This was a rough week for The Newsroom, but a great one for Will McAvoy, who two seasons from now will have the restraint and good judgment to hold off on breaking the Supreme Court’s ACA ruling before all the facts are clear. Some weeks, victories in retrospective news are achieved by scooping everyone—as in last week’s triumphant BP oil-spill coverage—and other weeks it’s about being patient and avoiding that “Dewey Defeats Truman” headline on your website and blog. (It helps that Will McAvoy has the integrity to be confused about whether he even has a blog.)
But it was not a proud day for two-year-old news this week, as Will, MacKenzie, and their team of cub reporters completely botched their lead segment on Arizona’s controversial SB1070 immigration bill. Despite Item #2 in MacKenzie’s “News Night 2.0” white board—“Is this the best possible form of the argument?”—Maggie whiffs the pre-interview for Arizona governor Jan Brewer and they’re forced to run with a gallery of nincompoops instead. It will take some time for News Night and its unseasoned staff of adorable young people to transcend the boggy morass of cable news and do things the right way, ratings being damned. They may nail the ACA ruling in a couple of years, but for now, they’re no better than CNN.
Despite some flickers of promise in the pilot episode—particularly once the News Night team dropped the shenanigans and came together for the “off the prompter” ([VAMP]) BP story—“News Night 2.0” is mostly Bad Sorkin, teeing up too many opportunities for soapboxing and idealist proclamations while missing the verve of professionals actually putting together a news story. The Northwestern panel created an existential crisis for Will and his show: How does the Jay Leno of cable news reinvent himself after he’s been outed as a person with opinions? But The Newsroom seems intent on dealing with the question that broadly every week, as if running a quality news show were as easy as simply committing to doing so. (Over at NPR’s Monkeysee blog, Linda Holmes brilliantly unpacked the cynical implications of the show, starting with the title of the pilot episode, “We Just Decided To.”)
For Will, the conflict lies in his desire to do a good show while also keeping the ratings up. As the episode opens, he’s riding high from the Northwestern panel and his BP reporting, which have given him a ratings bump, particularly in the coveted younger demographic. (Apparently, the “Worst. Generation. Ever.” can’t get enough of the show—an irony Aaron Sorkin doesn’t care to point out.) The devil on Will’s shoulder is a weaselly numbers guy who encourages him to lead with more oil-spill footage and appease his right-wing viewers by straightening out Sarah Palin’s latest syntax-mangling. The angel, of course, is MacKenzie (and Sam Waterston’s Charlie Skinner), who believes it’s possible to do a broccoli-filled newscast and have a line wrapped around the buffet. MacKenzie’s only sop to the great unwashed is to hire the leggy Sloan Sabbith (Olivia Munn) to do a five-minute report on the economy every night, preferably while wearing Olivia Newton-John’s purple stretchpants from the “Physical” video.
Meanwhile, “News Night 2.0” gets into a few lighter-side-of-the-news subplots, mostly by revealing the two most prominent female characters, MacKenzie and Maggie, to be bubble-headed flibbertigibbets when it comes to matters of the heart. Maggie blows the pre-interview with a Brewer surrogate not through the sharp wording of her questions, but as fallout for an incident in college where she hid under a date’s bed while he made up with an ex-girlfriend. (A scene where Jim blows a pre-interview with a female Brewer surrogate for a similar incident is unimaginable.) As for MacKenzie, we learn a little bit more about her breakup with Will, due to the widespread assumption around the office that Will cheated on her. Her attempts to quash this rumor are undermined by her inability to send email without CC:-ing the entire staff. (The simultaneous twinkling of smartphones after she sends her errant emails means that everyone has push notifications for ancient sitcom plot contrivances.)
As the widely circulated (and terrific) “supercut” of Sorkinisms revealed earlier this week, the Newsroom’s creator has a history of repeating himself, but refashioning Sports Night into a dramedy about real news has proven to be an awkward fit. MacKenzie (tough, idealistic, uncertain in the ways of love) and Maggie (cute, flustered, surprisingly resourceful) are basically Felicity Huffman and Sabrina Lloyd’s characters on Sports Night, but since Sports Night dealt with made-up sports news, the details of their personal lives never felt so distractingly trivial. But when Maggie’s reporting on SB1040 is undermined by a humiliating liaison in college, it just seems sexist and stupid, as does MacKenzie fumbling over office gossip.
“News Night 2.0” hits bottom in the last 10 minutes, when MacKenzie gets another grandstanding speech asking Will to “be the moral center of this show” and to “be the integrity,” and we get a montage set to Radiohead’s soaring “High And Dry.” Looking out onto the Statue Of Liberty, Will puts a call in to Neal to offer help for an illegal immigrant whose livelihood is threatened by outing himself as such in an alt-weekly. Will, being the integrity, asks Neal not to trumpet the gesture on the blog, so no one knows about the generosity and decency behind his anonymous donation. No one, that is, but we in the audience.
- Block that metaphor: Having the people above his apartment making home improvements underlines the “News Night 2.0” theme unnecessarily, even before he gets a note at the end that restores our faith in humanity.
- Having assembled our erstwhile Videocracy feature on occasion, I’m amused by the existence of a “Today On YouTube” segment, which for us mostly meant whatever “Fred” was up to that day.
- So an online professor, a gun-toting militiaman, and a Miss USA second runner-up walk into a bar…