‘The Newsroom’ Review: Lies on Videotape

By  · Published on August 19th, 2013

I would never watch “News Night With Will McAvoy.” I don’t watch cable news anyway (unless The Daily Show counts), but Will’s prosecutorial style, so vaunted by The Newsroom for its intelligence and honesty, also strikes me as playing gotcha journalism and fueling some needy asshole’s urgent desire to feel like the smartest guy in the room at all times. Given Will’s open belligerence toward all his guests, it’s no longer believable that any serious figure or spokesperson would avail themselves to be on the show, either.

The Newsroom’s first season – and last week’s daddy issues – promised that the show would finally delve into Will’s desperate need to be loved by his audience, one of the most intriguing tidbits about the character. It’s also a trait that’s been a glaring omission in Aaron Sorkin’s oeuvre, especially given how often his shows are set in show biz and politics, two industries populated by charismatic attention junkies whose jobs revolve around garnering the respect and admiration of strangers. Instead, Sorkin has consistently filled his White House and his fictional studios with noble but flawed do-gooders, the kind of people more likely to work at nonprofits and schools than the natural ratings- and poll-obsessives he loves to depict.

Last night’s episode, “One Step Too Many,” doesn’t move a single foot toward deepening Will’s psychology. (Yes, the title refers to Jerry Dantana’s misdeeds in the editing bay. More on that below.) Will’s fling with gossip columnist Nina Howard leads him to take her advice on appearing more personable on TV to disastrous results. He’s a Serious Man, you see, which means he can’t be asked to raise money for charity without Hulking out and destroying expensive lighting equipment on someone else’s show. Sloan, The Newsroom’s Exposition Bot, then deduces – despite her well-established, borderline-Aspergers social skills – that he didn’t crave audience approval until MacKenzie broke his heart – a trite, useless explanation that’s as shallow as it is inadequate. I guess this means that Will’s dad died for nothing?

Otherwise, “One Step Too Many” was an excellent illustration of the good show and the bad show warring over The Newsroom’s airtime. As last week’s revenge-porn storyline demonstrated, Sorkin is able to translate Nightline-type issues into compelling dramatic material. He did so again with this week’s development in Operation Genoa by having the producers debating over how many sources is enough to air a highly sensitive story and planning a perhaps less-than-ethical mode of questioning Ret. Gen. Stomtonovich (Stephen Root). Too bad Sorkin doesn’t credit his audience with enough intelligence to be interested in his characters and the plot. Instead, we get brain-deadening banter about Santa’s reindeer.

Whereas the “news magazine” version of the show frequently works, though, the “nightly news” segments, with the show attacking unpresidential losers Romney and Santorum on specific gaffes, totally fall flat. These masturbatory lectures do nothing to add characterization or advance the plot or complicate themes; worse, they simply stop the show’s momentum and replace that forward motion with self-righteous huffing and puffing. There’s definitely an audience for this kind of intellectual wankery, but it’s one I tend to associate with Sean Hannity and Gretchen Carlson. In these ugly, lazy, two-years-too-freaking-late segments, The Newsroom devolves into Fox News for liberals.

So thank god Jerry Dantana is here to save the day by committing the “sin,” to quote Don, of not being Jim and adding some stories to the sermons. The wily, ambitious, ethically compromisable Jerry cuts his interview with Stomtonovich to make it look like the general admitted the U.S. used sarin gas. (In an interesting twist, Stomtonovich is also unabashedly unapologetic about the use of chemical weapons in war.) Charlie later reveals to a blink-and-you’ll-miss-her Marcia Gay Harden that the sarin story was bogus, a great cliffhanger for next week. I wonder if that background basketball game will be everyone’s undoing.

In lieu of my usual Nina Howard Corner, let’s count the ways in which Sorkin hates women in this episode, shall we? Maggie was graciously spared this week, but MacKenzie became her own woman-driver joke when she proved inept at moving a car in a straight line. My beloved Nina tries to out-do Lady Macbeth by driving a wedge in the Will/MacKenzie/Charlie Superteam. But none are as hateful, nor as intellectually comatose, as the freedom-loving, Ron Paul supporting strawperson who works at MTV.

TMZ, MTV, Facebook, cable and network news: Is there any media property Aaron Sorkin doesn’t hate?