The plot thickens, the pace quickens and this new season of master screenwriter Aaron Sorkin's latest work becomes more interesting with each episode. "Gripping" might be the better word. For some viewers "addictive" may soon become more apt. By whatever description it's good, very good. And if the first 2 episodes of the new run are any indication, it'll get better every week.
One of the things this show has done well from its beginning last season is to bring into sharp focus issues of journalism's responsibilities; to draw the viewer into how journalists confront these responsibilities—or should—and when they do, how they deal with them, and why you should care. Sometimes journalists deal with them well, sometimes not so well, and sometimes it's hard to tell. The practice of journalism is not an exact science. Part of it is closer to a kind of crude art. This is something Sorkin seems to fully understand and he conveys it well. It is one of the many threads running through the whole series.
Another is the intersection between law and the press, electronic and otherwise (or media, if you prefer). In every newsroom—large or small, print or otherwise—-journalism and law intermingle and are intertangled often in more complicated ways than most people realize or ever think about. This, of course, is right in Sorkin's wheelhouse. His father, brother and sister are all in the legal profession. The hit play, later a movie, that made him (A Few Good Men) was set in a military courtroom. When he isn't writing about lawyers, he often writes about lawmakers, from politicians to presidents.
In this episode, it's late summer 2011. "Occupy Wall Street" protests, the drone-strike killing of an American al-Qaeda recruiter in Yemen, and the impending execution of African-American death row inmate Troy Davis, who maintains his innocence, are all in the news. You, the viewer, are plunged into a flashback of a newsroom at work, with side glimpses of the workers at play including their romances.
One of the many things I like about The Newsroom is that while there is romance—or at least, stumbling tries by youth to find some—there is no big deal made of sex. The Newsroom, so far, may have had fewer so-called "obligatory" sex scenes than any major television series in recent memory.
Looking for love in all the wrong places, associate producer Maggie Jordan, (played by Alison Pill) finds herself this week in a world of hurt because of social media. She shouted at a Sex and the City tour bus that she and her roommate "are into the same guy." Somebody on the bus recorded it. This unflattering, to say the least, video of her has been uploaded on YouTube, goes a version of viral and thus exposes a messy love square that involves Maggie and three other people. Maggie uses Foursquare to hunt down the internet blogger who YouTubed the tape, finding her at a Queens laundromat.
Social media assaults anchorman Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels) as well. We see him watching a 9/11 anniversary program from which he was yanked as the anchor but took the heat himself, saying that he took himself off of the program. He wanders over to the internet and finds "Will McAvoy hate"—various sites devoted to demonizing him. The anchor's critics (some, perhaps many of them, outright enemies) can do their smearing anonymously, and thus be at no risk of rebuttal or repercussions. This is a poignant scene, the anchor alone with his thoughts, his conflicts and his memories (on the actual day of 9/11 Will had been his network's workhorse anchor).
And, for sharp and alert viewers of The Newsroom, it gives added weight, meaning and understanding to something Will says to a colleague at another place in the script: "I'm not who I used to be right now." At another point, Will is quietly watching from a hallway as some colleagues view videotape of the anchor's stellar on-air performance during 9/11.
This, to me, is one of the most effective and affecting scenes in this episode—perhaps the most effective and affecting of the whole series so far. But it doesn't last long. One has to be alert to catch it, fast to absorb it and understand it in full context. That may be asking too much of the average viewer. (Or any viewer, for that matter). Maybe you have to have been an anchor, or at least in TV news, to see it and be affected by it as I was. But, again, give Sorkin credit: He is remarkably attuned to the nuances of what the world of television news is and what those who live it are like, what they are really like—how they think, what they feel, how they work and live. It is almost downright eerie how good he is at this and the scenes described above prove it once again.
Other notes, quotes and opinions from and about this episode:
• The Zimmerman case in Florida has a kind of relevancy to part of this week's goings-on in The Newsroom. The anchor and a hyper-aggressive executive producer are at odds over what to do about another murder case with racial overtones in another state. As they argue, the anchor says forcefully, "I can only report what I know. I'm not allowed to get involved in advocacy." In another sequence, the anchor tells the pressing producer, who wants him to intercede on behalf of the convict, "There's a difference between reporting and advocating for a cop killer." This is the kind of stuff, these are the kinds of conversations, that often go on in real time in real situations in real newsrooms. One of Sorkin's themes, especially in this series, is that actions have consequences: to cover or not to cover stories, when, and how much? When should a news organization risk its reputation on a controversial story, and (obviously related) when should the anchor—who is the one to make the final decision—choose whether airing the story is worth the consequences? When you know the facts and the core truths of a story, should you even consider the consequences of reporting it—or should you report it with the attitude that it is your responsibility whatever the consequences? It's complicated. Always is. And the bigger the story, the more complicated these decisions become.
• Loved it when the news division president (Sam Waterston) comes in with new "audience research" indicating that streaming Twitter conversations as a "crawl" at the bottom of the screen during the flagship newscast would jump ratings and demographics. Ah, this was so sweet; that is to say, so real, so relevant and so important for news audiences to understand and ponder. The yin and yang, the push and pull, the headbutting and profanity-laced debates that go on between corporate titans and news division presidents on one hand with anchors and executive producers on the other, arguing about "audience" and other "market" research. This is and has been a long time a constant in the craft. More and more corporate leaders and their research-polling people prevail; many journalists in newsrooms and anchor chairs no longer feel they can afford to fight it—or even question it.
• The episode is at or near its strongest when reporters and their superiors are in discussions about coverage of drones, “Occupy Wall Street," the Romney campaign, the death penalty, and leads on an explosive new investigative report. There is a snap, crackle and pop to the dialogue, all of which moves the narrative forward.
• We already know—it was indicated in the first show of the first season—that the new investigative report eventually will lead to a network retraction and a lawsuit. (This plotline is based on a CNN report some years ago about alleged use of deadly Sarin gas by the U.S. military.) The story of how and why the newsroom’s report went wrong, and what consequences that result, is building week by week.
• Superb line: Cop to anchorman in police station as anchor's temper begins to show: "Sir…(Pause)…You feelin' alright?" You have to see it in context. Yet another example of why Sorkin has the reputation of writing excellent, strong, memorable dialogue.
Some other especially good lines (because they ring so real and true, and are lines that I have heard myself in TV newsrooms over the years):
• Young associate producer, hankering for promotion, travel, and a bigger, better taste of the big-time laments: "I want to be the 'go-to' person for something around here." She knows—we all do in news—that being the "go-to" person for something, preferably several somethings, is a key to surviving and thriving in the craft.
She also says, to one of her superiors, "If you were starting a new news operation with five people I wouldn't be one of them" (or words to that effect; the quote is not absolutely precise).
• Near and at the end, Willie Nelson's "You Are Always On My Mind" plays in the background. Perfect.
It is clear now that with The Newsroom, Sorkin is making a running commentary on the state of the news and journalism, and why you should care about it, why it's important. As he did with The West Wing and his depiction of politics and public office holders, he seeks to accentuate what could be, should be, in a more perfect world. As with The West Wing, sure, The Newsroom is fantasy. But it's a positive one, and for at least some of us, even inspiring. More, much more, than that though, is that it is also quality entertainment.
Is there now, as some have begun to argue, a new "Golden Age of Television Entertainment"?I'm beginning to believe it. The Newsroom is one of the reasons.
I would like to include a writer's note: Miranda Landsman, Allison Griner, Rebecca DeLaFuente and Madeleine Rowe helped with and contributed to this article.