Authenticity, good acting, sharp dialogue and good, fast-moving storytelling are the hallmarks of this hour, created and written by Aaron Sorkin. This week’s seemed to whiz by faster than any other I can remember in the now almost two seasons that the series has been running. A good sign that the show is going to finish strong when the current season ends next week. (It already has been renewed for a 3rd season; by any reasonable analysis, it richly deserves to stay on the schedule.)
The chapter opens with the ACN network and its "News Night" team plunging into its 2012 election night coverage with internal troubles roiling just beneath the surface - and heavy in the background. The network’s corporate owner, Leona (Jane Fonda) has refused to accept the resignations of her news division president, main anchorman and lead executive producer in the wake of an explosive investigative report about a military operation that was aired, but then had to be retracted. All three of the news operation's top players are tortured by guilt, whether they should be or not (it was an over-zealous and unethically corner-cutting young producer who was directly and mostly responsible).
With the opening minutes of a long election night approaching, anchorman Will tries to become "director of morale" and rally the staff.
Subplots swirl as they are on the air with marathon election night coverage of what, in the beginning (true to life), looks to be a tick-tight Presidential race.
One correspondent, Sloan (Olivia Munn), is worried that a book of hers was auctioned off with a forged autograph. Top executive producer, Mac (Emily Mortimer), while honchoing election night coverage in the control room, is also trying to get a colleague to make changes in a faulty Wikipedia biography of hers. The newsroom staff is deciding whether or not to hold off on a negative story about a candidate in a close Senate race (the race is on the West Coast, where polls are still open.) And then there is this: Jim—running "the call desk"—has to consider whether to call back (retract) a call he made too early. Also in the mix is that his new division president made it clear as the evening started, that it was important to have mistake-free election coverage.
For those always interested in the newsroom romances—past, present and projected—they are, again, effectively woven into the narrative. As just one example, anchorman Will and his former steady girlfriend Mac—now his executive producer—have more tense and loaded conversations. They still yearn for each other even as they circle and test one another, all the while, of course working with each other at the very top—the exciting but always slippery top—of big time television news. One gets the feeling that they will one day reconcile and become lovers again but the odds are against that happening this season, if ever; it's too good a sub-plot line not to keep going.
Notes and comments:
- The network's CEO (son of the owner) wants to accept resignations and clean house, but the owner won't allow it: One of the most effective scenes early in this episode is that of the news division president urging the CEO to accept his resignation for the good of credibility and the CEO telling him, in effect, "I'd do it in a heartbeat" but that the owner insists "No way."
- In the real world of conglomerate television, the record shows it is more likely that a news division president would be trying hard to deflect any possible blame from himself and put it on subordinates and/or "the talent," i.e. his anchorman and producers rather than stepping up to take responsibility. The record also shows that owners of networks are much more likely to be the first and most furiously calling for heads to roll, not their overall corporate CEOs. But, of course, the CEOs generally are quick to carry out owners' wishes.
- Ah, but remember: to his credit, this is Sorkin's vision of how the owner-corporate sides handling of news divisions' honest mistakes should be and work; it's his fantasy of an ideal relationship of the owner to the journalists in his employ.
- The depiction of election night sets, control rooms, programming, directing and anchoring is very good. Nothing I have ever seen in fiction—print or on screen—can completely capture the mood, the "feel", the exhilaration, the sense of responsibility of a real TV network Presidential election night marathon. But this one is at least as good as any and better than most; in my opinion it's the best there has been. (Will's—Jeff Daniels—delivery is flatter, softer, less engaged and the pace slower than the election night deliver of any anchor I've ever known. But let's keep in mind that in this script he is supposed to be pre-occupied and at a minimum "off," not his usual self, because of what's happening behind-the-scenes with the news division's recent problems. I'm not knocking Daniels acting; it's been terrific every week; he plays the role beautifully.)
- Small nit, and I could be in the minority about this, but I don't think the show's opening sequence this season is very good. Had this thought from the first but believed I should give it time to grow on me. It hasn't. Hope they change it to something better, something more in keeping with what the show is, what it's about, for next season.
When that small nit is about the only negative I can find, it be tell tale of the high esteem in which I hold this season's run of episodes—and the series as a whole.
Dan Rather is anchor and managing editor of Dan Rather Reports. You can follow him on Facebook and Twitter. He will be recapping each episode of the second season of HBO's The Newsroom; older recaps can be found here, here, here, and here.