Monday, August 5, 2013

The Newsroom recap: Innocence lost

Season 2 Episode 4: Unintended Consequences


'Sometimes mud, sometimes genocide': Maggie recounts her traumatic experience in Africa.

This just in...

Damn you, Mr. Sorkin. Just as I was cosying into the anchor's chair and getting the hang of this recap business – you know, tongue-in-cheek throwaways and the acerbic wit that comes with the benefit of hindsight (hey, much like The Newsroom itself!) – you come along and change the entire gameplay.

I'm not smug. I'm having a crisis of confidence. 

For this week saw a sensitive, sombre change of tone not present thus far in the dramedy, but certainly now a welcome one (it can't all be zingers and Sam Waterston's comic chops). And so our Greater Fools recap takes a slightly more serious diversion too.

But this week also saw another dramatic trend continue – a trend in the subtext. Many may have noticed this season's renovated Newsroom has seen Sorkin respond to the numerous criticisms of the show's first season in an unusual way – by writing his critics into the series. In fact, he's often scripted conversations that resemble a hypothetical to-and-fro with his denouncers.


It's allowed him to justify, and sometimes tweak, the maligned issues, but more interestingly it's given him dynamic content and story ideas too, allowing him to take that conflict and internalise it in the show.

'The professionalism is way too idealistic'. No problem – embroil them in a federal lawsuit.

'The female characters are too weak.' No worry – send Maggie on a mission of self-discovery to Africa.

It's clever, if a little self-serving. And typical of the sophomore season of a show.

And by far and away the greatest criticism, especially if our reader comments each week are anything to go by (yes, we read the comments), is the moralising and preachiness. People can't stand the proselytising and self-righteousness that come as a natural byproduct of Sorkin's 'this-is-how-it-should-be' approach. Those who love the show take it in their stride, and those who despise it use it as a justification of their loathing.

And if you're in the latter camp, you're in luck this week, because if you peer between the lines you'll realise Sorkin took you and wrote you by design into the show! How nifty!

This episode tellingly explores 'Unintended Consequences', and certainly there were a few of those Sorkin wasn't anticipating when he premiered The Newsroom last year. See if you can spot the parallels between the quarrels within this week's episode, and the quarrels out of it.

Unintended Consequence #1

We hear about the wreckage before we see it. Activist Shelley Wexler is unaware of the freight-train line of questioning she is about to receive from Will on-air discussing the Occupy movement. He ragdolls her, plays mind games, and then lays into the wafer-thin mechanics of the early movement.

(Feel free to imagine the below with 1960s Batman sound-effects).

"I'm trying to find the virtue of a leaderless movement where everyone's voices are heard." Ka-Pow!

"So which system would you replace capitalism with?" Thwack!

"Is there any chance you're not taking this seriously?" Zzwapp!

And hell hath no fury like a woman humiliated on national primetime television. But when it's discovered that she may be the vital link to a source on Operation Genoa, everyone's backflipping over themselves to appease her, not least Neal who she ceremoniously sucker-punched in anger, and thus graciously put a hold on exposing us to any further URST.

So Neal tags in team reinforcements, one-by-one. Sloan - who reveals herself to be the only woman in the Western world who hasn't seen Leonardo Di Caprio sink to the bottom of the ocean – tries to dazzle her with flattery, but is accused of being just as condescending as Will. Ditto Don, who does his best to offer peace but it seems, like the rest of The Newsroom team, can't resist slipping in one last self-righteous potshot.

So it's left to Will to salvage the situation. And he does so with grace and a surprising humility. He admits to using her as a handy prop, a chance to burnish his own reputation as a moderate, and apologises. And he turns to add one last thing:

"I'm not smug. I'm having a crisis of confidence."

The scenario borders a little too close to reality. We have a disgruntled citizen objecting to the constant condescension and arrogance she perceives around her. Sound familiar? As I said, it wouldn't be the first time that Sorkin's characters' undoings reflect his own - self-referencing has been rife throughout the second season.

Read into it however you will, go as meta as you like, but there's no denying that Sorkin is addressing those who feel the show is belittling. What better way to prove your naysayers wrong than use their criticisms to improve the depth of your characters? Touche.

Unintended Consequence #2

Back on the chain gang, I mean press tour, with Jim, Hallie and turkey-sandwich dude, the trio are still slumming it after their attempt at a journalistic revolution last week.

Jim continues to persist for thirty minutes with Romney, to which press officer Taylor – clearly badly in need of a glass of red – promptly and accurately tells him where to shove his thirty minutes. And with that leverage, Jim gets his interview.

But before Jim can gleefully skip off and fine-tune his interrogation, he decides to pass on the privilege to Hallie, who he takes pity on after hearing her lambasted by her tweedy, chauvinistic boss Evan (I never much liked that name either).

But (predictably) she finds out, and so we get our second 'hell hath no fury' moment of the episode.

And again Hallie's outburst shares something in common with those outbursts of Newsroom critics. Hallie objects to the notion she can't think for herself, or fight her own battles. She objects to the idea that she needs someone hovering above her, guiding her and force-feeding her answers as if she's incapable of getting there herself. And she objects to being pitied or looked down on.

Yes, Sorkin has again written his critics into the show, but this time he gives himself right of reply.

For then we get Jim's response, and if any one line will go down in time immemorial as epitomising the entire modus operandi of The Newsroom, it will be this:

"Everything about it felt right, but if it was insulting, I still don't care."

Full stop. End of questioning. Coincidence or not, it's too perfect to pass up an opportunity to see the parallels between art and life.

Needless to say, it sees Jim hauled back to New York, having blown his exclusive interview. But not before we get the Jim-Hallie kiss we'd waited four episodes to see. Sexual tension resolved.

Unintended Consequence #3

After a first season where Maggie was chastised for being weak, ditzy and completely incapable of holding her own life together without the assistance of men, we have a character arc that specifically focuses on shedding her of that image.

And so we're back in the deposition room with Maggie 2.0 (or 'the onion', as litigator Rebecca Halliday duly compares) to uncover what really went on in Africa.

After taking much joy in bursting Halliday's Westernised bubble ("What could possibly cause a fluctuation of four to nine hours in the travel time?" "Sometimes mud, sometimes genocide"), Maggie recounts her war story.

As it stands, the heroine's journey took an altogether different route. Sidetracked from their final destination, they rested for a night in a local orphanage. Cue adorable doe-eyed Daniel, enamoured with blonde hair he's never encountered before, who fast endears himself to Maggie as they bond over picture books.

But thieves strike in the night, trying to steal cameras and equipment, and Maggie's attempt to rescue Daniel via piggy-back sees him take a bullet meant for her. It visibly shatters her, and her mission of self-discovery discovers something else entirely.

And we now realise why Will leapt to her defence so whole-heartedly in the first episode, why he said if it happened to you "you would kill yourself for the rest of your life. You'd sit in the middle of the room and cry forever."

So ask, and ye shall receive, for here's Sorkin's reply to the Maggie critics – a chain of events that would remove anyone of their innocence. And he embellishes it with a revamped hairstyle to boot.

So what's the moral here? Complain hard enough, and Sorkin might listen. You can't blame him for not taking the feedback onboard.

And now for the News In Brief...

The Aaron Sorkin Musical Variety Hour

Sorkin took a break this week from his musical interludes – the sombre tone didn't really warrant it – but it allows us to hypothesise what he could have used to nicely wrap up the episode in a melodic package. In line with the theme of the episode, perhaps You Can't Always Get What You Want by The Rolling Stones?

The Zuckerberg Zinger Award

This week, it's a tie!

I couldn't split between Mac assuring Dantana she respected his Genoa tip – "I can't ignore the evidence. It's not like I'm in congress!" – and Neal's advice to Shelley before she walks into the lion's den that is Will McAvoy's guest chair: "Don't refer to the 'mainstream media' – it always sounds like a losing team complaining about the ref".

Um, a bit far?

I still am yet to get over how unbelievable the Genoa tip is turning out to be. Not only is Twitter now a source of verification – because, of course, some casual villager in Pakistan is going to be well-versed in military jargon – but now we just happen to have a source appear out of nowhere, a friend of a friend of someone Neal met in a park. This is boding well.

Terry Smith is up next with the Capitol Report.
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