The Newsroom Review: "Amen" (Episode 1.05)
In last week’s review, I admitted to “hate-watching” the first few episodes of this series, and I want to clarify that point. I approached the series with great optimism, but I felt the first sampling was so awful that it warranted noting. My only experience with Aaron Sorkin had been The Social Network and Moneyball, both of which were solid films. Ruminating on this between episodes, I had a Sorkpiphany: The subjects of those movies, Mark Zuckerberg and Billy Beane, respectively, were more intelligent than their peers. The focus of each story, in fact, is how that superior intellect allowed them to excel in their chosen fields. Neither of these characters were offensive because they were based on real people and their remarkable achievements.
On the other hand, many people (myself included) perceive the hyper-intelligence of the characters to be a major flaw of The Newsroom in large part because these broadcast journalists did not exist at the time these stories broke. As such, it is insulting to the hardworking broadcasters and thoughtful news consumers to suggest that it could be done better when the fiction Sorkin presents is aided by hindsight.
Many of the show’s flaws are also tied to its fictionality. Sorkin’s shows, particularly The Newsroom, rely on a certain level of verisimilitude—that is, the essence of reality through the use of real events or issues. This creates something of a docudrama feel that creates dissonance with Sorkin’s tendency toward melodramatic storyline and character development.
“Amen” managed to steer away from the impossibly intelligent characters as Will and friends covered both the Egyptian revolution in early 2011 and the Wisconsin teachers’ strike. This was a relief, and it allowed the show to examine some of the more interesting processes of broadcast journalism—the title of the episode refers to a young journalist in Egypt that Neal conjures from the internet to cover the coup. Further, the story gently nods toward the necessity for young journalists to be proficient in a variety of storytelling methods, be they written, video or otherwise.
All that said, Sorkin and his cast of recently fired writers don’t completely avoid Egregious Town. The episode is still riddled with a glut of ludicrous emotional outbursts in professional settings that take away from the show’s believability. Maggie’s roommate, Lisa, who last episode was foisted upon Jim, storms into the newsroom intent on making a scene, and both Neal and Don hurtle various body parts into hard surfaces in fits of urgent rage (although, in Neal’s defense, punching a cackling Rush Limbaugh in video form must be exceedingly cathartic).
In other corners of the episode, Sorkin continues to paint the tabloid industry in a manner that suggests Alec Baldwin ghostwrote this plotline. Will’s gossip writer tormentors have carried over from the last episode in which they attempted to sully his name. This time, however, they’re out to frame MacKenzie as an unethical incompetent who uses News Night to gain exposure for her (ex-)boyfriend with political ambitions. Will attempts to buy away the story, but decides to tough talk the Evil Disney Queen that is Nina Howard of TMI instead when she creepily says, “You know, you’re not so different, you and I.” (Okay, not really.)
This episode stepped down from the soapbox the series was firmly mounted upon through the first four episodes, and the quality improved as a result. That being said, the series still has quite a bit of room for improvement, and one episode does not necessarily mark a turnaround. Let’s hope, however, that Aaron Sorkin had an epiphany, too.