After Will gave his big speech at Northwestern and Mac brought her wealth of battle-tested journalistic experience to News Night, The Newsroom was off and running on the premise that Will, a once-great anchor reduced to bland ratings-whoring, was going to do a broadcast worthy of the ancients—Cronkite, Morrow, etc. He would hold leaders accountable. Speak truth to stupid. Beat back the inanities of gossip reporting and the Internet. Ignore “fair and balanced” and report the facts, regardless of where they land on the ideological spectrum. And, of course, give Aaron Sorkin the opportunity to sound off on both the inadequacies of the news media and the issues of the day.
This being a drama, there has to be obstacles to Will’s idealistic venture, but until now, those obstacles have mostly served to burnish his integrity in the face of them. Sure, he slipped very slightly by apologizing for Sarah Palin in a second-episode insert, and perhaps he acts like a boor at times, but things like doing a sugar-free broadcast in face of declining ratings or enraging the ACN suits into sabotaging him are not real obstacles. They may threaten the show, but they don’t damage Will’s integrity or suggest any fault in the way he and his staff go about reporting the news. Missions like putting on the best possible broadcast, regardless of all other considerations and pressures, are only made nobler for being quixotic.
So credit Sorkin for finally hitting on some real obstacles in “Bullies,” the best episode of The Newsroom to date. In Will’s interrogation of a Rick Santorum surrogate and in Sloan’s overzealous questioning of a Fukushima plant spokesman, we see anchors crossing the line from tough examination into free-swinging demagoguery, and a genuine admission that being an effective anchor and getting at the truth isn’t so easy, even for those who have committed to doing things “the right way.” This may sound self-evident, but when you consider that The Newsroom’s first episode was called “We Just Decided To,” it’s a big step forward to admit that journalists can’t “just decide to” report the news adequately. Even in Sorkin’s idealized universe, there’s the possibility for failures of arrogance and ethical lapses and straight-up zealotry, and the show desperately needed an episode like this to poke some holes in its self-righteousness.
Fiddling with time a little, “Bullies” opens on April 12th with Will fumbling over the text in his broadcast and admitting to Mac that he’s dealing with a bout of insomnia. (When asked if he’s taking Ambien, Will delivers a nice Sorkin-y retort: “I don’t want to wake up in the middle of the Triborough Bridge, eating scrambled eggs in my pajamas.”) Turns out he has a good reason for feeling stressed out: An Internet commenter has issued a death threat on the message boards, even after Will ordered to have a new verification system to weed out anonymous trolls. And he hasn’t seen his therapist in four years.
(Sidenote: Sorkin’s war on the Internet is perhaps the most “kids get off my lawn” element of this “kids get off my lawn” show, and another opportunity for us to argue with Will, his on-screen surrogate. From his infamous ‘Internet girl’ interview to having Will treat the very notion of comment boards and blogs as the lowest form of human discourse, Sorkin has a contempt for the modern that’s reductive and irksome. To have Will’s life threatened by the Internet in this episode is an obnoxious manifestation of that contempt.)
Meanwhile, back one day to April 11th, Sloan, our five-minutes-a-night economics wonk with legs, seriously botches a golden opportunity to fill in for Elliot on the 10 p.m. broadcast. Earlier, in the pre-interview, Sloan got the publicity flack for the Fukushima nuclear plant to admit that the INES(International Nuclear Event Scale) rating for the reactor was not a 5 (“Accident with wider consequences") but a 7 (“Major accident”). She realizes that he will never say that on the record and asks Will for advice on how to get the truth out of a reluctant subject. Will being Will, he browbeats her into browbeating her subject and sets her up for disaster.
The disaster, when it happens, is one of the most compelling sequences the show has produced so far, a trainwreck of startling and hilarious proportions. Having Sloan actually interrogate the Fukushima PR man directly, in Japanese, was a wonderful touch, mostly for Don’s exasperated reaction in the control room. (“Go back to Japanese!,” he says, as Sloan recounts their off-the-record conversation.) While Sloan’s screw-up is a bit outrageous—and exacerbates the show’s problem with women acting like tempestuous dingleberries—at least it arises from an overweening desire to inform the public of a vital truth instead of, say, blowback from a relationship she had with some dude back in college. It helps that Olivia Munn and Thomas Sadoski, as Don, play the scene with crackling energy and a belligerent Charlie comes by to do clean-up.
It also helps that Will has his own nothing-but-the-truth integrity dinged by his encouraging Sloan to lie about misunderstanding the words for “four” and “seven” in order to clean up the mess on both ACN’s end and Fukushima’s. This comes on top of his over-the-top interrogation of a black, gay Santorum spokesman who won’t reject the candidate based on his virulently anti-gay rhetoric. Will lets fly with rhetorical questions about how his guest can reconcile Santorum’s statements with his own lifestyle choices, and the guest’s angry rebuttal exposes the narrowness of Will’s assumptions—to say nothing of his questionable tactics. Our Sorkin surrogate speaks truth to stupid and looks bad doing it for once, and that’s progress.
Still, The Newsroom doesn’t have it all sorted out yet, because the behind-the-scenes romantic shenanigans keep getting in the way. The Sloan/Don storyline is very nearly sabotaged by Sorkin’s annoying habit of undercutting serious business with frilly nonsense. In the middle of Don lambasting Sloan for betraying her source, he asks, “Is Maggie into Jim?”, and suddenly all serious ethical and professional matters are off the table. This happens to a less damaging degree in Will’s continued drama with Mac over their failed relationship a few years earlier, though at least his gambit to buy an engagement ring in anticipation of a conflict with her ties into his advice to Sloan to lie in an effort to protect her job.
He looks bad for a while. Then he rips that Tiffany’s receipt up and he’s noble, good-hearted Will again. Alas, Sorkin can only tear down his hero so much before he starts to rebuild again.
- The culture jammer in me wants to insert a shot of Fox And Friends into the old-timey newscaster montage in the opening credits. Cronkite, Murrow, Doocy.
- Emily Mortimer hasn’t done much to redeem the Mac character, but her Groucho impression is a start.
- Nice to see Terry Crews and David Krumholtz in meaty performances as Will’s bodyguard and junior therapist, respectively. Crews, in particular, fires off some solid one-liners.
- “I need something to help me sleep.” “Why?” “Can’t sleep.”
- “I’m going to single-handedly fix the Internet.” Have you tried Disqus, Will? It’s really helped out signal-to-noise ratio while limiting death threats to fake, ironic ones.
- Having Jim, Maggie, and Neal do “opposition research” on Will to anticipate future tabloid stories was an awfully laborious way to dig deeper into Will and Mac’s romantic past; it’s the hour’s weakest subplot.
- Maggie mixing up Georgia the state and Georgia the country is just so irritatingly Maggie, isn’t it? Though the botched condolence note (“I’m sorry about your loss. LOL.”) made me laugh.
- When considering Don’s offer to fill in for Elliot, Sloan melts at the prospect of a Gucci wardrobe. Because women.
- “I love you, but a Japanese man’s honor is at stake.” This is how I will sign off on this and all future Newsroom reviews.