordon Gekko and George Bailey. As it happens, news outlets did not offer a tremendous amount of coverage of the situation in Wisconsin—we flyover types get bitter about that sort of thing— but Will and company are, of course, on it on the eve of Egypt’s historic regime change. Between that and Sloan’s lessons—interspersed with office gossip, because women can’t help but talk about these things apparently—Sorkin gets in some quality soapboxing about unlimited corporate “speech” and its marginalizing effect on the middle class.
The soap opera elements in “Amen” did, as usual, look silly under the shadow of the day’s big news. All the Valentine’s Day business about Jim and Maggie’s Cupid-loving roommate continued to be a big distraction from Maggie’s real feelings for Jim, which are themselves an annoying distraction. More relevant to the show itself, Mac’s relationship with Wade brings News Night back into the gossip papers when it’s revealed that Wade has been using access to Mac (and the airtime it got him) to boost his profile for an upcoming Congressional race. The entire embarrassing affair becomes fodder for Will’s enemies at TMI and within ACN, which sets its Fox & Friends-style morning hosts on it—regardless of the near-certainty that TMI’s readership and ACN’s viewership would never give two shits about an ethical hiccup among a few broadcast-news muckity-mucks. The entire Will/Wade/Mac love triangle is again just a pretense for yet another Will McAvoy rant about why his kind of journalism—the kind where producers and reporters injure themselves in the field or in the office—is superior to the gossips who carry out sleazy vendettas.
Wait, didn’t I say “Amen” was my favorite Newsroom episode to date? Because this is all sounding like one long backhanded compliment. The episode does not hold up to much reflection, but I’ll confess to being riveted by large swaths of it, because the two main news stories—Egypt and the use of a foreign reporter; Wisconsin and Sloan’s related lessons on the economy—are heavily foregrounded. Seeing Will and company actually report the news their way—not talk about what that way is or involve themselves in the myriad useless romantic/paranoid subplots at play so far—can be exciting. More of that, please.
- Daniel Minahan directed this episode. Minahan has been an ace TV director for a while now—and something of an in-house guy for HBO—but his clever 2001 reality-TV satire Series 7: The Contenders makes me pine for more big-screen work. I wrote about it here for New Cult Canon.
- “Can I break union rules and sit at this bay?”
- The scene where Maggie pushes the editor to ready the Wisconsin package quickly so she can rush it to air seems to promise a replay of the famous sequence in Broadcast News where Joan Cusack dodges various obstacles to get a report to the booth, but it never happens. Probably the Internet’s fault again.
- Neal’s story about being “on one of the trains” is too much. Between this and last week’s Bigfoot fiasco, he’s quickly becoming the most aggravating character on the show.
- Aaron Sorkin has heard of Justin Bieber.
- Will ponies up the $250,000 to free his new reporter. Is he the greatest or what?