Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

The Newsroom: “Unintended Consequences”

Illustration for article titled The Newsroom: “Unintended Consequences”

The Maggie Jordan goes to Uganda storyline has the virtue of being both better and worse than I expected it to be. On the one hand, it’s better because it doesn’t go anywhere near where I feared it would from the early episodes. At the time, I feared Aaron Sorkin might offer his particular riff on the Lara Logan situation, in which she was beaten and sexually assaulted by hundreds of men while reporting in Egypt. This is the sort of thing a journalism drama could do a strong spin on, but it’s not the sort of thing I trust Sorkin to handle with any tact or nuance. So I was relieved to find this wouldn’t be the case as we headed into the bulk of Maggie’s story in Uganda.

Unfortunately, just about every other element of her story was telegraphed from the instant we met young Daniel, the Ugandan boy marked for death by dramatic irony (he’s staying at the orphanage while his parents work because he’ll be safer there) and by having his narrative intersect with that of one of the main characters. Daniel is one of my least favorite kinds of characters on television, the one-episode guest star who exists solely to teach one of the main characters a lesson. The second I saw him, I knew he was going to die, probably in horrible fashion, by the end of the hour. The second his teacher said blonde hair was nothing but trouble, well, I knew why Maggie had chopped off her hair and dyed it red. It wasn’t as bad as I’d feared it would be, but it was far more predictable and, somehow, all the worse for it. The final sequence, where Maggie lays out exactly what happened to her in Uganda in the midst of the deposition, is cloying and overwrought in all the worst ways, not least of which is Sorkin’s choice to underline every single plot point with Maggie explaining it to us in the future. It’s a collection of weak storytelling choices, and they snowball into something far worse than simply a few small missteps.

“Unintended Consequences” is, I think, by far the weakest of the four episodes HBO sent out to critics to write reviews of the second season, and I suspect it tempered some of the already muted enthusiasm that exists for these episodes. (Then again, I probably liked episodes two and three slightly more than David—and thanks be to him—did.) To my mind, the most interesting thing about those first three episodes is the unfolding of the Operation Genoa storyline. There are problems I have with it—I think it would be far more interesting if the person who got the story wrong were an existing character like Jim or Don, rather than a new character brought in just to bring this down on everybody else’s heads (tell me something else about Jerry other than his function within the story)—but I’m at least intrigued to see where things are going, particularly after last week’s episode ended with that great moment of the reporters finding the tweets about what seemed to be the saran gas attack.

“Unintended Consequences” puts all of that on hold in order to tell us what happened to Maggie. Sure, there’s stuff there about the pursuit of Genoa, but that’s largely in service to a storyline that heightens some of the show’s worst tendencies, involving many of the characters becoming irresponsible journalists and outright jackasses to Shelly when she wants an apology for how Will treated her on his show. To be clear, I don’t really think Shelly deserves an apology, but when the team so clearly needs her help, you’d think they could deal with her as functional human beings, not condescending assholes. Once again, the show’s inability to blend the tones of a relatively serious and straightforward journalism drama with a goofy comedy about professionals in over their heads when it comes to their personal lives drives a problematic storyline that never holds together.

But Genoa is very much in the background of this particular episode, in favor of Maggie’s trip to Africa and Jim’s adventures in New Hampshire. In the case of the latter storyline, things get more and more irritating with every week that passes. This week, Jim gets everybody lost while trying to find the Romney bus, and this costs Hallie a story her editor needs, which puts her in jeopardy. So, naturally enough, because this is Jim, he manages to land a favor—any favor!—from Constance Zimmer (whom I’m really enjoying as Romney’s communications director), and instead of interviewing the candidate himself, as he’s been trying to do from the word go, he passes it off to Hallie. He hopes it will be seen as a noble gesture, but Hallie is upset he feels he has to make this sacrifice for her—to say nothing of how Mackenzie is furious about him giving up a potentially important interview for a girl he likes.

This is actually all pretty darn good, particularly the scene where Hallie lays into Jim, but it all ends up reversed when Hallie comes out to the pool to talk with him and thank him for what he did, then ends up kissing him. It’s a pointless reversal of what had been a strong scene for a character who was nothing more than “girl Jim can have a crush on who’s not Maggie,” and it tanks the storyline for the most part. I have no investment in Jim and Maggie, but I have even less in Jim and Hallie, even as an impediment to the other couple getting together. Plus, the kissing scene is interrupted by more pointless discussion about Vassar, which is what passes for character development for a guest on this show. The whole thing left a bad taste in my mouth.


That was nothing, however, compared to the stuff in Uganda. I so wanted this to feel like something more than one of those episodes of ER where Carter went overseas and learned about how much terrible stuff was going on in Africa, only to realize that nobody back home cared enough. Then he would stare soulfully at the camera, and both he and the audience would think about doing something, only to have it all largely recede into the background in the next week’s episode. Worse: This episode makes important, serious issues in Africa into a character growth story point for a comfortable, well-off white person in the United States. Daniel is never anything more than a cute kid marked for death. It’s one thing to make Hallie a plot device. We’re used to that with love triangles. But when it’s Daniel, the whole thing becomes that much more cringe-inducing.

This is to say nothing of how the whole story is told as a part of the deposition for no reasons I can really figure out. Maggie has to tell the entire story, rather than simply explain about her medication situation—which is all the lawyers really want to know about in the first place—and it just ends up making everything in the storyline feel that much more hollow and forced. This is something that swings for the fences but ultimately ends up hitting a little dribbler right down the middle. And when it comes to a season of television that’s had its moments here and there, that’s difficult to take. “Unintended Consequences” shows just how ruthless this series has become about forcing every other character into the personal growth curves of the series’ main players, and that’s a problem.


Stray observations:

  • I know others have complained about it, but I kind of like Maggie’s freewheeling mangling of the English language. It reminds me of the way a lot of people in her and my generation speak, using the base roots of words to form others that mean roughly the same thing, a process that’s been sped up and twisted a bit by IM and text message speak. Does Sorkin intend to do this? I have no idea, but I kind of like it all the same.
  • Things that would have made a better screencap for this article than whatever HBO actually provided: Charlie flattening his face against the glass.
  • More Newsroom weirdness: Sloan has just gotten around to seeing Titanic and informs the slumping Kodak that she’ll “never let go.” Olivia Munn seems as unconvinced by this as I am.
  • Hey, at least Shelly comes around and realizes that, yeah, she really was bad on TV. It’s important that everybody on this show ultimately realize Will McAvoy was right.
  • This episode does another Sorkin thing that irritates me: The quest is all for naught, meaning that the attempts to get Shelly to cave and tell the team where the OWS protestor who knows about Genoa is are ultimately pointless, because ACN tracks that person down anyway.