I realize this is coming in a little late this week, mostly because I had an incredibly difficult family funeral to attend over the weekend and needed to take the day yesterday to just spend some time with my young daughter. But I guess I can chalk the delay up to posting the same way people watch TV shows these days: whenever they feel like it. It's not a stretch to assume that there are people out there who, thanks to technology that's made each or us his or her own king of all media, haven't even seen Sunday's episode of The Newsroom yet, so maybe I'm not late to the party after all. If you're still in the dark about it, though, and wish to remain that way, obviously there are going to be spoilers ahead.
First off, while far from flawless television -- in fact, it's the show's constant near-miss quality that makes it so frustrating -- Sunday's episode was probably the single best the show has offered up so far. Titled simply "News Night with Will McAvoy," the hour unfolded pretty much in real time, all taking place during a single broadcast of the fictional "News Night." Jeff Daniels never left the anchor's chair, which was not only an important plot point but which allowed Daniels to provide a kind of meta-anchor for the actual episode. His constricted performance was, ironically, one of his best and the stripped-down show, removed of the usual obtrusive musical cues and obnoxious histrionics, gave most of the cast a chance to truly shine at one point or another. Sure, the format was a Sorkinian gimmick, but it was a good one and it gave us a glimpse of the kind of thinking and writing that earned Sorkin his reputation in the first place.
I'm not going to regurgitate every moment of the show back to you, but what I really appreciated is that I think it's finally bringing into focus and putting in context Sorkin's much-maligned distaste for what social media's done to our culture. Early on, everybody assumed that Sorkin was just being a grumpy, privileged aging white guy by bitching about those awful blogs and their impact on civility in our discourse, but I think it runs much deeper and may be a little more nuanced than that -- and I'm inclined to say that I agree with where he seems to be coming from.
Sunday's episode was both an examination and a slyly subversive indictment of our new media culture from start to finish. Not only did it manage to cram seemingly every new media-centric scandal, or type of scandal, of the past couple of years into one hour -- the very act of cramming it all into one hour and moving quickly from one disjointed vignette to another perfectly symbolized the way we think in the age of new media. Sloan found that nude pictures of herself had popped up on the internet (not simply something we've grown accustomed to in the digital era but a clever recognition of both Olivia Munn and Alison Pill's own real-life brushes with it); the verdict in the Tyler Clementi case came down -- with a fellow Rutgers student convicted of violating Clementi's privacy by posting his sexual encounter with a man, reality TV style, on the internet -- and was quickly used as a platform by a fame-hungry kid to try to promote himself; the arrogant, sexist jerk reputation that Will has had to contend with, true or not, for most of the show once again reared its head on Twitter, showing how even a simple misunderstanding can be used to fuel a prevailing media narrative; the dissemination of a fake story by a disreputable website, proving the maxim about a lie traveling halfway around the world before the truth can get its shoes on, left Don Keefer scrambling to repair the damage; Rush Limbaugh's insulting of Sandra Fluke as "a slut" was highlighted not only as a media meme but as one whose fallout created its own type of social media-friendly backlash of canned outrage; and Maggie's screw-up with the edit on the Zimmerman 911 call, again mirroring a real-life scandal, not only revealed the ways in which she's continuing to come apart after Africa but the perils of the rush for instantaneous information and how it's knee-capped so many news organizations over the past few years.
This was all Sorkin's extended, layered take on our social media nation -- and for the most part it worked. Combine that with the interpersonal interactions in the episode, which were some of the best the show has given us yet, and what you get is an hour of pretty damn good television, something that finally came close to the glory days of Sorkin on The West Wing. And that's not even taking into account Olivia Munn's performance alone, which was, as Keefer might say, "impressive." Her subtlety as a woman watching her entire career potentially vanish before her eyes thanks to one unguarded moment with a very big asshole was outdone only by the "rage" she finally directed at that asshole in the end. Honestly, one of the best moments of this season or last.
Will McAvoy ends both his broadcast and the episode by looking directly into the camera, tears pooling in his eyes at the death of his abusive father, and saying, "Well, I guess it's just us now." Who he's directing this statement at -- Mac, his remaining family, the audience itself -- we can't be sure. It would make sense for it to be the audience, the very people he's sought approval from because he could never get it from the man to whom he always looked for it. But it could very easily be the ghosts he's now left with, the ones that have haunted him most of his life. Not exactly the most interesting storyline on The Newsroom, but if Sorkin can continue to spin overall episodes like "News Night with Will McAvoy," there may prove to be something to the show beyond the interest it holds for TV news people -- and ex-TV news people.