“Newsroom” Notes: Sorkin’s Bad Night

You know the drill: If you haven’t yet seen last night’s episode of The Newsroom and plan to, don’t bother reading any further. Spoilers abound.

There’s a reason that while I can say that I watch The Newsroom regularly I’ve always had to temper it with the seemingly counterintuitive admission that it’s not a really good show. True, this season has been leaps and bounds above last, with Aaron Sorkin seemingly taking at least some of the perfectly fair criticism that was heaped in his lap last year to heart. But the most frustrating thing about the show remains the ways in which Sorkin chooses to be stubbornly consistent versus the ways in which, unfortunately, he won’t or maybe even can’t. What I mean is, the contrived plot devices that Sorkin has used over and over again to drive his stories forward as well as his now notorious “woman problem,” both of which he’s been rightly hit for, keep coming back, while the moments of great storytelling rise very high only to suddenly have the bottom drop out from under the audience.

There’s no better example of The Newsroom‘s consistency problem than comparing the episode of the show from two weeks ago, which was the best of the series so far, with this week’s, which was not only one of the worst but was sincerely a fucking infuriating hour of television.

Maybe Charlie Skinner, the always-reliable Sam Waterston, setting the scene right off the bat with an embittered speech about how up is down, black is white, and basically the entire ACN newsroom has “gone to the zoo” heralded things to come. Because, yeah, a zoo indeed. First of all, the whole tone of the fictional ACN’s election night coverage — with everyone walking on eggshells after the Genoa catastrophe and Will, Mac, and Charlie still trying to resign as gracefully as possible — seemed to meta-mimic what I was thinking about The Newsroom as a TV drama, only in reverse. That last episode was so good that I didn’t want to see anything get screwed up this week in the same way that Genoa was such a debacle that the “News Night” team didn’t want to follow it up with an election night that went down in flames. By the end of last night’s episode, a two-parter, “News Night” has been spared any disastrous embarrassment. The Newsroom, I’m not so sure.

In an hour that felt like Sorkin had completely lost control of his ability to 12-Step away his various addictions and was relapsing before our eyes, here’s what we were treated to last night: The women on the show weren’t simply dumb and petty, they were insufferable caricatures. Sloan’s freak-out and demand for Neal to find the buyer of a signed book she hadn’t actually signed, during the busiest news night of the year, wasn’t just ridiculous, it was kind of insulting; couple that with her, yes, bitchy banter with Taylor and it felt like all the progress she’s made over this season as a character was purposely being shot full of holes. The suddenly weak-willed Mac’s equally quixotic quest to correct her Wikipedia page and her return to the ancient relationship grudge milked to death a year ago also undid a lot of truly well-deserved goodwill that character had built up over the past season. It’s always been impossible to really like Maggie, this season or last, but dear God — I’ve never wanted so badly for Sorkin’s eraser to suddenly appear onscreen, Bugs Bunny-style, and literally wipe away her entire existence from the show. I no longer care why she got a haircut and I understand why Jim doesn’t either. For all of these transgressions against good female characters — Jesus, even the awesome Marcia Gay Harden looked foolish talking about “liquid sex” — I don’t blame the women who play them as admirably as possible, I blame the man who wrote them.

Also making a mighty comeback last night was the style of Sorkin dialog that isn’t simply rapid-fire — that, I can take — but is rapid-fire and completely unbelievable bordering on slapstick. Reese Lansing’s soliloquy during the election party wasn’t simply silly, it was completely out of character for him. Everyone seemed to be delivering their lines like they were aware just how chaotic the entire script was reading, and not the kind of chaos meant to give the audience a sense of what it’s like in a newsroom on election night — or how frayed everyone’s nerves are post-Genoa — but a plain old mess.

Finally, it’ll surprise no one who’s followed the show for any length of time to know that, once again, the intrepid staff-members of “News Night” have a special line into whatever massive story is about to break, thanks to somebody among them who showered with or is otherwise close to a huge source with loads of secret information. I swear, the general ACN news-desk must have cobwebs growing on it, the people who man it do so little work. So next week we get to find out whether the team, still shell-shocked from Genoa, will hedge on the Petraeus tip that fell into their laps out of caution or run with it and be the hero journalists we all know they are.

I get that the whole point of this episode is to show what happens when, in fact, a massive mistake is made within an organization that relies on never making mistakes. I know that the staff’s rush to “correct” everything that’s wrong in the world is Sorkin’s idea of showing us the natural reaction of professionals who suddenly find their very foundations rattled. But it would be nice if Sorkin himself didn’t follow up not a failure with more failure but a success with a failure. I’ll of course be turning in next week for the season finale and I’m more than willing to concede that there’s a possibility everything we saw last night was merely setting up “part two,” but it doesn’t change how disappointing it was to see a show that had gained so much ground lose it so quickly.

Chez Pazienza was the beating heart of The Daily Banter, sadly passing away on February 25, 2017. His voice remains ever present at the Banter, and his influence as powerful as ever.