One of the most maddening things about Jeff Daniels’ character in The Newsroom is that he’s constantly tripping over his world-famous-news-anchor-sized ego during whatever crusade he decides to fight. In a bid to seek out the better nature of a gossip columnist who found out he didn’t really have the flu but was taken off the 9/11 anniversary coverage for calling the Tea Party “The American Taliban,” he offers this bit of profundity: “We can be an inch more polite to each other. We can be decent.”
But he prefaces it with the half-joking, “All it takes is one great man.”
Will McAvoy can often be seen looking down on New York from his penthouse balcony. And that’s a great metaphor for his character. He greatly enjoys feeling above it all.
“Snark is the idiot’s version of wit, and I feel we’re being polluted by it,” he says in that same rambling diatribe. But what he’s trying to accomplish is already getting done much better by those kings of snark on Comedy Central, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. The opening scene feels like classic Daily Show, playing clips of all the Republican candidates talking about how much they love the troops, letting their words damn them after none comes to the defense of a gay active-duty soldier who gets booed by the Republican audience after asking a question about Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.
The thing is, the snark of Stewart makes the same point without the righteous indignation of McAvoy saying that those Floridians aren’t going to hell soon enough. When you have an audience of 1.5 million people and you use it to wag your finger, you better be beyond reproach, otherwise you’re just bullying the bullies.
But this is a review of the show The Newsroom, and not a review of the fictional news show inside it. And a flawed, egotistical hero who can’t forgive the woman he actually loves is a compellingly tragic figure to watch. Especially as he’s routinely taken down a few pegs from both above and below.
What will ultimately take him down into the depths is the false story about the U.S. using serin gas that his staff is chasing (the “Willie Pete” of the title is shorthand for the gas-producing white phosphorous that a former commando alleges was used during an extraction). Jim’s replacement Jerry is absolutely convinced of the veracity of a seemingly unbelievable tale of U.S. warcrimes. His diligence seems to payoff with a series of Tweets uncovered in the region near the date in question. The episode ends with a revelation that the audience has already been tipped is untrue, but that has the staff of News Night thinking they’ve stumbled upon Watergate.
Jim, meanwhile, has become so frustrated with the non-journalism happening on campaign busses where reporters are spoon-fed talking points along with their turkey sandwiches and tries to lead a revolt. His Jerry Maguire moment leaves him stranded by the pretty blonde writer who’s been giving him such a hard time and the witless, tactless comic relief. It’s at least good to see something happening on that demoralizing endless loop. If being on the campaign bus ever felt glamourous, it would take another McCain to restore that glory.
The Sloan-Don flirting is beginning in earnest now that he and Maggie are on the outs. And Maggie is busy preparing for what will be her disastrous trip to Africa. Neal continues his fight to get the network to pay attention to Occupy Wall Street. Charlie and Will prove to be really bad at blackmail. And Will ends up dating the gossip columnist, even though they both know he’s still in love with MacKenzie.
Overall, Will McAvory may be living up in the clouds, but the show grounds itself just enough in the much more mundane dramas of relating to each other to keep things interesting. And if it takes itself too seriously, it usually only does so when covering serious things.