Monday, August 5, 2013

The Newsroom Review: "Unintended Consequence" - Getting the Gang Back Together

The cast of "The Newsroom"

Those who were expecting The Newsroom to be an entirely different show in its sophomore season have likely been disappointed by the first four episodes.  While there have been a handful of subtle changes, many of the more problematic elements from season one have carried over to season two.  But there have been some very significant, fundamental changes to the show, its focus, and its structure that have had both positive and negative effects.  And the fourth episode really serves well in highlighting those fundamental changes. 

The biggest change we’ve seen is the deemphasizing of the “Big Stories.”  The first season was rife with big stories, whether it was a specific disaster like the BP Oil Spill or Fukushima, or a larger story like immigration or the Tea Party.  Episodes this year have had far less focus, resulting in one big benefit, but two major problems.  On the positive ledger, by focusing less on the big stories and more on smaller news stories (or even fictional storylines like Genoa, Africa, and Jim’s road trip), there is less opportunity for Sorkin soapboxing and monologuing.  Just take a look at this week’s episode.  With the exception of the brief rundown meeting, there was no real news discussed in the entire hour, with the possible exception of Will interviewing Shelly, Neal’s OWS contact.  It’s impossible to consider this development as anything but positive, since many of my problems with last season were based, not on Sorkin’s politics, but on the ham-handed way that he dealt with politics, which often resulted in people lecturing other characters for no real reason or even characters taking conflicting positions based on what Sorkin needed to say.  By focusing on smaller problems (and even fictional ones), Sorkin still gets his points across, but in a much more subtle way.

Unfortunately, the lack of big stories has caused two big problems this year.  First, there hasn’t been any real news.  And without any news, we don’t get to see any actual news production, which was by far the best part of the show in its first season.  Sorkin, despite all his faults, is still incredibly skilled at showing people who are good at their jobs do those jobs well, and The Newsroom is at its best when the entire production team is working together to produce a show.  Unfortunately, after the first ten minutes of the season premiere, we’ve gotten virtually none of that.  The second problem with the “small stories” approach is that it’s separated our characters from each other, a feature most notable in last night’s episode as Jim was still off on his own and Maggie and Gary were in Africa.  Neal’s and Jerry’s stories briefly intersected, but even then, I don’t think there was more than five minutes worth of total screentime in which more than two main characters shared a scene together.  This has created storylines either immensely dull (the Romney campaign and OWS), interesting but problematic (Genoa), or focused much more on the future than the present (Africa). 

The abandonment of big stories in favor of smaller stories may seem like a subtle change, but it has had a huge impact on the show.  At the close of “Unintended Consequences,” it seems as though one of the problems is being brought to a close, with Jim and Maggie both back in at “News Night” and the OWS story out of steam (though I may just be inferring that from the preview for next week’s episode, which implies that the show will be fast forwarding several months).  The Newsroom doesn’t necessarily need to do “Big Stories” every week, but it does need to let its characters work together and do their jobs.  It’s what the show does best.

So let’s dig in to “Unintended Consequences.”  The most obvious place to start, and the most problematic part of the episode, is Maggie’s trip to Africa.  AWM lawyer Rebecca Halladay is back this week (in the future) to depose Maggie.  We get a little more information about the case, which is a wrongful termination suit based on whether or not a “General Stanislav Stomtonovic” said “it happened” in a conversation between the general, Jerry, and Maggie.  It isn’t directly stated, but the obvious implication here is that Jerry gets fired because of the Genoa story, specifically because he uses Stomtonovic as a confirmed source.  It seems a little obvious, though and, had Will not given his statement in the opening episode, I’d be inclined to think this was a ruse to cover up that he was the one who was fired.  Either way, Maggie’s testimony is used as a framing device for telling her Africa story, which just doesn’t work.  First off, we’re told pretty early on that she saw somebody die, and while there are a few potential targets, it becomes clear pretty quickly, that the young Ugandan boy she meets is going to be offed.  Second, even knowing the likely outcome, I could have easily been drawn in by the tense, final sequence.  But Sorkin undercuts all of the tension by constantly returning to Maggie’s narration.  None of it works in the episode and it becomes even more problematic when you realize that the only point in telling the story is to get us to realize that Maggie is pretty messed up and hasn’t been taken her prescribed Paxil (which leaves a gaping hole in her credibility).  I can’t say exactly how this story could have been better done, but this didn’t work.

On the Genoa front, Jerry’s story collides with Neal’s OWS story as Shelly subtly drops that one of her fellow Zucotti Park campers worked with an NGO in Pakistan, where he took reports from villagers about American troops using chemical weapons during an incursion.  What follows is some classic Sorkin situation comedy in which a parade of characters try (and hilariously fail) to apologize for Will verbally tearing Shelly apart on national television because he won’t apologize for himself (and Shelly demands an apology before she’ll give up the name of the source).  Watching Sloane and Don each try to apologize for Will is funny, but it all seems kind of pointless when Will and Shelly come to a d├ętente at episode’s end when she admits that she made a fool of herself and Will apologizes for provoking her.  This plot just keeps getting more intense as more and more pieces fall into place.  It’s easy to see how the crew could get sucked in by this story, though I still wish (as I’ve said before and will surely say again), that it was one of the core characters leading the investigation instead of a new character.  It would also give a greater impact to the fact that somebody’s going to get fired over Genoa.  Still, giving the show a season-long mystery, in order to show how reporting is really done in this medium, was a great decision, and I’m finding myself more invested as the season moves along.

Finally, transitioning to storylines I’m finding myself less invested in as the season moves along, Jim finally goes insane, as he leverages a weak moment by Romney’s PR rep into a sit-down interview for Hallie, rather than himself.  I understand why Jim did what he did and everybody involved in this story reacts just like they should, but I just can’t bring myself to care about Jim’s love life.  And when he and Hallie finally kiss, it just feels empty, not least because John Gallagher has much better chemistry with Constance Zimmer’s PR rep than Grace Gummer’s bland Hallie.  In the end, though, Jim is back in New York, having been pulled off the campaign trail by Mackenzie.  I’d like to think this whole storyline was just a mistake that’ll be quickly forgotten, but I imagine that won’t be the case.

“Unintended Consequences” was a clear step backward for The Newsroom, though I’m hopeful that its problems, while structural, will be fixed by bringing the team back together to actually do the news. 

A couple of spare thoughts –

This is the first HBO show I’ve ever watched where I thought, “I could really use a commercial break right now.”  It was particularly apparent last night as we got a jarring transition from Sloane, Neal, and Shelly having a (slightly) humorous conservation over coffee to Maggie’s deposition and Africa.  There’s also so much extraneous material in this show that it might almost be better as a network show, forced to trim the fat to 43 minutes and given time for the acts to breathe.

Aaron Sorkin is a master lampshade hanger, with Maggie’s hair in the premiere, and the convenient “one available room” twist this week.

Will’s apology to Shelly is the most real he has seemed this season.  It’s a good look on him and I’d like to see it more.

I’m a little surprised that the Family Foundation for the Foundation of Families doesn’t actually exist.

No Ridiculous Female Stereotype of the Week this week, though I’m open to suggestions.

So thoughts?  Comments?  Just want to tell me my blog sucks?  Let me know in the comments or on Twitter @TyTalksTV

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