The Newsroom: “One Step Too Many”
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The Newsroom: “One Step Too Many”

I think it’s safe to say Jerry Dantana is history’s greatest monster. He’s cutting journalistic corners to get his story on the air, like altering footage of history’s greatest character actor Stephen Root to make it seem like he confirmed the use of Sarin gas in Operation Genoa, and he’s erupting in fury at everyone who won’t get on board with his story because they just happen to like that Barack Obama fella. And while all this time when I’ve been operating on the assumption that at least some of the Genoa story would turn out to be true, Charlie says at the end of tonight’s episode (in the future, where he has the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, as so often happens on this program) that none of it is true. What the hell is going on here?

In the Operation Tailwind reporting clusterfuck that this seems to be based on, CNN and Time messed up on the severity of the attack—they claimed Sarin was used when only a “potent teargas” was used in the operation—and various other details, but they were basically exaggerating an event that actually happened, turning it from something unremarkable into something remarkable and newsworthy via bad reporting. But Operation Genoa appears to be almost entirely made up, despite the fact that ACN has untold numbers of seemingly good sources, up to and including the man in charge of the mission on the ground (formerly presumed to be dead) and a general who would know what was going on (though, granted, he never confirms the use of Sarin, and Jerry just makes it seem like he does). Until we hear otherwise, then, I’m assuming Jerry hired a long string of character actors to put one over on the News Night team, and when all is said and done he will remove his mask and reveal himself to be the great Hamish Linklater, then cackle with glee.

All in all, “One Step Too Many” is a weird, lumpy episode in a season that’s been weird and lumpy, but mostly in an agreeable way. It’s bizarre to me that critics who were generally kind of okay with season one have turned on this season, which is significantly better, but by the end of this episode, I can sort of understand the argument that mixing up fake stories—like Genoa—with real ones is just an even more problematic version of that thing the show does when Will reports on a real story, then interrogates actors who play the sorts of talking heads you might expect to see on a show like this but are given easily dismissed talking points so Will, and by extension the man writing him, can shove their wrongness in their sniveling little faces. It muddies the intent, and it makes the whole thing seem like more of a polemic than it already is.

Now, granted, I don’t really agree with this. The Genoa arc is the best thing this show has done, I think, even as the fact that it’s obviously all going to be 86’ed by Jerry’s weird villainy is increasingly making me groan. Again, I think this storyline would work much better if it were about Jim or somebody, someone the audience already trusts, to some degree, so that when the character makes the choice to selectively edit the footage of the general, that decision would have some weight behind it, instead of feeling like the villain in a movie serial tying the damsel in distress to the tracks. But this isn’t a big flaw; it’s a question of balance, and in the opening scene where the red team tries to pick holes in the Genoa story, I really thought the show was onto something, Jerry or no.

Then it wandered into a narrative cul-de-sac for its middle portion.

Don’t get me wrong: A narrative cul-de-sac can be a lot of fun. Last week’s episode was basically that, and it was the best episode the show has ever done. The problem here is that Genoa builds up a good head of steam, with Charlie and Mackenzie going to meet with the general and the red team picking at the flaws it can see in the story, and then that’s just set aside for stuff that’s all less interesting. In particular, I don’t really find all that much of worth in Will trying to figure out if the audience likes him. Granted, it led to the wonderfully ridiculous sight gag of a scowling Jeff Daniels in a football helmet knocking over a lighting instrument with a football he’d just thrown, but the whole story is so obviously low stakes and so obviously just something cooked up to give the main character something to do while he has to be kept out of the loop on the real action that it never takes flight. It’d be one thing if Will were working on his own story or dealing with his family issues or whatever. Instead, we’re just watching him worry that the audience has turned on him and being reminded he’s dating Nina still, because nobody on this show ever has sex with the person they actually want to have sex with, because they can never just come out and say, “Hey, I’m into you, person who is obviously also into me.”

Earlier this week, in an article about a bunch of other things, Grantland’s Andy Greenwald made the observation that Aaron Sorkin doesn’t actually like conflict. He feints at it. He occasionally takes stabs at it. But just about any time there’s supposed to be a character meant to stir up conflict in the mix, that character is eventually brought into the show’s happy band of warriors. (See: Don on this show; Steven Weber on Studio 60; William H. Macy on Sports Night.) In a play or movie script, Sorkin can have characters in conflict, because the resolution eventually arrives. But on a TV series, he gives up trying to write these sorts of battles before too long, because the self-evident righteousness of his main characters becomes a boulder that scoops everything up, leaving the conflict for ridiculous guest characters (as in the lengthy segment tonight where Sorkin reprosecutes the 2012 Republican primary for absolutely no story reason whatsoever) and to be visited upon the main characters. Greenwald’s observation isn’t exactly new, but it crystallizes for me why The Newsroom can feel so structurally lumpy.

See, if we’re boiling things down to the ol’ “there are only five basic plots” rubric, then Sorkin is pretty lousy at writing man-vs.-man storylines, especially on television. What he is good at is man-vs.-nature or man-vs.-God, provided that “nature” or “God” takes the form of, like, a class-action lawsuit. One of the reasons the Genoa storyline packs so much punch, even though Jerry is so obviously meant to be an object lesson on How To Do Journalism Wrong, is because it takes this form. Here is a terrible agony visited upon the main characters, and they will have to buckle down and take care of each other to survive. Genoa passes this crucial test of how to tell a story like this, just as most of The West Wing did. What doesn’t pass that test is worrying about whether a fictional news anchor will maintain some sort of high approval rating from a fictional audience. It just doesn’t matter, and when the episode spends its middle third on this and other pointless interpersonal storylines that could be easily cleared up by the characters acting like adults, it lays ever more bare the contrast between the strong stuff and the weak.

Stray observations:

  • In particular, it’s bizarre to me that Don and Sloan wouldn’t have at least gone on a date by now. They’re both people who say what’s on their mind. They’ve both pretty much admitted to one another they have a thing for each other. And they’re both independent minded and not, apparently, in a workplace where that would be a problem. Yet Don is still mooning over her, and my best guess is just that this is the version of romance Sorkin knows best how to write, and, dammit, he’s sticking to it.
  • I like Hallie’s evident wonder at Skype. Perhaps she’s a time traveler from the 1940s, and this is all Sorkin’s way of doing his old West Wing pal Alex Graves a solid by stealthily rebooting Journeyman. (Also, I thought I was going to like the stuff about Jim and Hallie ending up having dinner with Neal, that one girl, and the former Romney communications director, but I just didn’t. It played into too many of the show’s weakest “comedy!” tropes. I did like Hallie having to leave because of an unexpected Romney event.)
  • The show has sort of quietly made Neal into a better character this season, which I didn’t really expect to happen, and I salute it for that.
  • Stephen Root should just be in everything ever. I loved the way he casually mentioned he had researched Jerry Dantana, but he hadn’t researched Maggie Jordan when the two turned up at his house. And if you know a bit about Tailwind—or have read its Wikipedia entry—then you’ll know he’ll probably be coming back soon enough.
  • Sloan launching into an explanation of what John Carter was about, with Will cutting her off to say he just wanted to know why she was going to talk about it for her economics segment, followed by, “Also: spoilers,” was a fun little moment. Even the comedy works better when it’s related to the workplace.
  • Will tosses a baseball to himself and tries to throw a spiral through a tire to benefit cancer research.  Sloan dates a New York Giant. Stephen Root only wants to watch March Madness (and I’m guessing that the basketball footage off to the side will be pivotal in proving Jerry altered the video somehow). Charlie mentions the World Cup. What’s the National Hockey League gotta do to get a little love around here, Sorkin?
  • Question time: Whom do you think Will voted for in the Republican primary? I’m guessing Mitt Romney, unless Jon Huntsman was still on the ballot by the time New York’s primary rolled around.

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