The Newsroom 2×08 ‘Election Night, Part 1’: Everyone take turns and share, we only have one sword to fall on

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Aaron Sorkin is, to use one of my favorite lines from another great show, as brilliant as he is lousy.  The first season of The Newsroom wasn’t perfect, but it was brilliant; it managed to somehow exist in a fictional space while being completely topical within our constantly-evolving political and media realities, and introduced to us a endearing gang of charming misfits all coming together under the one of the most important theses ever to guide a news organization: Speaking Truth to Stupid.  Jeff Daniels’ Will McAvoy was our beleaguered and frustrated Don Quixote beckoning us all at home to be his Sancho as he fought to reestablish the credibility and the agency of the American journalism industry that had long ago given way to corporate interests and the ceaseless chase for ratings.  So if Sorkin’s first season mission was to implore a return to journalistic legitimacy by providing the example (albeit a fiction one), what motivations propelled the second season into raising those stakes?  Um . . . stuff?  I guess?  I’m not sure, and I don’t know if the show is, either.

You may be familiar with the literary criticism, “The Clockwork Universe Problem,” wherein the conflicts faced by characters are predetermined by events specifically devised to create those conflicts.  To be afflicted by this can be problematic, as the more dependent the narrative becomes on these machinations the less real and immersive the story becomes.  Now, apply that theory to the “Genoa” plotline: Jim has to leave the office because of Maggie, Jerry has to come in as Jim’s replacement, Charlie’s source within the DOD has to pass bad intel to Jerry because he blames Charlie for his kid committing suicide(!), General Stomtonovich has to assure everyone that the story is true right up until they ask him to go on record (this part is particularly baffling), and then completely unrelatedly Will has to teach Mackenzie how the shot-clock in basketball works so she can use this knowledge to bring the whole scheme crashing down.  I mean, wow.  That’s some Swiss precision right there.

HBO

HBO

 

So here we find ourselves at the end of the first part of the two-volume Season Two finale, where the show (both the one we’re watching and the one the characters are producing) has completely derailed due to the season’s primary plotline, and everyone is trying to figure out how to best move forward after the network’s credibility has taken massive damage : newly-fired producer and squirrely fro-coif Jerry Dantana convinced everyone to run a high profile expose on the US’ use of nerve gas on civilians in Afghanistan that he knew was fake because he’s the one who faked it.  It’s this season-long sojourn into the intricacies of this plot that has baffled me most, because Season Two seems to have taken the heart and drive and throughline of the great first season and dropped it all down a long, dark hole, replacing it with unlikable new characters and plotlines that don’t advance or even address the narrative throughline established by the first season.  Season One was all about Will McAvoy leading his fearless crew on a paradigm-shifting crusade for integrity, and Season Two was about an insane amount of unlikely scenarios culminating in disaster as  everyone slowly realized the new guy on the show was a lame weirdo.  They should have asked me, really; I could tell he was a lame weirdo since the second episode of this season, and then we could have gotten back to the good stuff.

Good stuff like relationship drama!  Which is a bit counterintuitive, since the clunkiest parts of the first season were the faffing around in the seemingly endless Jim-Maggie-Don triangle of banality, but Sorkin seems to have heard the criticisms levied at his first season and responded by going engines full-reverse; instead of spending time on the sexual dynamics between our six lead characters (two of whom were terribly boring and tedious), he spends almost no time on those relationships and the second season ends largely where it began, with everyone still pining over everyone else but nothing really happening.  The problem with that is we really need to find out what’s going on with Will and Mackenzie, as their professional relationship is the backbone of the show and their past romantic relationship is the key to driving their chemistry.  Tonight’s episode puts Will and Mackenzie back in the spotlight and finally gets back to that chemistry in tangible way, but I fear it may be too little, too late.

HBO

HBO

Mackenzie spends most of the episode freaking out over finding her Wikipedia page has her alma mater listed incorrectly, and since she’s already in a panic about the imploding Genoa story and that issue is completely about the importance of being correct before putting something before the eyes of the public, she makes it her pledge for the night to, well, keep freaking out about minutiae in the name of her integrity.  It’s how she copes.  She also copes by wanting to be punished by Will, which means him firing her for letting a bad story go to air (even though it’s not her fault), but it’s really a stand-in penance for her treating Will poorly during their relationship and feeling responsible for his lingering heartache (which is probably very much her fault).  This is kinda where Sorkin gets the rap for having trouble writing female characters, since Mackenzie’s relationship with Will has largely been defined with her in the role of apologetic succubus to his guileless gallantry.  These people are adults and should act as such, but arrested emotional maturity is a Sorkin hallmark, so we have to trudge through this until he finally brings those characters together, (or until HBO kicks him off the show after he gets arrested for doing mushrooms, again).  In any case, we’ll see next week if Will really fires her like he said he would, though I very much doubt it.

HBO

HBO

This whole season has been very confusing in terms of its inception, so having characters act even more confusingly in their motivations isn’t exactly shocking, but it is frustrating as a viewer to watch what this second season turned out to be.  The first season was purpose-driven and I’ll even admit to enjoying its preachiness at times.  But this year?  I don’t have a clue as to what message Sorkin was trying to spell out here, other than, “Hey, watch out for those squirrely weirdos who try to make up fake news.”  However, next week’s conclusion all but promises a return to Will surgically deconstructing the Right Wing’s tomfoolery on live TV, so how could I not look forward to that?

 

STRAY THOUGHTS:

– The opening of this episode had Jim and Hallie mooning over the concept of “off the record,” and I think this was finally when this particular brand of Sorkinism wore out its welcome with me, i.e., the whole “pedantically dancing around a simple word or phrase for comedic effect instead of just getting on with it” thing.  It’s such a glaringly specific part of his shtick at this point that it seems needlessly indulgent.  At least his much-lampooned walk-and-talks typically serve a plot-motivating purpose, or at the very least getting characters from A to B.  This other thing is just tedious and irksome, and I’m someone who likes Sorkin’s stuff.

– Maggie wanting to hurt Jim vis-a-vis Taylor ( the Romney Lady) seemed arbitrary and mean, which isn’t exactly what Maggie needs for her characterization at this point.  I’ve always had a hard time accepting or liking her character, and this sudden mean streak (along with borrowing Charlie’s disappearing-reappearing brand of plot-convenient alcoholism) isn’t doing her any favors.  Also, hon, fix your hair.  It’s a mess.  You’re a professional.

– Will’s deadpan, “They teach you that at Oxford?” had me rolling.  Where has Will been this season?  Why has our lead protagonist been so seemingly absent from his own show?  Ugh.

– I’ve found Marcia Gay Harden’s character this season refreshing and smarmy by turns, and while last night she was mostly the latter, I really liked the naturalism in her performance.  If you’ll watch her closely in just about every scene, she’s always writing or fidgeting or doing something physical that increases the immersion in her character’s reality, because real people don’t sit motionless in chairs and talk at each other.  Jeff Daniels is also great at this.  It’s the little things like this that sell these characters on the subconscious level.

– The Asian lady who was smart with computers and math (which, yeah, I know) is played by Lauren Tom, who you might recognize as Amy from Futurama, one of my favoritest of shows, may it rest in peace.

Atomika D.

is a writer and critic of TV and film since 2006, an alumnus of NYFA’s school of celluloid direction and production, and she once ate seven burritos on a dare. It was not pleasant. Read all about it on Tumblr.

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