The Newsroom: “The Greater Fool”
C

The Newsroom: “The Greater Fool”

C

The Newsroom

“The Greater Fool”

Season 1, Episode 10

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The thing is, if you don’t think about The Newsroom all that much, it’s the best show on TV.

I don’t mean for this to imply that those who enjoy the show and have made solid arguments for its quality in these comments week after week aren’t thinking about the show. Clearly, they are. What I mean is that The Newsroom is a show that has the look and feel of quality TV, so the way that I find best to enjoy the show is to not pay too much attention to it. Every time I start to, I realize just how poorly plotted the show is, how it seems to have no sense of narrative momentum, how the characters have the tendency of telling us things about themselves but not actually demonstrating them. And, yes, I’m constantly reminded of how terrible the show is toward its female characters, nearly all of whom (save a handful of recurring players here and there) are utter messes. But this discrepancy—between how The Newsroom feels and how it actually behaves—is indicative of how Aaron Sorkin’s work (at least on television) has gotten shallower and shallower.

Since I’m filling in for the first time here, it’s probably worth pointing out that I found the first season of this show horridly uneven. There were episodes I enjoyed—particularly the occasionally moving “5/1”—and there were episodes I abhorred—“I’ll Try To Fix You” remains one of the worst episodes of TV I’ve seen in quite some time. But the series’ unevenness went beyond even that. It was as if everything about the show was ever so slightly tone deaf, as if Sorkin and his collaborators didn’t know when to say when. The unevenness filtered down into individual episodes, into individual scenes. Take, for instance, “5/1,” an episode that features probably my favorite scene of the series (Don reporting the news to the pilots), which then compounds that scene over and over and over, until some guy in the control room is putting on an FDNY hat, and it’s clear Sorkin had basically no idea when to pull out of the congratulatory spiral. The guy’s never been known for his restraint or naturalism, but The Newsroom seems to often lapse into self-parody.

But Sorkin’s such a gifted writer and has such a good sense of how to write patter that if you just sit back and let the show wash over you, it feels like you’re watching something of momentous importance. Sorkin has a reputation as an intelligent writer, but I don’t think that’s exactly the case. Sorkin’s work is terrific at flattering the audience, at making you feel like you’re smarter than everybody else simply for watching and keeping up. But Sorkin’s shows (and plays and movies) are also expert at telling you exactly what to think and feel at any given moment. Now, granted, if you’re a center-left Democrat of the type that Sorkin evidently is, this probably feels pretty darn good. Smart people on TV, with big vocabularies and a great way with a cutting joke, are saying the things you’re already thinking! But Sorkin’s whole game is flattery, is telling you things you either already believe to be true or desperately want to be true, that you might feel as if you have at least fictional comrades in arms.

It’s worth pointing out that this is roughly how News Night With Will McAvoy operates as well.

The centerpiece of “The Greater Fool”—indeed, of the whole season—is a news broadcast that is apparently meant to be Will and Mackenzie’s “masterpiece,” the great work that the whole season has been building up to. Though no one ever says that this is what the two are doing, the show positions it as such, thanks to strategic use of some kick-ass music by The Who, Charlie all but pumping his fist in excitement, and the sheer pride and joy everyone on staff has at putting on this one particular show. The problem is that the episode the crew puts on isn’t strictly news in any real sense of the term. That would be fine if it were especially insightful, but it’s not. It’s basically another screed against Republicans, courtesy of points that were old when paleolithic liberal bloggers were making them.

It’s not immediately clear who the broadcast is supposed to be for. Just who’s watching News Night? Are there any Republicans or Tea Party members who are going to be swayed by Will’s words? I suspect if this episode of television (which, let’s be honest, is an episode of television Rachel Maddow has produced—in a much more skillful fashion—15 or 16 times now) existed and I sent it to my diehard Republican relatives, they’d be just as unmoved by seeing it as I would be by them sending me a Hannity episode to consider. I agree with just about everything Will says in this “triumphant” broadcast, but, then, I would, because I’m on roughly the same side as him (though I left the Republican Party long ago). The problem that Sorkin and his collaborators have never been able to overcome is the fact that many Americans now choose the news they want to believe, based on the political reality they wish to operate inside of. Will’s solution to the continued polarization of the country appears to be… further polarization.

All of this might be okay if it were wrapped in a package that was slightly better put together, but it’s just not. The Newsroom, for the most part, has been messy and ungainly, with bits and pieces of storylines that don’t work together being tossed into the same episodes, often seemingly to take up time. I’ve watched the show in two big gulps, and what’s struck me the most in both sittings was the way that these episodes don’t really behave like stories. They feel like stories, again, if you just let them wash over you. But when you actually sit down and try to parse out what’s happened, the narrative is often hopelessly convoluted.

In “The Greater Fool,” for instance, Sorkin employs an in medias res structure that keeps flashing between the “masterpiece” broadcast and Will’s convalescence after an attack by his bleeding ulcers (that followed in the wake of what might have been a suicide attempt… or at the very least was some ill-advised pill-and-bourbon mixing). What this does, however, is create plot momentum that keeps stalling out at the weirdest possible times. The montage of the staff pasting together all of this information about the hypocrisies of the Republican Party—scored to “Baba O’Riley”—builds things to a point where it feels as if a fist-pumping climax should follow, but the episode follows this with a lot of relationship angst. The end of the broadcast concludes with a lovely shot that tracks backward from Will, isolating him at his desk, a shot that feels, for all the world, like the end of the episode—until everything just keeps wheezing along for another 10 minutes, so that Mackenzie might (somewhat improbably) hire the sorority girl Will raged at in the pilot to be a new intern.

The more you examine the structure of the episode, the more it becomes hopelessly problematic. Sorkin badly wants to mirror the pilot here, with lots and lots of moments that reach back to that first episode, hopefully making the first season feel like a cohesive whole. But, like all of this season’s episodes, good and bad, it ends up almost comically overstuffed in the process. Working on network at least forced Sorkin to cram his ideas into 42-44 minutes of screentime. Working on HBO has created a situation where he has carte blanche, particularly in overlong season finales that careen wildly from plot point to plot point, with little sense of how to stitch them together into an overarching narrative. It’s not enough for the pilot to be referenced with Will watching his meltdown on YouTube. He also has to learn that Mackenzie was in the audience, and the girl has to be there, applying for an internship. The Newsroom never bothers with one well-rounded moment when it can toss five or six half-assed ones at us instead.

But even that lack of narrative momentum might not be a problem if it weren’t for the show’s single biggest issue: its utterly unconvincing and uninteresting romantic relationships, all of which seem to exist solely to make the female characters seem horrid. It’s worth pointing out that the show’s best episodes have all had smaller amounts of this material than its worst episodes. It’s also worth pointing out that every time the narrative screeches to a halt in “The Greater Fool,” the romantic storylines are the culprit. On the one hand, I rather admire Sorkin’s attempts to tell a story about two adults trying to work through their pain over an infidelity. On the other hand, this storyline kept intruding on other things, until it felt a little bizarre that everybody in the show’s universe was just fine putting up with Will and Mackenzie’s constant sniping. I normally adore Emily Mortimer, but she had less and less of consequence to do as this season went on, until she spent most of tonight making silly faces and babbling at Will’s bedside. (It was not a flattering side for the character.) As the episode ends, the two still won’t admit they’re crazy about each other, as Nina Howard—evil vixen that she is—deletes the uber-romantic voicemail Will left for Mackenzie that she somehow obtained via TMI’s phone hacks. It’s a bizarre and convoluted attempt to mesh the show’s personal and professional storylines, and it completely doesn’t work.

None of that, however, can compare in awfulness to the ongoing trials and tribulations of the Maggie-Jim-Don love triangle, which keeps picking up spare characters, like a particularly awful game of Katamari Damacy. Where once Jim had a crush on Maggie, and she on him, but she was with Don, now, we have a situation where Maggie likes Jim but is moving in with Don, but Jim is with Lisa (or maybe he isn’t now), even though he’s kissed Maggie, and, also, for some reason, Sloan is carrying a torch for Don that keeps her from being interested in anybody else. (It’s a wonder that Neal hasn’t somehow gotten swept up in the wake of this plot craziness.) This relationship has a tendency to turn everything it touches to ruin, to the point where the normally sensible Sloan professed to Don that she was single because he’d never asked her out, something that could only be greeted with horrified guffaws.

None of this was as bad, however, as the scene where Maggie streaked out of her dinner with Lisa, having learned that Don wanted her to drop by at midnight (as always), only to yell at a Sex And The City tour bus about how she’s a typical single girl, only to have Jim (of course) be on said bus, so he could race after her unknowing declaration of love. I’m trying to think of how a writer as good as Sorkin could ever have thought a scene this terrible would work. I can sort of see where he thought it might be clever. He plants the seed of having Jim be on that bus way back in the early going, then hopes you’ll forget about it (though the image of Jim on that tour is so incongruous that you never do). He makes the idea of Maggie running into this tour (which is improbably running at night) sort of amusing. But the whole thing is so full of characters saying Exactly What They’re Feeling and the show’s general problems with the female characters (notice, yet again, how Jim gets to be the brave savior after Maggie freaks) that it can’t help but be completely and utterly a failure. It’s the kind of black hole scene that sucks everything around it down into its wake.

It also doesn’t help that it never makes any goddamn sense why these two men are fighting over Maggie, even though she’s played by the amazing Alison Pill. It also also does not help that all of these romantic storylines operate on basic variations of the so-called idiot plot, in which all of the characters refuse to simply tell each other the truth, because then they might behave like adults and admit to each other how they really feel, and the show would have to look for drama elsewhere. (It goes without saying that this applies to the ongoing Will and Mackenzie storyline as well.) The problem with the romantic relationships has less to do with jarring tonal shifts (though those are there as well) and more to do with just how idiotically everyone behaves in them, thanks to some bizarre notion of nobility.

Those notions of nobility drag down the show as a whole, actually. Now, there’s nothing in The Newsroom that couldn’t be fixed in season two. The show just needs to be tightened, with better workplace drama and more muted takes on the relationships. The show’s central issue will probably always be the fact that it’s set in Sorkin’s version of our world, so nothing much can change, but at least the series seems to finally be realizing that, as News Night is, in many ways, a noble failure that will likely never succeed, a place where greater fools come together and do what they can to make a better world.

When Sorkin was initially promoting this show, he kept calling it a “fairy tale,” and in addition to all the references to Camelot and Don Quixote, the series also brings up such inherently romantic notions as “true love” and noble quests that are doomed to end in failure. The Newsroom wants to be an epic, heroic romance of the modern age, the tale of noble men and women doomed to struggle with a machine that will only grind them up. Where it fails is in how it refuses to actually engage with this issue. It wants to be entertaining and light, but it also wants to be deeply meaningful. It wants to wash over you, yes, but it also wants to be about something, yet it constantly finds serving both masters all but impossible. The major problem with promoting this show as a fairy tale is that fairy tales have simple, romantic morals at their core, yet the moral of this first season was almost always a cynical one, a belief that the people could be corrected if they’d just listen to the Great Men of the world. In the finale, no matter how problematic, that idea begins to shift in earnest. Maybe people don’t want to listen, but maybe, just maybe, the victory is in parading along behind them, spreading out the good word to those who will.

Finale and season grade: C

Stray observations:

  • I couldn’t find a good place to work this into the above (I know; I’m as surprised as you), but I think one of the major problems with this season was that Sorkin just lost distance from his characters. What I mean is that he was unable to perceive just how the audience would perceive the people onscreen, so Will, who was clearly meant to be a loveable asshole, instead became this pedantic, smug son of a bitch who was no fun to be around. This will be the easiest thing to tweak in season two, and I expect the characters to be less grating, if nothing else.
  • One of the weirder complaints I’ve seen leveled against the criticism of the show is the idea that if this is your first Sorkin series, then it seems pretty cool, and why can’t you just think about the show like that? I’d argue that Sorkin’s done good TV before, so it’s easier to see how this isn’t good TV, but I’d also ask you to please, please, please check out The West Wing, at least the first couple of seasons. That’s good TV.
  • I liked the look Sam Waterston gave when bourbon was mentioned in the hospital scene. Charlie knows his bourbon.
  • I like Sorkin’s basic belief that all people are good at heart, if you just know how to talk to them, but Leona never once worked as a character, making her turn tonight—no matter what it was motivated by—seem all the less important.
  • It continues to be amazing to me how naïve Will and Mackenzie are about pretty basic things, like whether the RNC will let them do a debate that’s just Will shouting at the candidates or whether repeating fairly basic things about the Tea Party caucus will move the dial in any way, shape, or form.
  • A nice moment of Sorkin acknowledging reality: Sloan’s reports on the debt-ceiling crisis don’t move public opinion one inch.
  • I think one of my problems with News Night is that it starts out with some interesting news stories that are generally underreported—voter suppression in this episode—then immediately wanders off-topic into “Here are some things we could think of to say that were bad about Republicans.” Isn’t it enough to just point out that the types of voters who are typically suppressed aren’t likely to vote for Republicans, then point out that these bills pass under Republican leadership? I don’t know that you need a whole hour of kicking sand in John Boehner’s face after that. 

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