“Who the hell is Will McAvoy?”
“I don’t know Jesse, but he’s no match for Heisenberg.”
8:13 p.m. Monday, August 12
I thought it was going to be so simple! Breaking Bad made its triumphant return August 11, a week after a disappointing episode of The Newsroom almost gave my full attention to the final moments of Walter White and Co. But alas, I find myself the Bella Swan of television—helplessly in love with two spectacular series and extremely unappealing to a general audience.
Even the fifth episode’s title, “News Night with Will McAvoy” suggested a pivotal statement for season 2. It’s as if creator Aaron Sorkin recognized the previous week’s disconnect, rallied his forces and declared, “We’re back. This is The Newsroom.”
Will (Jeff Daniels) has been a difficult character to relate to. Just as soon as you empathize with his romantic woes and dig his brilliant music choices, his elitism and ego make it easy to tune out and start glancing at that Cosmo magazine while binging on tacos.
Will probably wasn’t onscreen for more than 20 minutes during last week’s ep, yet his inner conflict regarding the sudden ailment of his estranged and abusive father humanized the whole hour. His final two minutes on air take a bit to sink in, but when the metaphor hits, you feel it in your chest.
Although the previous week’s Africa adventure felt cliché and a bit forced, the aftermath came through in a subtle and genuine way. Alison Pill (as associate producer Maggie Jordan) finally—though briefly—displayed a depth her character wasn’t previously allowed. Distraught over the death of the African child (if you still fail to get the reference after last week’s blog post, shame on you), Maggie turns to alcohol to dull the pain. It’s a schema long overused, but the subtle execution is the key to empathizing with her character for what must be the first time ever.
Jim Harper (John Gallagher Jr.), though hair still disheveled, exudes a calm control that hasn’t been seen since the first episode of the series. The boyish charm Sorkin wants to convey has only made Jim likeable, not lovable. Jim’s the guy you ask for help with homework late at night, share a glass of wine with, but drop back off at his place before hitting the bars. But we finally got a glimpse of manliness in his interactions with Maggie, slowly caught in a downward spiral.
In a completely unexpected but greatly appreciated turn of events, Sloan Sabbath (Olivia Munn) encounters a uniquely 21st century conflict: After a romantic tryst with a fellow economist goes south, her disgruntled ex-lover posts nude pictures of her on the internet. (How meta.) Sloan’s reaction is written with grace and accuracy. We see genuine pain in her eyes, even when she manages awkward jokes with producer Don Kiefer (Thomas Sadoski). The gravity of the problem isn’t lost in the small moments of humor—much dialogue is devoted to the public’s Puritanical condemnation of sexuality in others and our modern-day breaches in privacy. When Sloan sat quietly for a moment on the floor and matter-of-factly stated, “I want to die,” it isn’t dramatic. It’s real, and Don’s response is just as tender: “I know.”
All that aside, I think it was executive producer MacKenzie McHale (Emily Mortimer) who really shined this episode. “I think this is one of those night’s where you should really do what I say,” she tells Will when admonishing him to call his father. She displayed a maternal strength over her news crew, serving as the bedrock of the evening’s show (the entire episode takes place during one taping of “News Night”). When Will, though not visibly showing sadness, starts to question the best course of action, Mac is there to coach him down the right path. Their interactions aren’t cluttered with fake pheromones and stilted romantic banter, but knitted by a real human connection. You begin to believe these people are better off together than they are apart—even without romance—and that’s a testament to Sorkin’s writing ability.
And, of course, there were humorous highlights, including an overly-intellectual bullshit session by a panel of cocky economists, and Sorkin’s sly admission that his characters all sound like newsroom archetypes: “Your name even sounds newsy,” one guest tells Mac.
12:45 p.m. Wednesday, August 14
It’s episodes like last Sunday’s that make me wish a female viewer was in on this thread. (Shoka, I’m getting you a television and making you watch this damn show A Clockwork Orange-style.)
Look, I’ll agree it wasn’t the unpardonable train wreck of the previous week. But a little more than halfway through this season, I’ve come to a pair of troubling conclusions:
1. Aaron Sorkin has a distracting vendetta against social media.
2. Aaron Sorkin may be kind of sexist.
Let’s start with the first one, which shouldn’t be that big of an epiphany. After all, this season we’ve seen the Occupy Wall Street crowd ridiculed as ineffectual Gen Y hipsters who are better at Facebook updates than building a coherent movement. We’ve watched Maggie chase down that cartoonish fanfic blogger who YouTubed her public meltdown and then tweeted/Instagrammed/whatever their ensuing laundromat confrontation. We’ve seen Will obsess again and again over the mean things (typically) women say about him online. And in this episode, Sorkin batted for the cycle:
Both Sloan and Don contended with forces who use new technology for ill (booby pictures and unsourced stories about nonexistent jihadist groups, respectively), while Mac dropped a segment on the real-life suicide of a Rutger’s student outed on social media to prevent a classmate from outing himself on the air.
Her takedown of the kid, who revealed his plans on Twitter, was all over the place.
“This isn’t that kind of show,” she initially says.
“You’re a D-lister. … You want to bathe in the reflected glory of his tragedy. Fuck you,” she later scolds.
Then, after hearing this Tyler kid wanted a way to come out to his parents without facing them, she tells him she did him a favor, that the best relationship with a television audience is of a superficial, “hook up” variety, and not one where intimate moments are exchanged.
“I hear it gets better,” she adds.
“How would you know?” he sniffs.
“I guess I wouldn’t.”
This brings me to the second point, and it’s here that I wish someone with a Y chromosome and an HBO subscription would chime in.
On an episode that confronted the “phony outrage” that erupted after conservatives attacked Sandra Fluke, it seemed like Sorkin wanted to have his “Texas two-step refried beans,” as Maggie puts it, and eat it too.
Right-wing bashing of Fluke for talking about contraception and choice was sexist. But so are all the nip-slip infotainment headlines that clutter up your landing page. Sexism is so indoctrinated that we’re blind to it, man!
OK, I’ll spot Maggie her booze-fueled argument, even if it sounds lifted from an undergrad’s paper on Media & Culture.
But then Sorkin names Will’s current Twitter thorn “Pepper Berg” (come on, really?), a Washington Post reporter who gets in a huff because Will didn’t recognize her at a restaurant. (This is far from the first time that Sorkin has made a foil out of a one-note lady-character with a ridiculous beef.) And then he has Mac dismiss Pepper’s “fundamentally small” gripes by saying, “She’s gonna have to become a star by doing something or sleeping with someone.”
And then he reduces both Maggie and Sloan to chick-flick stereotypes, women broken by trauma who just need the soft-voiced understanding of dashing MEN to pick them back up. Maggie is further away from redemption than Sloan, especially after botching the edit of Zimmerman’s 911 call. (I love it when a culturally resonant news story is scrapped for meaningless parts.) And Sloan, well, let’s just say redemption for this brainy character came in the form of a cheap dick-kick. Resolving conflict through violence. You go girl?
And here’s where the two points fuse into one. Other than the AIG douchebag who leaked Sloan’s boudoir photos, the vast majority of petty social media villains on this show have been petty female characters played for stereotypes. Starting with the dim-bulb sorority chick way back in episode 1, to the Sex and the City blogger, to gossip columnist Nina Howard (Hope Davis), to the OWS (non)leader, to Pepper Freaking Berg, and glossing over about a dozen others. What’s Sorkin trying to say here? And is he even aware he’s saying it? Because he may think of himself as an evolved feminist who writes three-dimensional roles for women, but those women are starting to feel as inadequate as a 140-character diss.
-Did anyone NOT see the dead dad twist coming? Like, anyone? Bueller? I swear, Will’s ringtone might have as well been Harry Chapin’s “Cats in the Cradle.”
-During Charlie’s (Sam Waterston) closed-door chat with the secret agent man, the latter explains why the Genoa story is bad: “America would lose any claim to moral authority around the world.” I’m sorry, WOULD lose?
-Is there such a thing as media vigilantism? Fake Syrian prank callers and Maggie’s crap auditing raised the question. “Were you trying to see justice done?” Jim asks her. Aren’t we all?
2:25 p.m. Wednesday, August 14
In this episode, Sorkin spins each plotline around an axis lamenting the immediacy of information in the Internet Age, outlining the—gasp!—awful phenomena that can result: misinformation (Genoa), game-of-telephone inaccuracy (Don), private life gone public (Sloan), erroneous portrayal of source material (Maggie) and ad hominem attacks on butthurt famous folks (Will).
I think the last one in particular speaks to Sorkin, who quit both Facebook and Twitter for obvious reasons:
“I have a lot of opinions on social media that make me sound like a grumpy old man sitting on the porch yelling at kids,” Sorkin admitted in 2011 to a crowd in Cannes.
Add in the Pepper Berg Twitter bullshit, delivered to Will, of course, by wide-eyed Gen Y geek Neal (Dev Patel) (who, lest we forget, believes in both the power of the Information Age and Bigfoot), and we’ve really dovetailed the issues noted by Raheem nicely. Well done, Sorkin.
Question: What do the numbers 59.8, 60.6 and 65+ have in common? These are the median ages of prime-time viewers of CNN, MSNBC and Fox News, respectively. (Note: they stop breaking down demo ages after 65, so Fox’s median age could well be anything). Sorkin, for what it’s worth, is 52.
Does that mean TV is on the way out? Not necessarily. Half of Americans aged 18-49 cite TV as their primary news source. But over a quarter of that same demographic cite the Internet as their primary source. The times, they are changing, whether a curmudgeonly old screenwriter likes it or not.
Ugh, what am I even talking about anymore?
2:50 p.m. Wednesday, August 14
(Wait, Raheem, did you mean two X chromosomes?)
[Poster’s note: Clears throat. “No comment.”]
I haven’t done an official survey or anything, but suggesting doing anything A Clockwork Orange-style to a human lacking a Y chromosome is a recipe for failure, my friend. No, seriously, that movie is messed up. Yes, I’ve seen it. But did I watch The Newsroom … why am I on this thread again?
Grade for A Clockwork Orange: F
Grade for The Newsroom: I-