About Last Night: The Newsroom “First Thing We Do, Let’s Kill All The Lawyers”

Well, I’m back.  Despite its best efforts to drive me off, I’m back for season 2 of The NewsroomIt’s not that I always hated this show, mind, I saw the pilot as most of you lot did and was very highly impressed.  The following episodes proceeded to squander said promise, for the most part, but in a way where it could, at one moment, set a montage to Fix You (in my opinion, one of the 10 worst songs in the world) before counterbalancing that suck by giving Jane Fonda five minutes to tear into some scenery.  Then it became pretty great for three episodes: the one where Will was high and had to report the death of Bin Laden, the one where Will was wrong and Olivia Munn got to demonstrate that maybe she was too good for Attack Of The Show after all, and the one where Neal actually had something to do!  Then, that final stretch…  Zero, that final stretch.

Yet, here I am for season 2.  Why, you ask?  Well, for one, I am a glutton for punishment with this stuff; I stuck Glee out for a full season and a half after it stopped being good.  For two, I still adore this show’s cast; I’d argue that it’s, if not the best, then at least my favourite cast on TV and I feel like tuning in just to know that they’re all still OK and still holding down steady, paying jobs.  And for three, this show has shown multiple times that it’s capable of being great.  That it can be smart, entertaining and, occasionally, inspiring television.  That it’s as good as its surface-level qualities would suggest.  Because, make no mistake, if you stop thinking, The Newsroom is one of the best shows on television.  It’s well shot, the dialogue has a great pacing and rhythm to it and every single cast member is giving everything their absolute best shot.  It’s when you look deeper that major, major problems start to appear.  Like how the tone is insufferably smug at points, or how the banter and jokes often aren’t actually that funny, or how pretty much every female character on this show is an unprofessional f*ck-up whose every action is either met with snide remarks from men or have men save them from their f*ck-up, or how everything to do with the relationship stuff can go and take a flying leap.

The rare sight of Mackenzie McHale being competent at her job.

Season 1 was at its best when everyone involved was reporting the news because everybody had to put aside their personal relationships and become halfway competent at their jobs.  This was the show that “We Just Decided To”, “Amen”, “Bullies” and “5/1” focussed on being, instead of an hour focussed on the two least interesting “will-they/won’t-they”s in recent TV history, Aaron Sorkin proclaiming just how eeeeeeevil the Tea Party are, and that all cable TV news should be reported by psychics.  But too often the show became column B and it was quite insufferable to see so much potential being wasted, with the finale, whilst not being as actively terrible as the closing minutes of “I Will Try To Fix You” and almost the entirety of “The Blackout Part II”, just being plain dull.

But, it’s been a year and this is a brand new season.  Everyone involved has had time to step back, go over past episodes, take in criticism, see what works and what didn’t and re-tool accordingly.  There’s been a complete change in the, massive air quotes here, ‘writing staff’, a fancy new title sequence that doesn’t make me feel like I’ve switched over to PBS by accident (in fact, I now feel like I’ve accidentally flicked over to House Of Cards, but that’s beside the point) and a promise that this season would be different.  That this time they’d get it right, that this would be the season that they would knock it out of the park, play to what worked, create nine straight hours of exceedingly high quality.

And, for the first 30 minutes of “First Thing We Do, Let’s Kill All The Lawyers”, it seemed like they had.  It wasn’t fantastic television, by any means, but it was a huge improvement over the back half of season 1.  Dealing with the fallout of having Will McAvoy go on live television and, for pretty much a straight hour, call the Tea Party “the American Taliban”, the show finally started punishing its characters for supposedly doing The Right Thing.  ACNs standing in the world has plummeted as, funnily enough, nobody particularly wants to associate themselves with such a loose cannon of a corporation, one that attempts to do dealings with the very people that its cable news staff viciously assaults on air.  Will is pulled off the channel’s 9/11 anniversary coverage as punishment, an act which starts firmly shoving him back to being more neutral as an on-air anchor but eats away at him off-air.  Will pretty much being an invincible hero when it came to doing… anything, really, was one of season 1’s bigger underlying problems and punishing him for going too far last season is a good way to start making your audience actually start caring about what happens to him again.  There’s only so long you can paint a character as an invincible, can-do-no-wrong figure of Christ-like proportions before people start crying foul and Sorkin finally seems to realise this.

Mackenzie McHale was another one of last season’s major faults, someone who flitted so often between being a useless, unprofessional tit and someone who calls out other people on being useless, unprofessional tits whilst herself still being a useless, unprofessional tit that I often wondered as to how the hell she managed to become any kind of producer (what kind of EP doesn’t know how to use a Blackberry?).  Fortunately, the first half of this week’s episode seemed to be on some hell-bent mission to rescue her character, portraying her as a far more professional producer who had a far better control over the goings-on on her show, took Will to task when he was off his game and was industrious when problems arose.  Finally, one full season into the game, Newsroom shows why Mackenzie is supposedly one of the best producers in the business.

And as for stuff not relating to characters, the show pulled its focus back to what it does best, reporting the news and how the news works.  Smartly keeping the investigating of real world issues (this week, the uprising in Libya) to reality instead of having ACN as some kind of paragon of news (reporting on it in a manner that no other news channel could have done); the technical hiccups provided a good sense of dramatic tension, seeing Sloan push for coverage on drone strikes – and the subsequent panel, mostly glossed over in montage; another good decision because I dread to think what Sorkin might have pulled if we just had five straight minutes of people debating the usage of military drones – in a less “THIS IS THE BIGGEST NEWS STORY IN EVERYTHING EVER” kept things down-to-Earth instead of smug, and the confident controlling of the running order during the pitch meeting finally gave me a sense that these people are professionals and that they do all deserve to keep their jobs.

Could the first half have been better?  Yeah, of course.  Jim’s decision to cover the Romney campaign trail for two weeks would have been far better served if it was made by his general desire to be a go-getter rather than as the result of Maggie spurning his affections.  Though he is one of my favourite characters, I’d prefer to know for certain as to whether Don is supposed to be an arsehole or a cool snarky producer instead of some schizophrenic combination of the two.  The dialogue could have been sharper, overall, lacking a fair bit of bite with the rhythm seeming a bit off.  And Maggie continues to be useless and terrible which sticks out a lot more since Mackenzie was being righted.  But it was still a very commendable step in the right direction that made me more confident in the direction of the season.

Then the second half happened.

The frequent sight of Jim making a terrible decision based on his awful sub-plot.

I can pin it down to two specific scenes when my opinion on this episode began to shift right back down to the negative.  The first was when Neal went off to an Occupy Wall Street meeting, the second was the Sloan and Don conversation after her show.  The first was painfully boring, for one.  Nobody seemed to have any chemistry with one another and the awkward humour the show tried to drag out of Neal’s inexperience landed with so many thuds I was terrified that he was going to bring up Bigfoot again.  The West Wing, which I’ve been making my way through at long last, had a way of being able to make conversations about complex legislation extremely interesting and pacey, like you were watching people in CTU trying to feed Jack Bauer vital information about a terrorist plot in 24, and that’s missing here.  Instead you have… two people talking awkwardly about political ideals.  With an undercurrent of shipping (please, please don’t let those two hook up down the line) and an awfully cringe-worthy line from Neal near the end that suddenly marked the return of the psychic news reporters from season 1.

The other, Sloan and Don’s conversation about Sloan’s confession of being attracted to Don from last season’s finale (which was a scene I’d been able to successfully blot out of my memory until it was brought up again here for very good reason), heralded the return of the Shipping Train.  Choo choo!  The Maggie/Don/Jim/Sloan/WhoeverTheFrakElseWantsToGetInvolvedThisWeek love… dodecahedron(?) is the definition of unengaging.  If you were to look up the word “unengaging” in the dictionary, you would find a picture of this plotline and the accompanying collective shrug of every human being in existence.  It’s not that nobody involved has chemistry, it’s that the writing of it is absolutely dire and makes everybody it touches look like a colossal moron incapable of just making a decision, going with it and not letting it impact on their professional lives.  The pitch meeting sequence from the first half almost fell down into terrible because the entire room started questioning the Jim decision, which only served to make every single staff member look awful.

Meanwhile, Don’s breakup with Maggie could have been handled well (it was certainly acted as well as Thomas Sadoski and Alison Pill could have managed) if it weren’t for three things.  1) It was facilitated by Don finding a YouTube video of Maggie’s anguished breakdown from last season’s finale (oh, how I hate that finale so) which is a real thing that happened in an HBO drama in 2013.  2) Maggie’s tearful belief that “[she] should be the one who gets to leave” managed to ruin that scene all by itself (it pissed me off for reasons that I can’t fathom).  And 3) I have a horrible, awful feeling that Don is going to go running to Sloan and start up a relationship that will cause me to vomit blood in anger.

The most memorable thing that Will ended up doing this week was singing the lyrics of “Friday” to himself whilst waiting to get back on air. I’ll admit that I liked that; laughed a fair bit.

In its second half; the episode started bogging itself down with the terrible relationship stuff and having its characters somehow be the keystones of major world events which consequently saw the writing take a severe nosedive in quality.  Suddenly turning Mackenzie back into being an incompetent goofball reduced to begging Will for cab money because she left her wallet at the office is actually one of my lesser complaints.  When the second half wasn’t being actively terrible and annoying, it was being deathly boring and all of the progress of the first half was subsequently vented out of an airlock.  We ended up right back where we started.

And that’s why I found “…Let’s Kill All The Lawyers” so frustratingly maddening, far more so than any season 1 episode.  Because when season 1 episodes sucked, they mostly just plain sucked.  They didn’t spend the first half proving that they didn’t have to suck before suddenly deciding that they were going to suck and that you were going to shut up and take it.  The first half that focussed on punishing its cast for going over the line, on the act of reporting the news (for the most part) and on its female characters being competent at their jobs gave way to a second half about its characters being right about everything, on the show’s cancerous tumours that are its relationship subplots and on its female characters being the butt of 900 incompetency gags.  The Newsroom is better than that.  I saw that better show for at least 25 minutes this week, but those second 25 minutes have me very, very worried that it will not be able to grow out of its old, unhealthy habits.

(Also, this season is being framed around a deposition that I’m going to refrain from commenting on until later in the season’s run, when I can get a better grasp on what’s actually going on.)

Grade, First Half: B

Grade, Second Half: D+

Overall Grade: C

Stray Observations

  • I’m not certain if I’ll be reviewing The Newsroom on a weekly basis.  I’d like to, because I really enjoy dissecting this program, no matter how much it infuriates me, but I happen to be situated on the wrong side of the Atlantic and my watching of this show relies upon methods that you and the authorities needn’t concern yourselves about.  It doesn’t return here in the UK until the end of next month and, by the time it would have gotten going, I’ll hopefully be in university and without the digital service required to view it legally.  So, we’ll see where we end up but, rest assured, I’ll be sticking this out to the bitter end however it goes.
  • If nothing else, I’m going to stick it out in order to find out just what the holy hell happened to Maggie’s hair.  I mean, Zero be damned, what in the actual f*ck did you people do with Alison Pill?!
  • Sorority Girl is still there, and if she could just secretly turn into Newsroom’s version of Donna Moss, I’m going to have no complaints whatsoever about this development.
  • Whilst on the subject, I need to ask this question: How does one man go from writing CJ Cregg and Donna Moss to writing Maggie and Mackenzie in the space of a decade?  How does one man crash that hard at writing female characters?  Going from two of the best in television history to two of the worst on screen today, just… how?!
  • In case you were wondering, Mackenzie’s full name is Mackenzie Morgan McHale.  UUUURRRGGGGHHHHH!!!
  • What I will say about the deposition is that it seemingly revolves around ACN reporting on a news story that the US government would rather they didn’t and which caused them to earn over 5 million viewers.  Most cable news networks average 1.5 million, as they point out.  So perhaps this is the season where Newsroom ventures off into an alternate reality and stops tying itself down with real world events?  We’ll have to see, but colour me intrigued, all the same…
  • The Lansigs have a few ideas as to why the Tea Party are snubbing them.  “You know, I think that they might have taken being called ‘The American Taliban’ as an insult.”
  • “Stop, stop, stop, stop!  The clock’s run out on this conversation.  I am going to stop coming to these pitch meetings if you can’t keep focussed, all of these personal tangents are maddening.  It’s like trying to play golf behind a quintet of blind people!”  Don, there, accurately transcribing my problems with this show.
  • “A bit of advice: pair your aims back down to one singular objective.  Otherwise people are just going to think you’re a laughing stock.”  In The Newsroom universe, Neal is pretty much responsible for Occupy Wall Street.  Yes, I am repeatedly slamming my head on my desk at that knowledge.
  • Sorkin, we get it, you’re a fan of The Who.  Please stop awkwardly inserting references to them into this show.  Thank you.

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