The Newsroom has always been at its best when it focuses on the production of News Night With Will McAvoy. Therefore, it stands to reason that an episode focused almost entirely on that would be one of the series’ best episodes, and, indeed, “News Night With Will McAvoy” is the most satisfying episode of The Newsroom, top to bottom, since the show began. There are speed bumps along the way, and some of Aaron Sorkin’s constant bugaboos rear their ugly heads, but by and large, this is exactly what I want from this show: agreeable entertainment with a serious twinge that never takes itself so seriously as to be off-putting. There’s something weirdly somber about this hour, but it’s never so somber that it overwhelms the show. The muted tones look good on The Newsroom, and the fact that it’s not trying to force the comedy works in its favor. If this show looked like this episode more often, I’d be on board.
But I was pretty much predisposed to like “News Night With Will McAvoy,” because it’s one of my favorite stunt episode types: the real-time episode. All of the events within the episode occur during the production of the March 16, 2012, episode of News Night, which was not a particularly noteworthy news day. The big story is still the Trayvon Martin shooting, with the release of George Zimmerman’s 911 tape, while in international news, a bombing in Syria has left anywhere from 15 to 100 people dead. But the other items on the docket are things you’ve probably forgotten about, like that guy at Rutgers who outed his roommate via webcam or the 2012 Illinois primary, which was won by Mitt Romney as he continued his slow roll toward the nomination.
So the news stories aren’t going to be the big deal, continuing a welcome trend this season, which has by and large avoided the sorts of hyperbolic “here’s how the news should have been reported” stuff that made stretches of season one such a chore. There’s still an occasional tone of Sorkin lecturing the past from the future—even in this episode—but it’s much better modulated this season. Now, in some episodes, this shift in tone has meant more of a focus on the personal stuff, which hasn’t been the right call. But in this episode, that shift in focus is largely welcome. The personal storylines that drive the episode are largely solid, and everybody gets a little something to do. It was to the point where in the final 15 minutes of the episode, I realized just how many plates were spinning and was impressed by Sorkin and director Alan Poul’s ability to keep them all going.
There are things that don’t really work here. It’s hard for me to get too worked up over Will worrying about some woman tweeting about him, even if that’s meant to be a proxy for his actual feelings about his dad. Similarly, Sloan’s storyline ended well—I always like seeing guys get punched in the nuts, and it’s nice when the women on this show stand up for themselves, instead of letting some dude do it for them—but the bulk of it skewed far too close to all of the times Jim told Maggie how great she was and how she needed to stop devaluing herself last season. (I just don’t buy that Sloan would give herself that much guff about dating such a shitheel, leaked nude photos or no.) And the bit where Don has accidentally started up a ridiculous World Net Daily rumor indulged in some of Sorkin’s worst conservative stereotype baiting—right up until Don called the guy named “Munch” and got some absurd Brit on the phone, nicely undercutting the expected.
Really, that’s what The Newsroom has been missing all along. In Sorkin’s best work, there are bits where the expected gets undercut so well that you’re in high dudgeon about how predictable all of this is, until you’re saying, “Oh. Okay. That’s where that was going.” Then other times, you get something like, well, Maggie going to Uganda and meeting a young boy marked for death by sharing the screen with her. What “News Night With Will McAvoy” does so expertly is provide those necessary moments of undercutting in almost every storyline (I’m not sure the Twitter storyline gets one, but it’s more of a runner). By situating the episode around the production of one show, Sorkin and Poul get a chance to play with the moments when their characters are at their best. Therefore, no one seems unbelievably idiotic or out of their depth. When Maggie makes a mistake—by leaving out the operator’s question that provides necessary context in her 911 tape cutdown—it’s a thoroughly believable one, given the pressures she’s under. When Mackenzie talks Will through the grief and uncertainty she knows he’s feeling deep down, it’s evident just why she has her job, unlike so many other times on the show.
The central clash in tones on The Newsroom has always been between serious drama about important world events—which tends to be okay to good—and light, goofy romantic comedy about people whose work lives and personal lives get all tangled up in each other—which tends to be mediocre to bad. The solution to this problem as suggested by this episode turns out to be blindingly obvious: Treat everything that happens with the tone of the former. When Maggie snipes bitterly at Jim about his new relationship, it’s not treated as some goofy thing she’s doing but, rather, as something angry and open and raw that she’s trying to process. (It’s also one of the first times the show has served Alison Pill well at all.) When Don and Sloan talk each other through their mutual problems, it’s not treated like the ultimate prelude to sexy fun times—though that undercurrent is present—but rather as two colleagues helping each other out of a mess. That tone runs throughout the episode, and it’s highly welcome.
This is to say nothing of my favorite storyline in the episode, in which Charlie receives a visit from an old contact within the intelligence community, ostensibly there to talk with him about the government’s giant server farm it’s building out in Utah (in a happy bit of serendipity for Sorkin, this server farm plays a major role in the still unfolding NSA stories of this summer) but actually there to talk with him about Genoa. It’s a good storyline not just because it treats the character of Charlie seriously, instead of as a drunken buffoon, but also because it gives the great stage actor Frank Wood a chance to cut loose. What’s more, his arguments for why Genoa was necessary are constructed thoughtfully, and delivered in the manner of someone who really does believe such massive actions can be necessary against an enemy stuck in the eighth century (as he puts it). It inches the Genoa storyline along a bit—in that he gives Charlie some paperwork pertaining to the operation—but it mostly just lets two great actors sit alone in a room and bat strong dialogue back and forth, the hallmark of any good Sorkin show.
I’m perhaps over-grading this episode, but that’s because I want so badly to believe the series will follow its general tone and method going forward. It certainly has the room and the means to do so, and what’s instructive here is how much the obvious death in this episode—Will’s dad—contrasts with the obvious death in last week’s episode. Where the death of young Daniel was arrived at via the most hackneyed of plot motivations and treated as yet another station of the cross for Maggie to proceed through, the death of Will’s father is more of a gut punch, even though you know it’s coming from the second Will finds out his dad has had a mild heart attack. Something about the somberness of the episode leading up to this moment, about the way it prepares you in advance, about how Jeff Daniels’ eyes carry so much of the story, something in all of that works, and it allows the episode to get away with more than it normally would. Obviously, not every episode can be a real-time show taking place during the production of an episode, but I hope Sorkin and his team take a long, hard look at “News Night With Will McAvoy” to see what made it so good, and I hope they apply that liberally going forward.
- I’m willing to buy the idea that everybody trying to download the Zimmerman 911 clip at the same time has slowed down Maggie’s download time as much as it does, but it still feels like too much. How big can that file possibly be? I can’t imagine it is more than 10 megs, unless it’s a WAV or something. Does ACN run on a 56.6 kbps dial-up line?
- A surprisingly fun runner turns out to be the team staying on the line with the people trapped in the rubble in Syria, who turn out to be pranksters somewhere in the city. The resolution here is so unexpected—there’s that undercutting again—that it turns into one of the episode’s best comedic moments.
- I’m less certain about Mackenzie telling the kid backstage that he’s not going to get to come out on national television. I know it’s to give her something to do other than provide a lifeline to Will, but she was so good talking him through his emotions that the other stuff ended up feeling a little superfluous.
- Every time I watch this show, I am entranced by the commercials playing on the monitors during the breaks and trying to figure out what they might be.
- Some of the stuff about sexism in this episode felt weirdly personal, as if Sorkin was trying to work out some of his angst of being accused of sexism in season one by taking it out on The Huffington Post (which employs the great Mo Ryan, who has frequently called Sorkin out on this stuff). It’s hard to say precisely what’s up here, but the episode provides a better answer for Sorkin going forward than, say, getting defensive: Have Mackenzie and Maggie be good at their jobs and screw up in believable ways, rather than bizarre ways that suggest they have no idea how technology and/or humanity works.
- Probably unnecessary: Jim asks Gary how long it took him to get over what happened in Uganda, and Gary says, “I wasn’t holding the kid!” Fortunately, it’s not as overwrought as that sounds. (I do like the choice to have Maggie drinking a lot, even as I can see why it will rub a lot of people the wrong way. It gives her grief more weight than just cutting her hair.) Also, since it seems to have tripped up some others, the timeline of all of this is as follows: Maggie goes to Africa —> Episode five —> Maggie cuts her hair —> Deposition. You’re welcome.
- I like that everything in this episode is presented so matter-of-factly. Jim’s back from the campaign trail and is dating Hallie. Maggie’s falling apart. Sloan had naked pictures of her pop up online. Will has always had father issues. (Then again, that last one isn’t really a stretch on a prestige drama, now is it?)