The Newsroom opens with anchor Will McAvoy flubbing his lines on his News Night broadcast. But Aaron Sorkin's HBO drama succeeds as Will falters. By shining light into Will's darkness, Sorkin humanizes his hero and brings new dimensions to his relationships with his female counterparts, Mackenzie McHale, his seasoned executive producer and former flame, and Sloan Sabbith, the young reporter who Will himself describes as like his younger sister.
Will is off his anchor game because he is suffering from insomnia and he visits a therapist to get his hands on some sleeping pills. From the therapy chair, Will recounts his last few weeks at ACN spent struggling with bullies (lending the episode it's name). Sorkin scholars will remember the device from The West Wing episode "Night Five" in which President Jed Bartlet's insomnia also leads him to a pyschoanalyst. Not surprisingly, the quest for Ambien digs up daddy-issues involving alcoholism and abuse for both Sorkin protagonists.
"Bullies" recycles another West Wing plotline—Will resents being assigned a bodyguard after a bully of the Internet commenting sort makes a death threat on the anchor. (Unlike West Wing's C.J. Cregg, Will does not fall in love with his burly security guard—at least not yet.) That Sorkin borrows from his hit political series does not make Sunday's Newsroom episode any less effective; the brash Will finally reveals some of his vulnerability. The doctor gets Will to admit he wants to play protector but often falls into the trap of being a bully. Will regrets giving a black, gay Republican who supports social conservative Rick Santorum the cable news equivalent of a cafeteria smackdown, and he blames himself for leading Sloan astray with some ill-fated advice. His therapy session also reveals (shocker!) he is not over Mack. Will succeeds in fooling Mack with a Tiffany's sponsored engagement ring con, but he can't fool himself as he tears up the ring's return receipt.
Meanwhile, Sloan makes a grave mistake while subbing in as anchor for another ACN show. An interview with a Japanese spokesperson about the nuclear fallout from the 2011 Japanese earthquake creates some very serious professional fallout for Sloan as she calls him out on-air (in Japanese no less) on information he told her off the record in the pre-interview. This is a big no-no in the news industry and ACN president Charlie Skinner berates her, suspends her, and must launch an investigation into her prior reporting. Sloan takes only so much of his abuse before snapping back at Charlie's gender-driven condescension—a criticism of the show at large. "Don't call me girl, sir!" she yells before Will breaks up the fight.
To clean up the mess, Sloan must lie on air and say that a linguistic misunderstanding, not a disclosure of privileged information, was behind the botched interview—a solution that is an ethical dilemma in and of itself. The Newsroom takes a break from its utopian vision of journalism to acknowledge that even the best-intentioned reporters must sacrifice their own integrity to save face.
Sunday's episode of The Newsroom got many things right according to a Jessica Stuart who has worked in a number of positions in the TV news industry. The distinction between what is off the record and on the record is very important, she explained. "It's really a symbol of trust," she said. Information told off the record may not be for public consumption. "However, off-the-record information does lead you in the right direction, to do research, to investigate."
She also enjoyed seeing a mentor-mentee relationship between Will and Sloan. She notes, however, a relationship like that was more common among young reporters and veteran producers, and that usually reporters and anchors were too competitive to help their younger colleagues out.
Aaron Sorkin rights many of the wrongs of his earlier episodes of The Newsroom. "Bullies" humanizes Will, shows at least one of his female characters standing up to the misogynistic treatment the show often allots, and poses important questions about truth and transparency in the news. Sorkin may been teaching a new show old tricks by bringing back The West Wing playbook, but it worked. Here's hoping this and last week's episode signal a permanent shift for the troubled series.