Tuesday, June 26, 2012

The Newsroom 1.01: "We Just Decided To"

“We’re coming to a tipping point. I know you know that. There’s going to be a huge conversation. Is government an instrument of good, or is it every man for himself? Is there something bigger we want to reach for, or is self-interest our basic resting pulse?”

So I made the mistake of reading too many reviews of “The Newsroom” before watching the pilot. Critics I respect panned it pretty badly, and one in particular went on rant after rant on multiple platforms. I have to say, however, in spite of my better judgment, now that I’ve watched the pilot, I think I’m going to love this show. Sure I hate how Sorkin treats his female characters, and how women are treated in television matters to me a great deal, but man can he write dialogue and deliver the emotionally uplifting speech or moment. Sorkin’s love of “great oratory” shows in everything he writes. As an unapologetic die-hard liberal (except when I’m at work, where I have to inject a dose of practicality), I think the progressive cause needs to be vocalized and vocalized loudly. We can’t play nice anymore if we’re going to return to any semblance of civilization where people care about each other. And Sorkin hits those notes beautifully. Also, I think that the setting of a cable news show is a better place for the trademark Sorkin political preaching than a late night sketch comedy show, or even a sports news show for that matter, was. Cable news is all about political preaching. Only the setting of “The West Wing” was better.

The episode opens in Chicago, at Northwestern University’s journalism school, where cable news anchor Will McAvoy is participating in a panel discussion. His fellow panelists are at opposite ends of the political spectrum, and they are spending most of the panel time screaming at each other. Will, the “Jay Leno of the news” refuses to take a side and brushes off every political question with a joke. Eventually one hapless sophomore asks the panel what “makes America great.” The pundits give their canned responses, and Will tries to give a safe an answer as possible. Then he sees a woman in the audience who holds up signs saying “It isn’t. But it can be.” This spurs Will on to the diatribe to end all diatribes where the goes on at length about why we aren’t the greatest country. And all of his points are excellent, even if I don’t agree with his solution (going back to a time when “men were men”). Despite the misogynist overtones, I appreciated the call for a return to civility and honest discussions about our country’s serious problems.

Three weeks later, Will returns from a tropical vacation (rumor is that he was with Erin Andrews, but in real life 2010 she was still lying low after her stalker incident) to find quite a lot has changed at his show. As Will is approaching the studio, there’s some rather stupid banter between outgoing Executive Producer Don and his girlfriend/Will’s assistant Maggie about how Don thinks it’s too soon to meet Maggie’s parents. Clearly, Don’s an ass. Aaron Sorkin doesn’t mess around with his characterization. Anyway, Will makes it to the studio, and Maggie, Don, and blogger Neal are the only three people in the room. Maggie tells Will that he needs to go see Charlie, the wise older network boss in the vein of Isaac (“Sports Night”) or Leo (“The West Wing”). Charlie says that there’s going to be a new show on at 10:00, Don is leaving to executive produce that show, and he’s bringing most of the staff with him. This leads to a big argument between Will and Don about why exactly Don is leaving. Will wants to know if it’s because he’s not a nice guy or because his show is sinking.

At lunch, Charlie gives Will more bad news. He’s already hired a new executive producer for News Night (Will’s show). Will’s ex-girlfriend Mackenzie McHale, who has just returned from an embedded reporter gig in Afghanistan, has been given the job. Will is really pissed off about this, so I guess their split wasn’t amicable. In the newsroom, while Will is at his agent’s office trying to get the power to fire Mackenzie, Mackenzie arrives and meets Maggie. She senses a kindred spirit after listening to Maggie’s troubles with Don, I suppose, so Mackenzie makes Maggie an associate producer. Jim, a senior producer Mackenzie is bringing in, arrives and is pissed to find out that the job situation is much more tenuous than he was led to believe, considering Will already wants to fire Mackenzie and all. Mackenzie’s solution is to try to make Jim develop a crush on Maggie to make Don jealous and want to return to the show. How ridiculous and juvenile.

When Will returns, he wants to see Mackenzie in his office immediately. It turns out that he’s gotten Mackenzie’s contract changed from three years to week-to-week, and Will has final approval over Mackenzie’s employment each week. Mackenzie starts trying to just guarantee that her staff will still have a fair shake at a job. Out in the newsroom, news alerts start coming in about the BP Deepwater Horizon explosion. Jim and Neal think that beyond the initial damage from the explosion, this incident could develop into a massive oil spill. Don thinks they should drop the story for now, and since he’s still the executive producer, he wins. Jim ends up getting information from both a source at BP and a source at Halliburton, but Don still keeps trying to brush him off.

Back in Jim’s office, Mackenzie gives a big, typical Sorkin speech about reclaiming the fourth estate and “speaking truth to stupid.” I thought some of it went a little far, but some of it really struck home. We are desperately in need of a national conversation on the role of government and more civil discourse in general. Anyway, out in the newsroom, Jim gets brushed off by Don one too many times, so he goes into Jim’s office and interrupts Mackenzie to tell her about the Deepwater Horizon. Will is intrigued, so Jim and Neal brief the rest of the crew about what is going on. They predict the massive oil spill almost perfectly, which is a little cheesy, but kind of fun, too. I like a good fist pump moment in my television, although it would be best if the News Night team gets it wrong every once in a while just to keep things fresh. Will demands to know Jim’s sources, and it turns out that they are Jim’s college roommate and sister. Don’s still against the idea, pointing out that if they’re wrong about Halliburton, they could be exposed to some serious liability. Jim decides to go with the story anyway, and he also kicks everyone going with Don to 10:00 out of the newsroom. Everyone left starts working in earnest, and it’s rather awesome.

There’s some hilarious pre-show banter between Will and Mackenzie where Mackenzie gets Will to agree she’s in charge while they’re on the air. And the show itself is pretty great, too. It feels much more authentic than Sorkin’s attempts at faux sketch comedy on “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip.” The crowning moment to me was when Maggie, newly minted AP, is able to get the Minerals Management Service inspector who inspected Deepwater Horizon on the phone. The inspector is voiced by none other than Jesse Eisenberg, which is great, but what I really love is that Maggie got a moment to genuinely shine. Everyone in the studio and newsroom applauds at the end of the show, and Will seems genuinely happy that he did something right for a change.

Despite the show’s success, some things still haven’t changed. Don, for example, is still n ass. He offer’s the “compromise” of going down to the lobby to say “hi” to Maggie’s parents before disappearing for “work.” In another kind of adorable, albeit highly immature scene, Mackenzie sees this and signal’s to Jim that he has a chance with Maggie. Then she goes to talk to Will. They have a sweet moment when Will recalls going to a baseball game with Mackenzie’s father, and he mentions that right before his Northwestern tirade, he thought he saw Mackenzie in the audience. He figures it must have been someone who looked similar. Will then jumps on the elevator, and Mackenzie doesn’t have the chance to tell him that she was indeed the woman in the crowd at Northwestern.

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