In Sunday's all-new episode of "The Newsroom," defamation is the vicious, attractive stranger at the party, waiting for someone to take the bait.
The "News Night" team rings in the New Year with an office party, and would-be sexual pairings are afoot. Don wants to fix up Jim with Maggie's buxom roommate, Lisa, much to Maggie's sputtering discomfort. Will approaches an age-appropriate babe wearing gold lamé, TMI gossip columnist Nina Howard (Hope Davis). Will's on a "mission to civilize" and criticizes Nina for her choice of profession, to which he's greeted with a glass of bubbly in the face.
The goal of "News Night" for 2011 is to focus on stories passed over or paid little attention in 2010. The two key pieces of interest involve slander surrounding Obama: First, the dubious rumor that the president spent tax payers' $200 million per day for his trip to India; and second, that he's threatening citizens' second amendment rights. Will and the staff broach these lies in two different show installments, pointing out that Obama has signed more repeals for dismantling gun policy than George W. Bush, and that Rush Limbaugh began the rumor about the exorbitant trip to Mumbai.
Meanwhile, Will's ordeal with Nina lands him on Page Six. His lady troubles continue as he dates Sloan's weed-smoking, gun-toting "Southern liberal" friend, Carrie, and then a senator who splashes him with another drink in the kisser. This face-martini gets him a second Page Six writeup.
His date with Carrie has more substantial consequences, as she takes a tell-all story to TMI about her so-called drug- and ammunition-fueled date with Will. Will is called into the office on a Saturday by Charlie to talk over the cover story. Charlie puts it together that TMI is owned by AWN (parent company of "News Night" network ACN), and that Leona Lansing is behind Will's defamation.
The meeting is interrupted by shocking news. Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and numerous others have been shot by a gunman in Tucson. The "News Night" staff rallies to produce on-the-fly coverage of the horrific events, correctly refusing to call Giffords' death despite the reports by NPR, MSNBC, Fox and a slew of other outlets. (Giffords miraculously survived the bullet wound to the left side of her brain, and continues to recover from the frontal lobe damage with intensive speech and physical therapy.)
This final sequence highlights both a strength and weakness of "The Newsroom." It effectively achieves lump-in-the-throat emotion (damn you, Coldplay), and is edited and acted in a compelling fashion. When unlikeable Don asserts that a person's death should be called by a doctor and not a news show, and then Will triumphantly bellows that Don's a "fucking newsman, and if I ever tell you otherwise you can punch me in the fucking face," it's a genuinely moving moment. Character development, check. Rousing writing, check. Sorkin knows this particular story is in turns gut-wrenching and hopeful, and a powerful example of bungled news coverage.
But the sequence also betrays the too-convenient nature of Sorkin's storytelling. It's implausible that an entire staffroom of workers would sacrifice their Saturday morning for Neal's Bigfoot pitch. This was a blatant, stupidly scripted way of getting the whole team in the office before the Giffords story breaks. Also — and this happened in the pilot episode with the oil rig explosion, too — the news of Gifford's shooting acts from a narrative standpoint as a deus ex machina to bring all the "Newsroom" characters together. Maggie and Jim are fighting, Mackenzie and Will are fighting, but as soon as an important, emotionally hardhitting news item comes along, all is forgiven in lieu of the bigger picture.
"It's a takedown piece":
Defamation in its many forms is a key theme of this episode. Nina casually describes her Real Houswife exposé article as a "takedown piece." The newsroom staffers examine slanderous stories against Obama, and meanwhile engage in personal takedowns themselves. Don manipulates a situation to prove to Maggie that Jim is in fact sleeping with Lisa. Mackenzie discovers that Will negotiated a risky non-compete clause into his contract so that he could have the option of firing her. Will is taken down by his own network, subjected to three different defamatory tabloid pieces, with Princess-of-Darkness-on-high Leona Lansing pulling the puppet strings.
(Interestingly, Leona does this because of what she felt was Will's takedown of the Tea Party. But as Will points out to Nina, unlike himself or Brittany Whoever of the Real Housewives, the Tea Party is "asking for our votes.")
I believe Sorkin views second amendment rights as America's constitutional takedown of its own citizens. Will points out on air that gun sales go through the roof when citizens think Obama is trying to "get their guns." Will's date Carrie packs heat in her purse for protection. In both cases, gun ownership is prompted by fear, either of attack or of property confiscation. And the shooting at the Tucson rally, critically wounding Giffords and killing six bystanders, is just one of many examples of senseless killing enabled by U.S. gun policy.
Bits and pieces:
- Mackenzie now officially has a boyfriend, Wade.
- I'm already bored of pointing this out: Mackenzie and Maggie act like loonies around men.
Other interpretations or ideas? Thoughts about the episode?