Sticking true to form, the fourth episode of The Newsroom was another dose of ham-handed Sorkin-ese, letting viewers know the way real news should be done, while the characters who serve as the vehicle for broadcast news program's rise from the ashes are busy mucking up each other's personal lives. However, no Sorkin work would be complete without a grand moment where everyone realizes their own internal moral compass, only this time, viewers are privileged to the awakening while being serenaded by Coldplay. Viva La Vida, Indeed!
Sunday's episode of The Newsroom opened with a glitzy New Years Eve party at the ACN headquarters. "There would never be a New Years Eve party like that in a middle of a newsroom," says Jessica Stuart, who has 15 years of TV production experience, discussing the episode. Realistic or not, the revelry does not last long as Will McAvoy embarks on a self-proclaimed "mission to civilize," lecturing a gossip columnist on her news judgement.
What starts as a flirty tête-à-tête ends with the columnist throwing a drink in Will's face and the whole incident lands smack in the middle of the gossip pages. Over the next 45 minutes of the episode, Will continues to offend a bunch of romantic interests, only to have each date sensationalized by the very sort of news publications Will despises. By the episode's end, he is gracing the cover of a fictional gossip rag.
All of the incidents lead to an emergency weekend damage control session, where Charlie and Will finally put it together that Will is the victim of intra-company tabloid fire. Atlantis World Media's CEO Leona Lansing, fresh off her threats to silence Will, is the one responsible for the stories in the gossip rags, which are owned ACN's parent company. The stories are part of Lansing's plan to fire Will, whose political agenda is threatening her business interests.
The entire epiphany is interrupted by actual breaking news, and viewers are treated to five compelling of all-hands-on-deck newsmaking, as the staff of News Night scrambles to cover the shooting of Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords.
It's ironic that Sorkin lectures about the dangers of media navel-gazing at the expense of covering real news when the plot of this episode (and most of the show so far) is wrapped up in the media navel-gazing at the expense of covering the real news. When Will does get to report on substantive issues—the lack of gun control legislation and President Obama's trip to India—the thrust of his focus is the poor job done by other news outlets and by various tabloid-ready Tea Party figures.
Mackenzie and Sloane (who we are told are two of the most intelligent people in the news business, but have yet to say many intelligent things about the news) obsess over Will's presences on Page Six. But as Stuart points out, Sorkin is being more realistic in his fixation on media gossip than we give him credit for: Every real life celebrity gossip magazine is covering the Ann Curry's split from the Today show, so it's not a far fetch to believe Will McAvoy would bump Jennifer Aniston from the front of the tabloids.
Mackenzie and Will's perpetual bickering about what went wrong in their relationship is not the only love-talk dominating the narrative. The Maggie-Don-Jim love triangle turns into a love parallelogram as Don insists Jim goes out with Maggie's roommate. The entire sequence makes every character involved less likeable.
The title of this week's episode was "I'll Try to Fix You"—a meta-theme of The Newsroom as Sorkin, through his characters, tries to fix the news industry himself. However, there are some aspects of his show Sorkin should consider repairing if he is to succeed in his larger mission.
1. Let substance drive style, not the other way around.
Everyone knows Sorkin is at good crafting snappy dialogue full of quick wit and trivial factoids. However the clever banter only works if it is being used to carry a solid, well-crafted plot, and not used to drive useless subplots, like segment pitches that cover whether or not Bigfoot exists.
Sorkin seems to be setting up his sequence of events so that his characters can make an obscure Broadway joke (it feels like more effort has been put into an argument between Sloane and Will over Annie Get Your Gun than into the debate about gun control legislation that runs parallel to that argument) rather than let such quips ride effortless on more substantial conversations.
2. Cool it on the romance.
Workplace romance usually makes for entertaining television (just ask any fan of The Office). However, Sorkin has allowed the love subplots of The Newsroom to run amok, in which the characters cannot seem to have an entire conversation without referencing an ex-relationship or a new prospect. In his The West Wing days, the inter-office affairs among Sorkin's characters worked because they were subtle and implied. The romance between show's press secretary C.J. Cregg and White House reporter Danny Concannon sizzled over charged glances and heated exchanges. They were never seen fighting or making up in full sight of their coworkers; Don and Maggie—and Will and Mackenzie, for that matter—often are.
"People would never yell at each other about cheating over headphones," says Stuart of her own newsroom days. But more than just being a matter of realism, by letting the romantic drama hijack The Newsroom, Sorkin is compromising the stakes of his show: that well-done journalism is necessary for the health of democracy. If his characters truly believed that, they could put aside a bitter break-up for the sake of doing the news.
3. Show, don't tell, how the news should be done.
It is not until the last couple minutes of Sunday's episode as the News Night team jumps into action to cover the Giffords shooting that The Newsroom shows how good of a show it could be if Sorkin could find his focus. While other programs are broadcasting that the congresswoman has died, Will and his team refuse to make the call without sufficient reporting, despite the pressure to keep up the audience numbers in doing so. Don delivers the key line. "It's a person. A doctor pronounces her dead, not the news."
Anyone with newsroom experience could relate to how fast the News Night staff snapped into action.
"The staff was off doing their own thing, but when the Gabby Giffords news broke, everyone dropped what they were doing and got down to business," Stuart says. "That's what a newsroom does: It shifts gears quickly—everyone becomes a well-oiled machine and knows what they need to do when news breaks."
Will, Mackenzie, Charlie, and the rest of The Newsroom like to talk about how the news can be done better—at least better than their competitors. But when they show how it can be done better, The Newsroom comes the closest to reaching its lofty goals and Sorkin comes closest to living up to the high expectations to which he is held.
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