The Newsroom: “Willie Pete”
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The Newsroom: “Willie Pete”

C

The Newsroom

“Willie Pete”

Season 2, Episode 3

There’s something to say for this week’s Newsroom: At no point does Maggie use all of her reporting skills to track down a Sex And The City fan who has an incriminating YouTube video of her talking about a guy she likes. Maggie is up to some hijinks in this episode, running around and squawking about the side effects of her malaria medication, but at least she’s taking that medication to go be a real reporter in Africa. The Newsroom is allowed to be funny, I suppose, so I won’t begrudge it a little bit of high comedy revolving around self-medication.

“Willie Pete” is probably the most hectoring episode of the season so far, though, harkening back to the show’s original intent, which is to deliver solemn judgment on every single error and oversight by the national media 18 months or so ago. We begin with a sequence reminding us that Will, who was licking his wounds in the first two episodes after the blowback from his Tea Party rant, is back! He’s back, baby! Back on that high horse!

He delivers a devastating Olbermannian monologue to the Republican candidates who stood silently as a primary debate crowd booed a question asked by a gay soldier serving in Iraq. The crowd is going straight to hell, Will decides, and probably our country right along with it. It’s a forceful piece of writing by Aaron Sorkin, reminding me of a sad image I had largely forgotten from the early days of the presidential race, as the Republican candidates sought to outflank each other on the right and appeal to the party’s hardcore base.

I’ll hand it to Sorkin—the conceit of this show is laughable, but it’s undoubtedly clever. Will’s sermon on the mount, crisply edited, serves both as a piece of editorial writing and as a signal to the audience that he’s back in the saddle. Too bad that for the rest of the episode he’s occupied with finding out who leaked the dull information that he was not sick for the 9/11 coverage, but was booted off it, information that surely any rational intelligent human living in the Newsroom universe would be able to figure out for themselves.

What’s wrong with this plotline (which I hope we never hear from again) is that it makes Will look like a bit of a preening fool. That’s not to say his character isn’t, but it’s a funny choice considering he’s also a lordly moral genius who almost always has the right opinion on everything. So many of his storylines see him stalking the ACN offices in his maroon sweater yelling at Charlie or Chris Messina or his baffled underlings about leaking to a gossip columnist. I guess the best I can say is that it’s equal opportunity ridiculousness—Maggie goes to a laundromat in Queens last week, Will clears out a restaurant and hires a pianist to charm Nina Howard this week.

Ah, Nina Howard (Hope Davis). Everyone’s favorite character from season one is back, baby, but at least this time she isn’t inspiring Will to crank on about his “mission to civilize,” one of the most objectionable plotlines of last year. With Will and MacKenzie’s romance on the backburner right now (thank God, although she does briefly grill him about his stoned phone message this week), Nina is mostly back to re-emerge as a romantic interest. The whole conversation about the leak doubles as courtship of a kind I hope I never personally participate in, and by the end of the episode, she’s at his apartment. Jeff Daniels doesn’t have much chemistry with Davis, but as long as the show doesn’t waste too much time on them, I don’t particularly care about their flirtation. It definitely lacks the nasty tone of her scenes in the first season.

The other major target of Sorkin hectoring is the Romney bus reporters, who Jim has joined and immediately begins to agitate. This is September 2011, so we’re still more than three months away from the Iowa caucuses, but Jim is still baffled and angry that the junior reporters currently tailing the Romney campaign are happy to stick to the talking points and not press on the logical inconsistencies of a campaign that is now running to the right despite Romney’s record as a moderate Massachusetts governor who enacted health care reform very similar to Obama’s.

Grace Gummer, playing Hallie Shea, is annoyed at Jim’s antics, bothering the Romney people with REAL, HARD-HITTING QUESTIONS he knows they won’t answer. There’s some decent flirting going on too, Sorkin-style (which means they argue a lot). But, of course, deep down she knows he’s right and by the end of the episode joins in his little insurrection, which sees them kicked off the bus and essentially denied access.

Is Jim right? I suppose so. Sorkin is criticizing the whole concept of the embedded reporter, who desires access and friendly relations with his or her subject and so may shy away from asking the difficult questions. But at the same time, it’s the Romney campaign in September 2011. These reporters are there to make sure nothing interesting happens. Jim is a TV reporter, so he’s especially lost—a print reporter could (and so many did) write articles pointing out the discrepancies between Romney’s stated positions and his record as Governor, but that’s a little harder to do in a two-minute hit on a news show. But I had to roll my eyes a little when Jim sadly reports on new poll numbers just like the rest of the sheep on the bus, because, it’s the Romney campaign in September 2011. Sometimes there’s not gonna be any news.

The other major plotline this week follows Hamish Linklater further investigating the U.S. Army’s alleged use of sarin gas in Operation Genoa. Now, from the flash-forward device, we know this is going to go wrong somehow, so it’s hard to get too excited about it. At the same time, we’re watching actual reporting happen, and it’s pretty gripping stuff, and it also involves Hamish and MacKenzie being total pros and that’s something to see. Of course it’s all going to go wrong, but hey, what are you gonna do?

Sloan and Don’s courtship is also much more enjoyable than it should be, largely because Olivia Munn reads Sorkin’s dialogue better than damn near anyone else on this show. While this episode sees her asking for Don’s help on a crisis of conscience (she recommended on air that people only buy Lockheed shares if they don’t have ethical crises over drone strikes), she’s pretty much in charge of the situation the whole time, and if you didn’t get that already, Sorkin has Don fall off his chair in a particularly emasculating moment. Men can be fools too! Good to know!

Stray observations:

  • Charlie says he and Will are made men, like Joe Pesci in Goodfellas. “He got shot.” “Before he got shot.” “Before he got shot he wasn’t a made man.” “We’re like James Caan in The Godfather.” “Also got shot.”
  • “Book agents beat their wives.”
  • Alison Pill is stuck with some bad storylines on this show, but she’s still a gifted comic actress, especially when freaking out about her malaria meds. “I can feel my mood changing. I can feel it. I can feel it happening right now.”

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