Jesus. Where to start?
How about with the most ludicrous moment in what has become a hyperbolically ludicrous show? Gabrielle Giffords has just been shot outside a Tucson shopping center, and the ACN team has mercifully stopped playing footsie (and Big Footsie) in order to Do Important Stuff. NPR has declared Giffords dead—poor NPR, ever the journalistic whipping post—and other outlets are following suit, despite no official confirmation. With the benefit of Sorkinian hindsight, Will McAvoy and company have the integrity to hold back and wait on the R.I.P. graphic, on the off chance that Giffords survives, enters a successful rehabilitation program, and triumphantly returns to Capitol Hill to vote on raising the debt ceiling. And in the middle of all this chaos, in bursts The Ratings Guy, breathlessly pleading, “Why hasn’t he called it yet?!”
Now, there’s a very real pressure on cable networks—and all outlets, really—in the Digital Age to break news more quickly. In fact, we just witnessed the humiliating spectacle of CNN and Fox News announcing that the Supreme Court had struck down the individual mandate in Obama’s health-care law when, in fact, the opposite was true. (That whole debacle is broken down in great minute-by-minute detail by SCOTUSblog, which had the patience to get the ruling right.) And there’s no doubt that a network that allows itself to be out-hustled on breaking news will lose in the ratings. But for The Ratings Guy to dash onto the set, screaming for the anchor to declare Giffords dead, is spectacularly absurd, even for the idealized broadcast fantasy camp that is The Newsroom. Plus, it only sets up the tee for all the real journalists in the room to swing away.
And swinging away is what this show is all about. “I’m on a mission to civilize,” Will says more than once in “I’ll Try To Fix You,” and it’s one of those noble Quixotic missions—like, say, The Newsroom itself, which could take Will’s quote as its motto. Here the low-hanging fruit are gossip fomenters like US Weekly, TMZ, and the New York Post and the entire idiot culture that encourages the existence of fashion reports and Real Housewives reality shows. As Nina Howard, Will’s would-be hookup at the ACN New Year’s party, Hope Davis gets tossed into Will/Sorkin’s buzzsaw of righteousness. When Will discovers that Nina is a columnist prepping a “take down” on a Real Housewives cast member—which she then foolishly attempts to justify by equating her take down with his on-air dismantling of the Tea Party—that’s all he needs to go off on one of his patented rants. “I’m not putting you down,” he lies. “I’m just saying that what you do is a really bad form of pollution that makes us dumber and meaner and is destroying civilization.”
(Let’s take a break for a couple of side notes. This is one of the many moments on the show when you find yourself arguing with it, knowing that Sorkin has written this character as a sounding board for his own opinions on the debasement of news and culture. And leaving aside the fact that gossip has always existed—and in more virulent forms—I can sympathize with Will/Sorkin’s concern about this chatter as a form of pollution that makes us dumber and meaner. Four episodes in, reviewing this show has made me feel meaner for mocking its earnest pronouncements—however cynical they are at their core—and it gives me no pleasure to dump on it week after week. I took the assignment sight-unseen because I’ve liked much of Sorkin’s work, and consider his recent scripts for The Social Network and Moneyball to be models of adaptation. But as much as I don’t want to be part of the problem Will/Sorkin is describing, The Newsroom certainly hasn’t been the solution so far. End side notes.)
The story of Will’s rebuffing at the New Year’s party metastasizes when another failed love connection—this time a gun-toting pot-smoker played by Kathryn Hahn—tosses another drink in his face and the entire story lights up the gossip world. For a show that’s having trouble producing credible, rational, professional women, “I’ll Try To Fix You” does itself no favors by introducing two more who are shallow and vindictive and lacking in Will’s haughty brand of civility. Sorkin then tries to package the entire ordeal in a sinister tuxedo-bugging plot ordered by corporate to weaken Will’s credibility and send him packing with a three-year no-compete clause. So there’s a little paranoia to go along with your sexism.
But as long as we’re getting into gossip, Maggie’s handling of Jim’s fling with her roommate is even more out of bounds than Don’s passive-aggressive orchestration of it. She has no business calling out Jim for lying about sleeping with her friend in private, much less at a pitch meeting, and the entire incident underlines the tendency of Sorkin’s women to allow their personal lives to infiltrate the workplace. There’s a degree to which all Sorkin characters flub up adorably, but between MacKenzie’s email problems a couple of weeks ago and Maggie’s outbursts here (“Sometimes when Jim says ‘no’ what he really means is I’m sleeping with your roommate”), it paints an ugly picture. The model here—and a clear inspiration for the show, particularly Mortimer’s character—is Holly Hunter in Broadcast News, who certainly has her quirks (daily stress crying) and romantic foibles (falling for an anchor she doesn’t respect), but there’s an intelligence and integrity to her that Sorkin’s women can’t equal.
Still, I’ve buried the lede. Nothing in “I’ll Try To Fix You,” easily the worst of the first batch of four episodes, is as bad as the Bigfoot running joke. Sorkin likes to pepper episodes (and movies) with recurring cutesy/digressive tics as a way to lighten up the action, but there’s a point about halfway through the episode where Neal’s mentions of Bigfoot start to become a fireable offense—and that’s before he hits everyone with a PowerPoint presentation during an emergency Saturday meeting. The one mitigating factor: At least this time it’s a man acting like a nincompoop at work. Hooray for equal opportunity stupid.
- The episode wasn’t all bad. I enjoyed a couple of exchanges—such as Will’s quip after MacKenzie’s assistant U.S. attorney boyfriend talks about prosecuting financial crimes (“Feel free to start any time”) and another Will zinger after he’s asked if he’s read the New York Post (“No. My eyes are connected to my brain.”)—and Will’s emphatic statement at the very end about fighting corporate was hugely exciting to hear, especially after the staff had just come together for the Giffords news. There’s a potentially good show here. I try to remind myself of that.
- Will/Sorkin again scoring points off the character being a registered Republican: “I only seem liberal because I believe hurricanes are caused by high barometric pressure and not gay marriage.”
- Will is right about Obama and the Second Amendment. He’s also right about Obama’s $200 million a day trip to India. Some quality retrospective editorializing there.
- Coldplay. The cherry on top of a shit sundae.