THE NEWSROOM 1.02 ‘News Night 2.0’

Olivia Munn joins the cast as Mac and Will's secret history is revealed. But Aaron Sorkin's new series still lacks dramatic punch.

William Bibbianiby William Bibbiani

Episode Title: ‘News Night 2.0’

Written by: Aaron Sorkin

Directed by: Alex Graves

Previously on “The Newsroom”:

Episode 1.01 'We Just Decided To'

Story:

Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels) opens the episode in his apartment, where new neighbors are building new additions and causing his ceiling to fall down. He’s spending his time learning the names of his new young staff. He goes to work and tells his executive producer MacKenzie “Mac” MacHale (Emily Mortimer) that he’s concerned about her staff’s inexperience, and makes her promise not to tell anyone about why their relationship ended.

At the daily meeting, Mac addresses their new e-mail system (which is confusing now) and introduces “News Night 2.0,” which will only cover stories if they are 1) information needed in the voting booth, 2) the best possible argument and 3) in historical context. She later adds a fourth rule that states that there are not two sides to every story: there could be one, two or even dozens. Mac shoots down a potential guest who would put a human face on the current immigration issue raised by Arizona’s new bill, which allows law enforcement officials to ask for paperwork of anyone suspected of being an illegal immigrant.

The ongoing issue throughout the episode is News Night’s insistence on emphasizing the news over “good television.” Will has daily interviews with an ACN employee named Reese about his ratings, and is advised to continue leading the show with the oil spill, even though it’s old news. Charlie (Sam Waterston) forbids the meetings, which make Will conflicted about the direction of the show. Reese tells Will he should comment and defend ex-Governor Palin’s recent and mockable comments to maintain his image. Meanwhile, Mac hires a new economic analyst, Sloan (Olivia Munn), who is attractive enough to sell the viewers on potentially boring subject matter. Sloan also reveals that the entire office thinks that Will cheated on Mac, which she emphatically insists is not the case.

Jim (John Gallagher Jr.) tries to coach Maggie (Alison Pill) through a pre-interview, but she’s insulted that he thinks she can’t handle it. But when she does, she loses the episode’s big guest, Jan Brewer, because she dated the Governor’s press aide in college. He made her hide under the bed when he ex-girlfriend suddenly came over, and they had sex on top of her. Stuck without their main guest, the show has to settle for a gun nut, a questionably qualified professor and a second runner-up in the Miss America pageant. Also, Mac accidentally sends an e-mail to the entire staff that reveals she actually cheated on Will. She has a meltdown and tries to prevent anyone from seeing the e-mail, but Will immediately finds out and they have a long argument about it. Mac says she didn’t realize how much she loved Will until she cheated on him, Will says he wishes that she just hadn’t told him about it.

The show goes on the air, and it’s a mess. The guests are atrocious and Will’s comments about Sarah Palin are awkward and misplaced. Afterwards, Mac confronts Will about his decision to go behind her back with the Palin segment. She says the problem with the guests was a mistake, while Will’s decision was intentional and made out of fear. As the crew unwinds in a nearby karaoke bar, Maggie argues with her boyfriend Don (Thomas Sadoski) about not supporting her decision to stay on News Night. Jim tries to make her feel better, and even make his move, but Maggie decides instead to patch things up with Don. The episode closes with Will promising Mac that he’s on board with the show’s new direction.

Breakdown:

“The Newsroom” settles in a bit this episode, now that the large ensemble cast has been introduced and the plot can take precedence. That plot is a little thin on the ground, prone to contrivance and devoid of subtext, but at least it hums along and entertains without getting too preachy this week.

What “The Newsroom’s” pilot lacked, and what this episode continues to lack, is antagonism. The pressure placed on the cast of characters is strictly self-induced, reducing the level of tension Aaron Sorkin’s new series can achieve. The consequence for not putting on the best news show ever is to put on a news show with high ratings instead.

The only downside would be Mac’s righteous indignation over such a development. Without someone or some entity fighting against Mac’s best intentions, the show’s principle conceit continues to feel wishy-washy at best. One gets the impression that they’re going for “Capra-esque,” especially with the series' impossibly blunt sermonizing, but Capra understood the importance of raising the stakes to spur his heroes towards greatness.

In contrast, Sorkin has cleared the path for his protagonists, and only deters them with conflicting character dynamics and the daily grind of putting on a news program. At times, this works very well: the deadline of putting on a live, nightly news series means that last-minute screw-ups like losing a guest places the news team under serious pressure, and that along with their inexperience occasionally makes for strong television.

But this episode’s reliance on sitcom clichés like “Oh no, I accidentally sent a personal e-mail to the entire office” takes it back down a notch. Emily Mortimer sells her breakdown very well, bringing “News Night 2.0’s” biggest laughs, but the plot point was predictable from the moment they established the e-mail changes at the start of the episode, and suffers as a result.

The irony of “The Newsroom” is that Aaron Sorkin’s trademarked ratatat dialogue plays better in either small chunks or ensemble scenes, in which every character gets to shoot off a zinger and then retreat back into the periphery. Longer exchanges, especially between supposed love interests Maggie and Jim, rapidly devolve into white noise, as efforts to make them spunky, witty and/or independent keep the characters talking past each other instead of engaging on a human level that might actually form an emotional bond.

You know, the kind of bond that makes people fall in love. You know, the goal of any romantic subplot. You know, the thing “The Newsroom” is only achieving in name only. Mac told Jim to develop a crush on Maggie, so it’s happening. The same detached feeling comes from Sorkin’s writing, who also apparently decided that the Jim and Maggie should be together via logic instead of chemistry.

But those are the flaws. The quality of “News Night 2.0” stems from the episode’s zippy plotline and increasingly developed supporting cast, many of whom make their presence felt with only a few looks and lines to their credit. The office feels lived in and well populated. The only thing left is to give them something more dramatic to do, and something more intimate to say. We’ll see if Sorkin & Co. can pull that off as “The Newsroom” develops.