Season 1, Episode 6 – “Bullies”
At the close of our recap of last week‘s “The Newsroom” episode, we wrote that protagonist Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels) would “be more sympathetic if he actually made a mistake and had to deal with the consequences. In fact, the show would be helped enormously if they made some serious fuck up too, rather than being right every single week.” Of course, episode six, “Bullies,” had been written and made long ago, but clearly someone on the creative team had the same thought, because it was this exact conceit — our heroes being wrong, and being less than saintly — that formed the theme of this week’s episode, and the result was a continued upswing for the show, and further proof that “The Newsroom” can be saved after a very rough start.
Utilizing the kind of structure that Sorkin used multiple times on “The West Wing” to great success — an interview with a troubled character, eliciting a flashback to recent events — we pick up with Will botching his outro to the show, and telling Mac (Emily Mortimer) that he’s not been sleeping well. Or indeed, at all. He goes to see his therapist Dr. Abe Habib, for the first time in four years, in the hope of scoring some sleeping pills. But he discovers that Habib passed away two years earlier, and that his son Jake (David Krumholtz) has taken over the practice. The younger Dr. Habib insists on a little talking cure to go with the pills, and presses Will on possible reasons for his sleep deprivation.
At first, it seems that a death threat to Will may be causing the problems. Forced to give time on the show to reader comments from the website, to help boost pageviews and offset a ratings dip, Will insists on adding a registration system, where you can only leave your comment if you sign into an account which also holds your age, occupation and level of education (while we sympathize, Sorkin — who has vented his rage at internet commenters in all of his shows since “The West Wing” — went too far with the last one). But as if to prove that Will’s plan was ill-conceived, the system is immediately broken, with a death threat sent from a fake account, and the network’s insurance company insist on him getting a bodyguard in all public places (played, hilariously, by Terry Crews, who looks to be a real asset to the show).
But trying to “fix the internet,” as he puts it, is far from the biggest mistake in this episode. Elliot is out, looking after his sick kid, and Will has recommended that economics correspondent Sloane Sabbath (Olivia Munn) fill in for him as the anchor for the 10 PM show. She’s nervous and panicky, but potentially has a big scoop on the way — she’s managed to get a spokesman for the Tokyo Electric Power Company to tell her, off the record, that the Fukushima nuclear plant is leaking far more radiation than the company has admitted publicly. She plans on pressing him to do so on the show, and Will encourages her, telling her not to let the spokesman off the hook on air.
She doesn’t, but she also goes way too far in trying to get the story: she conducts part of the interview in Japanese, ignores her EP (Thomas Sadoski), accuses the translator of lying, and then, worst off, repeats on air what the spokesman told her off the record. She’s suspended by Charlie (Sam Waterston), but is determined to fix it when she learns that the spokesman is losing his job. Eventually a moral compromise is reached; Sloane agrees, reluctantly, to lie, and to suggest that she mixed up the Japanese for the numbers 4 and 7, and in return, the spokesman will say they were on the record at that point.
It’s a welcome compromise of morals, and one of the best plotlines of “The Newsroom” to date — a proper investigation of journalistic codes and ethics, with real drama behind it. It also provided a great showcase for Munn, who has occasionally seemed like she was floundering a bit in the show, but she got some better material here, particularly in her response to the condescension of Charlie with a fiery “Don’t call me girl, sir.” Sloane’s the best female character on the show by some distance right now, and we hope she continues to figure in a more prominent way.
While Wills feels guilty for encouraging Sloane to push too far, it’s his own error that’s been haunting him. A few nights earlier, he interviewed Sutton Wall, a spokesman for Rick Santorum who is both black and gay. Will questions him on how he can reconcile this with Santorum’s views on gay marriage, quickly taking a bullying, hectoring tone, and the spokesman snaps, telling him in an electric scene, “I am more than just one thing,” even as he’s pushed to the verge of tears. Surmised correctly by Habib as the child of an abusive alcoholic, Will has been privately, almost subconsciously, horrified by the way he himself became a bully in those moments. And while it appears that it’s the bacon he’s been eating before bed that’s been keeping him awake, it was good to see one of the major problems with Will as a character brought up by others, and for him to find a moment of self-revelation. It gives us confidence that Sorkin is not blind to the show’s flaws so far, and may get around to addressing them.
Will hasn’t been an angel in his personal life either. We rolled our eyes at yet another scene between him and Mac where she’s painted as the scarlet woman for having cheated on him back in the day, especially when he increased the agony by showing her the wedding ring that he claimed he bought for her. But in fact, as he tells Dr. Habib, he’d bought it long after the fact, specifically to make her squirm, a nice twist, and showing that it’s a more complicated situation than simply Will being a saint.
Less successful, once again, was the Don/Maggie/Jim love triangle. It was mostly in the background, but every scene in which it featured sucked the life out of this episode. We like all the performers involved (particularly Alison Pill, who gives at least one killer line reading per episode), but there’s no truth or spark in the plotlines, and as Don increasingly becomes one of the show’s more interesting characters, Jim becomes wetter and duller, and Maggie more and more becomes the Brick Tamland of “The Newsroom” — the idea that a twentysomething woman would think LOL means “lots of love” is inconceivable.
So, the show’ still has its problems with its female characters, which aren’t going away as fast as we like. Again, Mac getting chewing gum stuck in her hair not once, but twice, was an eye-roller, and as good as much of Sloane’s stuff this week was, the way a Gucci wardrobe won her over to being a replacement anchor was out-and-out offensive. But Sorkin did far more right this week than wrong, and if this rate of improvement keeps up, it could become not just a good show, but an excellent one down the line. Hopefully Will’s advice to Sloane — “We fucked up. Let’s just live with that now” — is both an acknowledgement and a mission statement from Sorkin. [B+]
Bits And Pieces
– Another thing that helped this time out: the introduction of new blood with Crews and Krumholtz, excellent performers who look like they’ll be back down the line. Again, it does demonstrate that, with the season now heading into its second half, it’s not resting on its laurels, and is happy to shake things up a little if required.
– With that death threat unresolved, we suspect it’s going to come back. Five gets you ten that someone tries to kill Will in the season finale. We suspect that it won’t be an exact replay of the third season “West Wing” plotline with Mark Harmon, in that we’d be surprised if Will fell in love with Terry Crews’ character. It’d certainly be more interesting than Will and Mac though, so we’re open to it…
– There’s a lot more chemistry between Don and Sloane than there is between him and Maggie. Given that Sorkin’s romantic relationships work better when they emerge organically (Josh and Donna) rather than being forced on the viewer (every single one in this show), that could be a good avenue to head down later on.
– As much as we liked Sloane’ storyline, her line “I love you, but a Japanese man’s honor is at stake” is the worst sentence on the show to date. In fact, it might be the worst thing Sorkin’s ever written.
– Another plus point of the episode — the direction, and in particular the editing, was razor-sharp. Canadian helmer Jeremy Podeswa (“Fugitive Pieces“) was the man responsible, with Ron Rosen in the cutting room.
– In tribute to the close of “News Night,” we thought we’d close up from now on by taking a look at some of your comments. First out the mailbag is Gus, who wrote “I think critics should admit to their sexual orientation…. only a raging, unhappy queen thinks this show treats women unfairly….. I’ve known enough unhappy queens to know of which I speak. This 64 year old entrepreneur thinks the writing is just fine….. why oh why do these gossip types all sound the same?” Thanks, Gus! What an exceptional human being you seem to be! You win a copy of “The Feminine Mystique” and a copy of “Hairspray” on Blu-ray!