The Newsroom Recap: Episode 1.4 “I’ll Try To Fix You”
Four episodes into Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom, and I feel that we can definitively assert a few things:
- Will McAvoy is NEVER EVER going to be wrong.
- The Maggie/ Jim/ Don “love triangle” has zero intention of developing any pretense that Maggie and Jim aren’t destined to be together.
- The female characters exist pretty much only to instigate plot.
- In the universe of The Newsroom, you are either (to borrow a phrase) a patriot or a pinhead, and nary the twain shall meet.
Episode four, “I’ll Fix You,” is a fairly engaging episode which delves the furthest into Will’s personal and emotional life thus far. It’s New Years Eve 2011 and the News Night team is celebrating at the office (as you do in the news biz, I guess). Will has a revealing conversation with Mackenzie’s boyfriend Wade, a Department of Justice lawyer who insists that there is a second side to the DOJ’s unwillingness to investigate financial crime (a story that Will has been covering). The intriguing open-mindedness Will demonstrates here is immediately brushed aside when he reveals to Mackenzie in private that he has zero interest in speaking to her new boyfriend. I saw this as an exciting potential thesis for the episode to follow – Will is so confident in his moral superiority and blinded by his jealousy that he cannot accept an uncomfortable truth, no matter how close it is to his own face. It would certainly prove a thoughtful counterpoint to the blunt moralizing that Sorkin has engaged in for the past three episodes. Will constantly cites his “mission to civilize” (a phrase repeated many times through the episode) and misses the forest for the trees.
But the episode does not venture down that path. Not exactly. Over the course of the episode, Will admits that he is perhaps a bit lonely, and determines that he will seek out some women to date who he might have more in common with. More than, say, the “revolving Netflix queue of digitally-enhanced breasts” that Mackenzie accuses him of cavorting with. Over the episode we see Will attempt a connection with three intriguing women: A gossip-columnist played by Hope Davis (About Schmidt), a southern-liberal political staffer played by Kathryn Hahn (Parks & Recreation), and a woman we barely get to know (Missy Yager). Each of these women seem initially compelling, providing opposing views on gossip journalism (Davis), gun control (Hahn), and, uh, gossip journalism (Yager). Instead of entertaining the notion, for even a moment, that he might listen to an opposing opinion, Will immediately commences haranguing each woman on her life choices, going so far as to tell Davis “Professionally speaking, I’d have more respect for you if you were a heroin dealer.”
These dating mishaps land Will on the New York Post’s “Page 6” gossip column twice, and on the cover of one trashy magazine, all by the end of the week. These profiles increasingly paint Will out to be a womanizing, drunken maniac, and he is nearly brought low enough to *shudder* appear on a morning show to do damage control. But then, Charlie Skinner has a Eureka moment (by the way, Waterston’s Skinner is pretty much my favourite thing about the show at this moment, as he often seems like the only one having any fun). Waterston surmizes that the attacks on Will’s character aren’t coming from without – they’re coming from within, as the gossip magazine is owned by News Night’s parent company AWM. Skinner realizes that CEO Leona Lansing (Jane Fonda) has made good on last episode’s threat to smear Will in the press lest he reign in his attacks on political interests with whom she does business. I must admit, as intrigued as I was last week by the possibility of Will’s crusade having consequences, I did not expect that hand to be played so quickly and with such cartoonish evil.
As Will and the gang contemplate their next move in this public gossip feud (and Mackenzie discovers that the non-compete clause in Will’s contract was a trade-off for his ability to fire her), a news report comes across the wire. As you may recall, on Saturday January 8th, 2011, Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, along with six bystanders, was shot at a public event. News reports at the time were frantic, with conflicting reports as to whether the popular politician was dead or alive. “Finally”, I thought, “a perfectly poignant story with which to show the News Night team at their best.”
And then… the Coldplay.
As the staff scrambles to assemble news on the shooting, dropping their petty worries in the face of real tragedy, the song “Fix You” plays out, in its entirety, underneath the action. (After recently seeing a similarly unfortunate montage set to Coldplay’s “Kingdom Come” in The Amazing Spider-Man, I couldn’t help but wonder if the licensing rights for the X+Y album had suddenly lapsed.) Music in shows is tricky – at its best it can add atmosphere and propel a scene forward (picture the closing minutes of the Six Feet Under finale, or even the swirling menace of The West Wing’s fourth season closer). This particular Coldplay song certainly has it’s own earnest sweetness, but in this montage the titular refrain of “I will try… to fix you” serves only to ham-fistedly underline the overwrought themes of the episode. Just in case you missed Will saying “I’m on a mission to civilize” five times already, we are reminded that America is broken, and Will (or rather, Aaron Sorkin) is on a mission to. Fix. It. As the crew worriedly debates whether to declare Congresswoman Giffords dead on air, with the other networks all having done so and the ratings villain specialist yelling at Will to make the call, the besieged anchor decides to… wait for confirmation! The moment is played for a level of triumph I would reserve for Truman declaring war on Hitler. It turns out that Will was right to wait, of course, and Giffords is in critical condition. The episode closes out with Will bringing America THE NEWS, while the crew presumably weeps in the control room and Giffords clings to life (spoiler alert: she survived.)
Folks, I’m not digging this show. I’m not going to give up on it, but even my Sorkin uber-nerd past can’t stop me from feeling that something in the mix is off with The Newsroom. But I think I’ve finally figured out what that is, here in the fourth episode. Will’s “mission to civilize” is, oddly enough like so many conflicts in the past decade, an unwinnable and unnecessary war. Unnecessary at least from a dramatic perspective. All of Sorkin’s past series were about people in high-stress jobs doing the work from day to day. Beating the odds by being professionals, working as a team, and getting it done. If The Newsroom was just about that – a defacto family putting on a cable news show – I think I might like it a lot better. But Sorkin has decided to treat Will McAvoy’s “mission to civilize” with a level of awe and gravitas that even manages to make a show about life and death current events seem hysterically self-important. But Sorkin has also failed to develop his supporting characters here beyond being mere extensions of Will. Even Mackenzie, who seemed so strong and resilient in the pilot, has been steadily acquiescing her power to Will over the past three episodes. Rather than a great ensemble drama, all we’ve got another Sorkin proxy sitting on 20/20 hindsight mountain facing 1-dimensionally fiendish opposition to his unquestionable wisdom.
You may notice that I didn’t mention any of the shows other characters in this recap. That’s because nothing they did made me give a shit at all. At all. The Jim/Maggie/Don “love triangle” continues to leak any stakes it may have once had as it treads water towards an obviously foregone conclusion. I actually started rooting for Don in this episode, since Maggie’s lack of interest in him and utter devotion to Jim is palpable. It also doesn’t help that Jim is an utterly passive character, and Maggie is written as a pure plot device: a consummate professional one minute; recklessly unprofessional the next; and laughably, obviously in love with Jim. Oh, and Neal the blog guy yammers on the entire episode about how Bigfoot is real, in the way that no professional journalist ever would without rightly losing their job.
I’m sorry to be so down on this show. I honestly think that Sorkin has the elements of a successful series here: I like the actors in his cast, in particular Alison Pill’s tenacity, Sam Waterston’s crackly energy, and Olivia Munn’s dry intellectual wit (I don’t think much of her as a comedian, but I love her as a comedic actress). The world of cable news is a fascinating sandbox, and Sorkin’s dialogue is as sharp here as it has ever been. Even being on HBO offers him a level of creative freedom he’s never seen on TV (though writing without commercial breaks has left his scripts noticeably shapeless). At this point I feel ironically like Mortimer’s character Mackenzie – watching my hero sit on a mountain of potential, and hoping against hope that he finds a way to realize it.