Second episodes are tough. Often, there are as many new viewers of a show watching the second episode as there are with the first, so you basically have to re-introduce all of the characters and restate its themes. As one of the few defenders of last week’s pilot episode of “The Newsroom,” I was tempted to look at tonight’s episode with rose-tinted glasses. I would very much like what I wrote about last week’s episode to be true. I want “The Newsroom” to be great television not just so I can be right but also because I just want it to be great – I want to be moved. Still, a realistic – albeit still subjective – viewing of tonight’s second episode reveals a show that has the potential to be one of the better dramas on TV but is still very much finding its footing.
Tonight’s episode contained the same elements as last week’s series premiere – relationship drama, big news event, and witty banter – but the dramatic structure was wildly different. Last week, the first half of the episode was all about building the characters, and in the second half, they put all of their petty differences aside to do an actually great news show. It was great drama, and it put us right into the lives of the characters. We felt what they were feeling. In “News Night 2.0,” writer/creator Aaron Sorkin tries to blend together the relationship drama and the real-life news, and it just never quite gels. But I think we should give Sorkin some time to figure this out because it struck me during tonight’s episode that he is dealing with an element in “The Newsroom” that he has never really focused on in his television career: young people.
So far, it feels like this show belongs to Maggie (Alison Pill) and Jim (John Gallagher, Jr.), the executive producer and associate producer of “News Night.” I’m not sure why Sorkin chose to make them the focus of these early episodes. So far, their stories are not very interesting, and the only real reason we have to care about these characters is because we know – mostly from watching Sorkin’s previous work – that they are going to get together at some point soon. Maybe Sorkin became enchanted with the way his rapid-fire dialogue sounds coming out of the mouth of twenty-somethings when he was working on “The Social Network,” but I’m still not convinced that it works. Pill and Gallagher are both fine actors with charisma to spare, but sometimes it feels like they are working backward with the famous Sorkin banter: they have mastered the rhythms and comic timing, but they haven’t found the emotion beneath it.
Still, writing about young people does provide Sorkin with some new opportunities. I loved how when the young staff was faced with a particularly tough question by MacKenzie, they all immediately looked at their Blackberries to avoid eye contact. It was a great example of how that generation uses technology to avoid confrontation, conflict, and, heck, even feelings. Further, I was particularly moved by Maggie’s drunken scene at the bar, when we got a real sense of just how confused and desperate she is. Thematically, the plight of twentysomethings – and not the ones who steal start-up ideas from their rich friends and become billionaires – should be ripe subject matter for Sorkin. They are stuck in a tight spot between idealism and a desperate need to succeed, and there is good drama there. If he can put some realistic-sounding dialogue in their mouths, it should work.
But while Maggie and Jim get most of the wittiest dialogue, I like how Sorkin is slowly making us care about Will McAvoy. Jeff Daniels is not a showy actor; he has a way of keeping an even keel even when he’s screaming at his ex-girlfriend/current boss for emailing the entire staff the details of their break-up. But tonight’s episode revealed that “The Newsroom” is, in the end, going to be Will’s show, and the driving emotional tension of the show will come from him becoming a better person. This is clear in the opening scenes when is trying – and failing – to learn the names and personal details of his new staff. It’s a nice touch, although fairly obvious as a sign of character development. It is the picture of subtlety, however, compared to Will’s about-face on the immigration issue, and it is on the weakness of this subplot that tonight’s episode failed.
So many things are wrong about Will’s position on immigration. Although I’ve only known him for one episode, I did not believe he would have such an angry and narrow view on immigration. I understand that, in order to show Will becoming a better, more open person, we have to see clearly the cynic is to start. I also understand that Sorkin is probably basing certain elements of Will on real-life news anchors in order to make his point, and that Lou Dobbs was probably the inspiration for tonight’s episode. And that would be fine if it ended with Will moving a bit more to the center on the issue, or maybe even just having a tiny little epiphany that, hey, illegal immigrants are people, too. But the change that he makes seems so big, and ultimately, so arbitrary that it crosses over into prostletyzing, a well-known criticism of Sorkin’s writing. I can believe that Will would change his mind on immigration, but I can’t believe that he would do it because his upstairs neighbors apologized for making so much noise, and I can’t believe that he would atone by paying for a random immigrant’s transportation costs. And when we can’t believe a character’s actions, it often means that the writer is sacrificing the truth of that character to make a larger point.
And this is ultimately the problem with tonight’s episode: it puts principle – not character – first. Sorkin sets very clear moral boundaries for the show, but he does not abide by them. Besides Will’s flip-fliop on immigration, I keep thinking about the three guests they hurriedly book for the show when Arizona Governor Jan Brewer cancels. In Sorkin’s script and Alex Graves’s direction, they mock the immigration professor, militia member, and beauty queen to the point of making them cartoonish caricatures of right-wing activists. In doing so, Sorkin betrays his liberal agenda, and that’s fine: nobody is going to mistake him for a conservative. But worse than that, he succumbs to temptation in the same way that the media that he is criticizing does: by putting dumb, talking heads on your show to make it more entertaining. These characters were too dumb to be real, and this is too important a show to veer towards the cartoonish.
Sorkin might say that this was his point: we were supposed to be frustrated by their ignorance. But I found myself laughing, and I can’t imagine I was the only one. This was not sharp satire; these were caricatures he had written. Making fun of these characters is not a feat worthy of admiration. It’s not even a challenge, and as Sorkin should well know, reducing your opponents to caricatures is a big part of the problem.