There is a YouTube video that made the rounds after the pilot episode of “The Newsroom” that demonstrated how writer/creator Aaron Sorkin likes to reuse his best lines. This video was an arrow in the quiver of those critics who sought to take down “The Newsroom” from the beginning – only a hack would reuse dialogue so blatantly. Another way of looking at it is that Sorkin knows when writing is working, and tonight, he reused not dialogue but a concept and structure from “The West Wing’ to create a game-changing episode. It was not the strongest, funniest, or most poignant episode yet, but it worked in a way the show hadn’t before and set the table for stronger episodes in the future.
The “West Wing” episode in question is “Noël,” in which Josh Lyman is forced to see a therapist after several incidents of acting out at work. Turns out, Josh is suffering from PTSD from the attempt on President Bartlett’s life three weeks earlier but is also dealing with some unresolved issues from childhood. Here on “The Newsroom,” Will sees a therapist (the always welcome David Krumholtz) to acquire a sleeping pill, but the shrink gets him talking, and it turns out there are more than a few things troubling Will: an online death threat on his life, his unresolved feelings towards MacKenzie, and guilt over a particularly vicious dressing-down he gave a Rick Santorum supporter on the air.
I spent most of the first half of “Bullies” expecting the episode to fail to live up to the “West Wing” episode, which is one of the series’s greats. But in the last few minutes, “Bullies” so effectively challenged everything we thought we knew about the show that it seems like it could be a turning point for the series. Our perception of Will – and he of himself – as a populist hero was changed forever when we learned that it was a byproduct of a childhood in which he was thrust into the position of standing up to a drunken, abusive father to protect his younger siblings. By delving into Will’s past, Sorkin opened up the show to a new world of possibilities. We now see that his “mission to civilize” is not just about politics and country. It is also about Will as a unique individual and the dysfunctions that we all have. His role as the hero and protector – which is the basis of the show thus far – is now ambiguous because we are not entirely sure he’s doing this for reasons he has said. For a series that has thus far painted its characters as the heroes that may save a nation, a little ambiguity is a good thing.
Further, our perception of the show as maybe just a little bit too high on its horse changed as we saw Sorkin was willing to take the show’s hero down a peg, which functions as a response to those who have criticized the show for being too idealistic. Lastly – and I am not sure Sorkin did this intentionally – it even challenged modern liberalism by giving voice to the criticism that liberals who aim to “protect” minorities are actually being condescending and paternalistic.
The scene between the Santorum supporter and Will was one of the season’s best for all of the reasons stated above, but there were other great moments tonight. I particularly liked the shouting match between Charlie and Sloan, who masterfully captured the conflicting emotions of a very complicated moment. Sloan, bullied by both Will’s example and his words to her, broke a key rule of journalism on air, and Charlie dresses her down in front of the entire newsroom. Sam Waterston and Olivia Munn have been the two hidden gems of the show so far. They both have had their key moments but have mostly been relegated to the sidelines. I hope we get a lot more of them in the future.
And for the second week in a row, Jim and Maggie thankfully took a backseat. It might be wishful thinking to suggest that Sorkin realized, while shooting these episodes, that their storyline wasn’t working and has scaled back their presence in response, but I really hope that’s what’s happening. Jim and Maggie mostly just served the story of others tonight, but with Don’s revelation that he knows about their feelings (which isn’t really a revelation, since I thought he figured that out two episodes ago with his little cell phone trick), the stage is set for more high school romance intrigue.
Those who hate “The Newsroom” will surely find more ammunition in tonight’s episode. These folks like to point out how unrealistic the show is, and to be fair, there was much tonight that drew skepticism from me. For example, does a patient as guarded as Will really have a breakthrough in his first therapy session in four years? Would (and this is one that happens almost every episode) a professional news chief scream at his employee in the middle of the newsroom and in front of the entire staff? Those complaints are legitimate, and if they take you out the experience of watching the show, then that’s a problem. Every TV show has unrealistic occurrences – but if the show is good enough, you either won’t notice or won’t care. Tonight, I didn’t care.
“The Newsroom” had been getting a little predictable of late. Even the best episode – episode 4 by my count – borrowed almost the exact same structure as the pilot. And as much as I have been enjoying the show, I was having a hard time figuring out how it would truly surprise me anymore. But all of that changed tonight, and it showed that Sorkin has more in mind that just calling out those in the media who practice shoddy journalism. Turns out he is interested in people, as well.
NOTE: See the comment from Kristopher below, who said what I was trying to say in the post above – but he said it far more eloquently.