Recently, I had begun to think that “The Newsroom” had a serious problem – that its intent and structure were flawed at the core. “The Newsroom” aims to show us what good journalism looks like by replaying the events of the last two years. So far, show creator and writer Aaron Sorkin has shed a light on the events surrounding the BP oil spill and highlighted the connection between the Tea Party and corporate interests. The problem that I have been anticipating is that, unlike Sorkin’s previous liberal wish fulfillment drama “The West Wing,” “The Newsroom” is set against a real world backdrop. The events and people they report on exist in reality, and, because “The Newsroom” is set two years in the past, we know how this story ends. Regardless of how good the reporting at “News Night” is, we know that in 2012, America will be even more divided and our government even more dysfunctional than it was in 2010. And so Sorkin’s message – that there is nothing more vital to a functioning democracy than a well-informed electorate – loses some of its steam.
But that problem matters a whole lot less when you have sympathetic characters, complex relationships, and snappy dialogue. “I’ll Try to Fix You” shows that after an up-and-down start to its first season, “The Newsroom” is settling in. Over the course of the first three episodes, we have watched these characters develop their histories. Tonight, for the first time, Sorkin was able to sit back and let these characters loose, and the result was both good comedy and sharp drama. For the first time this season, the message took a backseat. No longer is Sorkin trying to force a lesson on us. In tonight’s episode in fact, he was able to have a little fun with that idea.
Some are calling it “preachy.” Others say it’s “didactic.” But a frequent criticism of “The Newsroom” has been that Sorkin is focused too much on his message and not enough on story. Critics have suggested that the viewing public does not want to be lectured (even though they loved it in “The West Wing.”) Give Sorkin some credit for being self-aware. Tonight, Will was a stand-in for those criticisms as he got not one but two drinks thrown in his face for lecturing an audience – in this case, two willing females – who were offended by his moral superiority. This is a neat trick by Sorkin. By giving voice to the show’s most ardent critics, he should be able to attract a little sympathy. Hopefully, these critics will cool off after vicariously dousing Will McAvoy in champagne, because if they do, they are in for a treat.
For the bulk of the show’s 58-minute runtime, “I’ll Try to Fix You” was about people, and that means that the show succeeded on the back of its cast. It is time to give Jeff Daniels some credit; he took a backseat to the young kids for the first three episodes, and his character was up to this point portrayed in largely unsympathetic terms. But tonight’s episode hinged on us liking Will, and Daniels, who was at times in the episode funny, pompous, self-aware, and sad, was at his most charismatic.
Sam Waterston and Emily Mortimer continue to give solid supporting performances, but something tells me that their best work is yet to come. Sorkin never fails to give each character an opportunity to shine over the course of a season, and neither of them has quite had their moment yet. As for the Ross and Rachel of this little group – Jim and Maggie – they are starting to find their way. I still don’t really care about them, but their relationship certainly got a whole lot more interesting tonight, and it seems that there is a good chance that it will come to a head soon. Maggie’s cluelessness about her own feelings is hardly endearing, but it is at least relatable. The real problem is that Gallagher and Pill just don’t have any chemistry. They have got the “workplace rivals” thing down, but so far there is not a real sense of romantic connection, and the best writing in the world can’t fix that problem.
Structurally, “I’ll Try to Fix You” borrowed heavily from the show’s excellent pilot. For the first fifty minutes, we paid witness to these characters’ petty inter-personal dramas, and then we saw them once again put their differences aside to report on a new story – the Gabrielle Giffords shooting – the right way. Once again, Sorkin is the beneficiary of some propitious timing. Tonight’s episode functions as a contribution to the ongoing debate sparked by CNN’s recent failure to report the SCOTUS ruling on the Affordable Care Act correctly. CNN, in their pursuit to be the first to report the story, got their facts wrong. Tonight, the News Night team waited until all the facts were in, at the expense of ratings, and got it right – and it was held up as a rare case of good journalism in a ratings-driven world.
But watching this group of individuals come together as a team had a more cathartic effect on me tonight than it did in the pilot, and the reason is simple: we know these people better now. The effectiveness of this final sequence – and I would call it great television – is a sign that this show is doing something right, and we should give Sorkin the benefit of the doubt. The guy just knows what he’s doing. Still, I found myself wondering if my feelings during that final sequence would have been any different had these characters worked in another industry. Are we more invested in their work because we think journalism is important? I was glad to see that the News Night team took their time and reported the Gabrielle Giffords story correctly but only because I care about them. Did it really matter to the viewing public? Sorkin writes a lot about how the events that the News Night team covers are of “national importance,” but I’m not convinced that, over the course of this season, Sorkin will be able to show us how their work has made a difference. As long as he keeps banging out solid, character-driven episodes like tonight’s, however, I’m also not sure it will matter.