Season 1, Episode 7: "5/1"
Later on today, the first trailer for "Zero Dark Thirty" will emerge. As you know, it's the film by "The Hurt Locker" helmer Kathryn Bigelow that focuses on the hunt for, and successful assassination of, Osama Bin Laden, starring Joel Edgerton, Jessica Chastain, Mark Strong, Chris Pratt, Kyle Chandler, Jason Clarke, Edgar Ramirez and Mark Duplass, among many others. It's presumably nothing but a coincidence that last night saw Aaron Sorkin tackle the same subject on "The Newsroom," with Will McAvoy and the rest of the "News Night" team receiving early reports that Navy SEALs had gone into Pakistan and taken out the Al Qaeda leader, and battling to find confirmation. But one can only hope that Bigelow and writer Mark Boal have a somewhat stronger handle on their own material than this uneven, misjudged and generally botched "The Newsroom" episode.
We start in the middle of a party that Will is reluctantly throwing at his apartment to honor the one-year anniversary of the revamped "News Night" (and it's notable that it really does not feel like that much time has passed, with the characters remaining in stasis). It's interrupted by a phone call to bossman Charlie (Sam Waterston), from a source who tries to call himself Deep Throat, but ends up going by the name "Late To Dinner" (sigh…), saying that the president will make a major announcement within the next 90 minutes, relating to national security.
And as the party continues, hints start to come out. Neil reads his girlfriend's Twitter feed to her (because that's totally a thing that people do in real life…), revealing that Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson is hinting at great news to come. Charlie, like all 70-year-old news producers, knows that The Rock has a cousin who is a Navy SEAL, and surmises that the U.S. may have finally gotten Osama Bin Laden, When news of a Presidential announcement on National Security comes in, the team are put into action.
Across the episode, it becomes increasingly clear that it's Bin Laden, rather than anything else, but Charlie and the team are reluctant to report the news without firm confirmation, to the extent that Mac yanks a rogue reporter in D.C. off the air. Meanwhile, Don, Elliot and Sloan are stuck on the runway at LaGuardia, unable to contribute to the story, a frustrated Don steadily alienating a cabin crew member.
Eventually Will (who is, it emerges, high as a kite on his "medicinal" marijuana, but inexplicably sobers up in time to go on air) finds an email from Joe Biden saying they can report the news (we promise we're not making this up) and they go live just before Obama's announcement, while Don gets to redeem himself by telling the pilots of his plane — United Airlines, as it turns out — that Bin Laden's been killed. Cue soaring score and misty eyes. Oh, and there was the usual love-quadrangle bullshit scattered throughout, with Maggie telling Jim to break up with Lisa after being told that she loves him, but Jim actually deciding to ask her out properly, because… honestly, we have no clue.
There was some good in this episode, it should be said. Sorkin appeared last week at the TCA to defend the show, and said, of the charges of sexism (which we certainly agree with, as we've reported in previous weeks) that the female characters in the show are "every bit the equals of the men. I think they are not just talked about as being good at their job, they are plainly good at their job.” There hasn't been much actual evidence of this in the show to date, but it was refreshing to see Mac in genuine news producer mode, and Will being the one who fucks up (sort of…), with Emily Mortimer getting probably her least embarassing material of the show to date. Sloan too was mostly on good form, bar the story of setting the Treasury Secretary on fire (which was partially redeemed by her comeback: that she did it "just to show the other cabinet secretaries that I could"). Maggie was pretty much redundant, but that's at least a step up from incompetent, we suppose.
It's unfortunate that there was also an awful lot of bad stuff here too. From Will and Jim duetting on acoustic guitars for no goddamn reason to the neat-as-anything Joe Biden email, the show seems to have reverted to its odd, alternate fantasy world, something made all the worse by its ties to real life events. Even the news-gathering stuff — which often has been the show's most thrilling momentsm — felt flat, leading to the dullest episode to date.
And the treatment of the Bin Laden story felt entirely misjudged, with Sorkin at his schmaltziest. Natalie Morales' character, Neil's girlfriend (who's essentially been briefly glimpsed in the background until now), turns out to have lost her father in the World Trade Center, because.. we guess Sorkin wanted someone to have had a personal connection to the attacks? The idea — that Bin Laden's death hasn't been too cathartic — wasn't a bad one, but it came out of nowhere, from a character we barely know, and was woefully underdeveloped as it was. Even worse was Don's final moment on the plane, telling the pilots with a lump in his throat about Bin Laden's death; Thomas Sadoski did his best, but it was a moment of such unearned sentimentality that it made us want to put our foot through the TV (the crewman's FDNY hat just put the cherry on the top of how manipulative and crass the show felt this week).
After two good-to-decent episodes, it was inevitable that "The Newsroom" would lose its footing again at some point, but we weren't expecting it to do it so severely, and so soon. Sorkin has always been on less sure footing when 9/11 comes into the picture (witness the Very Special "West Wing" episode hastily shot in the aftermath, or the "standing in the middle of Afghanistan!" moment in "Studio 60"), but we'd have imagined that the biggest news story of the last couple of the years would have provided a far more satisfying episode than this one. Fingers crossed the show finds its feet again next week. [D]
Bits & Pieces
– So "Late To Dinner" (again, ugh) turns out to be an NSA employee tipping Charlie not just about Bin Laden, but about a brewing phone hacking scandal that may involve their parent company's tabloid rag "TMI," which we expect will pay off in the next episode. Does that make Hope Davis the show's Rebekah Brooks surrogate?
– Also, the source's voice sounded very familiar. We thought it might be Keith David — any better guesses out there?
– Who throws a party full of booze and weed on a Sunday night? Does "News Night" not air Mondays or something?
– Haha, Obama and Osama sound alike! What a fresh and original observation!
– If you recognize Neil's girlfriend Natalie Morales, she had a similar coolest-girlfriend-ever-role on "Parks & Recreation," as well as starring in the underrated show "The Middleman."
– While the love triangle(s) material has been almost uniformly terrible across the show, we have been enjoying Kelen Coleman ("The Office") as Lisa. She's far too good for Jim, though, and we hope she comes to her senses, leaving him and Maggie to run off together, and hopefully kill each other in some kind of gruesome suicide pact.