The Newsroom Review: “News Night 2.0” (Season 1, Episode 2)

Last week, Aaron Sorkin‘s news desk drama The Newsroom premiered to a mixed reception. Some elements of the show were a triumph (the casting of Jeff Daniels, brilliant sets, occasional piece of funny dialogue) and others were a total washout (political grandstanding). Many hoped that the second episode would iron out some of the problems, or at least begin to amend them so we get a more honed and understated show as we go through more and more episodes. Now that it’s aired, did the show’s second outing deliver? Read on to find out.

This week, Mackenzie (Will’s new EP and former girlfriend) lays down the law and the three rules by which News Night 2.0 will approach the news:

  1. Is this information we need in the voting booth?
  2. Is this the best possible form of the argument?
  3. Is the story in historical context?

She also hires a very talented economist called Sloan Sabbath to do a 5 minute slot on News Night, her goal is to simply tell the viewer what the economic state of the nation is, no bullshit. Despite the fact that potential interviewees are dropping out and refusing to turn up, the fact remains that they created a show that rattles cages because it has begun its path to tell the truth. However, up at the top, a senior ratings advisor is threatening to persuade Will away from this kind of broadcasting and to focus on what’s popular to get ratings.

Again, this is the kind of idealism to me that seems absolutely appropriate and prescient. Last week’s episode was chastised for taking on the BP oil spill. However, now it is apparent that the show’s big theme is not about the news it is telling, but how they are telling the news. In a time of government inquiries, media scandals and big corporations controlling the way news is told to the public, Sorkin’s message on how reform in the media should take place is very clear.

So while this episode is dealing with an immigration story and the characters are speaking openly on their opinions on immigration, this is not the central thread of the show. It is important to note that these are characters speaking, not Sorkin. The intricate political background only comes out because this is detailing a news program where they have to deal with these issues everyday. This is about the media and the people that run it.

Outside of the news this week, in the office Will and Mackenzie’s old love affair is spreading between the new bods and both are very conscious that it doesn’t get out. This concern is raised at the beginning of the episode which inevitably means by the end of the episode everyone in the office will know about it, and that happens. But the reveal of the fact that Mackenzie cheated on Will and not vice versa like everyone thinks hits both an emotional and very funny note, this is the kind of quality we expect from Sorkin.

The qualms I had in the previous episode with the character of Mackenzie, her being an idealist and extremely irritating is no longer a problem because that is her character. At one point in this episode she reveals to the newly hired economist Sloan (Olivia Munn) that she wants to be friends because she doesn’t have any. Sorkin so often deals in broad strokes as a writer but when he hits a character detail like that moment, there is no one better.

I also tended to find this episode really funny as opposed to really dramatic. Sure, it is dealing with important issues but the relationships between the characters (which is really the basis for all drama) tend to take on a more humorous bent than a serious one. It deals with the lightest of touches but knows when to go serious.

Calling this a drama series is kind of futile. Considering how much of The Newsroom casts its characters entirely in stereotypes, it contains lines of really witty, funny dialogue and has some weird slapstick moments (such as in this episode the collapse of a whiteboard), this is actually far closer to a comedy. But a highly intellectual, understated comedy. In fact, the strands in the show which you could call ‘dramatic’, do slow the show to a grinding halt. When viewed as a sort of comedy, The Newsroom begins to work and the comedic moments are from being unintentional.

There are also signs that the actors are beginning to settle down into the rhythms of Sorkin’s dialogue. Because of the fast pace at which television is approached, there is little time for rehearsal or multiple takes, which I think is needed with the kind of inexperienced, young actors that are cast for The Newsroom. In The Social Network that wasn’t an issue because of David Fincher drilling the young actors into that way of speaking through a huge number of takes and three weeks of rehearsal, so it seems natural. Here though, there is no Fincher and sometimes that lack of the dialogue not being second nature is showing, but it is improving.

Jeff Daniels still remains the most comfortable of the entire cast by far. This character is a blessing for his career and he knows it, he gets the balance of Will McAvoy just right. He is a spiky, difficult, occasionally highly unlikeable person but underneath there is a side of him that wants to do good. I imagine over the course of this season we will see a blossoming of this character, I think the big arc for him will be his journey from popular journalist to important journalist.

By going to cable, Sorkin had free reign to do whatever he wanted in terms of language, sex and violence. Instead of going for the visceral, he has taken this opportunity of total creative freedom to make the most Sorkin-esque piece of material ever. This style of writing isn’t going to be for everyone, but to tell you the truth, the more I ease back into Sorkin’s style, the more I’m beginning to like The Newsroom.