Aaron Sorkin shows are dominated by their talk. That talk can be enormous fun. It can be enervating and irritating. Or it can just be a bunch of words that are there to mark time between story beats. But the talk is always present, always there to keep things humming along and remind you just how good Sorkin is at writing this sort of thing. So the idea of an episode where everybody in Newsroom land is trying not to talk about something is at least theoretically interesting. The result, however, is only fitfully interesting, with frequent digressions into stuff that’s not really all that important, some heavy-handed discussion of how maybe everybody’s worrying about petty bullshit because of the giant problem in their peripheral vision, and a lot of overwrought drama and weird personal storylines. It also doesn’t even bother to pretend it’s anything other than part one of a two-part finale, stretching out even its least-interesting stories so we’ll get another hour of them next week. In short: The Newsroom is back, baby!
That’s not fair, I suppose. I didn’t smack my forehead in frustration at anything in “Election Night, Part 1” like I did many of the developments in season one or the first half of this season. But there’s a definite sense of marking time, of everything standing still so we can get to the real goods next week. Part of this may be because I figured out the big cliffhanger fairly early on, as the big story Don’s friend pitched to him pretty much had to be the David Petraeus scandal. (Adherence to existence in our reality hurts The Newsroom in smaller ways, too.) But also, there was a real sense of momentum coming out of the last episode. I may not have liked the final sequence of that one, but when Jane Fonda yells in the general direction of the camera, boy, you’d better have something great to follow it up with. I’m not sure “Election Night, Part 1” passed that test.
As always, what I was most into with the episode were the little details about working in a 24-hour cable news channel newsroom and production facility. All of the stuff with the Decision Desk at first seemed a transparent way to ape the famous Fox News footage of Megyn Kelly wandering back to visit that network’s Decision Desk when Karl Rove pitched a fit during election night. But it soon revealed itself to be another sly way of revealing newsroom culture. Jim realizing he didn’t communicate which races to call properly to Maggie—and having to figure out a way to atone for that mistake without actually asking Will to make a retraction—was both a neat way to reveal how the Decision Desk operates within the election-night coverage and to show off how well these political scientists can call races from sufficient, if incomplete, data. I really enjoy watching these people work, and this storyline was a good example of that.
Unfortunately, watching these people work wasn’t the entirety of the episode. Sorkin at least understands that watching the News Night team cover the election isn’t going to make for a very exciting episode. Election-night coverage can be exciting in the moment, but it was fairly clear from most of the exit polling data last year (even the leaked stuff) that Obama was going to win re-election and it was simply a matter of counting all the votes. So the election becomes a thing that’s going on around the edges of the real stories, which is absolutely the right call. Unfortunately, the real stories are almost all about stuff I long ago lost the ability to care about or require the characters to behave in patently ridiculous ways.
For instance, the show could have come up with any number of possible answers for why Leona refused to accept Charlie, Will, and Mackenzie’s resignations (I floated one in my last review), but Reese says that his mother is refusing to accept their resignations—after longing to fire them for so long—because it’s the “honorable” thing to do. Which, maybe, yes. I can sort of buy it in the idea that this is a fairy tale version of a news network, where the corporate overlords stand behind their news team when it takes one on the chin because they understand sometimes things go wrong and so long as the story is retracted responsibly and learned from, it protects the culture of daring to go after big, important stories that haven’t been broken yet. (Or so the theory goes.) But Leona doing this for some weird sense of honor? That’s far less believable to me.
We’ve also got Sloan obsessing about a book being donated to a Hurricane Sandy charity with her signature—that’s not actually her signature—then bringing up the Genoa story on live election-night coverage because she’s feeling stressed or something. The show has done worse things with Sloan (and if it thinks it’s revisiting the briefly floated potential pairing with Neil from season one, I will resign from ACN myself), but this is all an over-obvious way of underlining something that works better when the episode treats it with subtlety (as it does sometimes with Mackenzie). Everybody’s freaked out about Genoa, but they can’t let themselves think about it too much. That I buy. I don’t buy Sloan letting it get to her to the degree that she slips up on air.
Finally, there’s the return to the long dead relationship of Mackenzie and Will, something the show cares about far more than I ever have. I get that it’s an important piece of the show’s backstory, and I get that we’re building to an inevitable reunion between the two. But because Sorkin’s style is to keep potential couples apart as long as possible—one of his most irritating traits as a TV writer—that means this history will be rehashed over and over and over again, until there’s nothing new under the sun. I liked the idea of Mackenzie fretting over when Will was going to blow up at her over Genoa, and I liked how the demise of their relationship could inform that. Instead, it became all about that again, and I was rolling my eyes. (Side note: I think I would feel more invested in this with some sort of flashback or something. I want to say that Sorkin never does stuff like this or he wants to make the show about the forward march of progress or something, but he did some marvelous flashback episodes on The West Wing, which helped us invest even more in the characters’ pre-existing relationships.)
I get that the talk is a big reason to watch an Aaron Sorkin television show if you’re a Sorkin fan—and I am. The characters talking around the truly big deals in curlicues can be a lot of fun, because the curlicues are so ornate and beautifully wrought. The problem with The Newsroom where, say, The West Wing didn’t suffer is that when the characters finally talk about the big deals, when everybody gets down to brass tacks, the big deals simply aren’t that big. They involve private relationship trauma or audience likeability numbers. Which aren’t bad story ideas in and of themselves, but they can’t survive the critical imbalance introduced between the buildup that inevitably results from all of that Sorkin talk and the ultimate reveal of the smaller, pettier personal struggles navigating those curlicues. I don’t think it’s a bad impulse for Sorkin, who’s a frequently overwrought writer even on this best days, but it often leaves me a little numb to the program’s other charms. The smaller stakes would be better served by less ornate writing, but ornate writing is what Sorkin does. (And, hey, he won an Oscar for a movie that took a small, personal betrayal among friends and turned it into something that felt Shakespearean, so don’t listen to me, Aaron.)
Genoa was supposed to be different in this regard, and for a little while it was. It was supposed to be the problem so huge that it couldn’t be avoided, couldn’t just become the elephant in the room. When it necessarily has to become the elephant in the room that Sloan refers to, then the show falls back on some—though not all—of its most irritating habits. I can handle a lot of the other things that make this show goofy. I can handle the over-the-top dramatics and over-scored musical montages of the team preparing to report the fucking news. I can handle the 20/20 hindsight thing (and even like it a little bit when it’s not at the show’s center). I can even handle the “Hey, I just happen to know a guy who gave us a very important story!” thing when it’s couched in an old friendship and not a guy who knows a guy and/or a random nurse who wandered into Will’s hospital room. But I can’t handle this crucial imbalance, and until The Newsroom figures it out, I’m afraid it will be one step forward, two steps back.
- Aaron Sorkin vs. technology: Mackenzie faces off with Wikipedia’s very odd procedure of not allowing subjects of Wiki articles to take issue with said articles, even through a mediator. I don’t know if I’d call this a potential subject for interesting drama, but in this episode, it has all the excitement of your high-school English teacher telling you why you couldn’t use Wikipedia as a primary source on your final paper.
- Jerry’s legal strategy becomes slightly more clear in this episode. He’s apparently going to pile on the nuisance suits in hopes of getting something to stick. One will involve suing Don for $20 million for calling Jerry a “sociopath” when Kickstarter called for a reference. I have no idea if this makes any legal sense—some of you were taking issue with Jerry’s suit in comments last time. I’m mostly just baffled Jerry thought he should work for Kickstarter.
- Maggie cut her hair about a week before Election Day. Now Alan Sepinwall can stop asking me about this. It seems an awfully delayed reaction to her Africa trip, but women and their hair, amirite, fellas?
- I have come to like Hallie’s little drop-ins via Skype as weird bastions of sanity amid the crazy that is the rest of this show. Grace Gummer should do a Web Therapy spinoff or something.
- There were a few choice lines in this episode—like Will making himself director of morale—but I especially liked Reese saying he couldn’t accept the resignations because his mother wouldn’t let him. Chris Messina always looks like he’s sucking on a Sour Patch Kid in this role, and it’s terrific.
- Charlie gives a big, exciting speech about how America’s elections are the envy of the world. It’s meant to give goosebumps; it mostly gave me nausea. I did want to see that Hungarian pizza party, though.
- It would seem the ACN team is going to get the trust of the American public back by breaking the Petraeus story. Now, be honest: When’s the last time you thought about the Petraeus scandals, which happened less than a year ago but feel as if they occurred back in the Neolithic?