Some disclosure before I recap Episode 7 of Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom: I had lived in Brooklyn, NY, for 12 years as of Sept. 11, 2001, lived under the plume, share with most New Yorkers a disinclination to gab overly about it and, entitled to or not, tend to look sideways at anyone who waxes glib or maudlin about it.
So when I look sideways at the The Newsroom’s glib- and maudlin-impregnated coverage of the operation that killed Osama bin Laden, it should be understood that I damn well get the gravitas of the event. The borrowed gravitas Sorkin rammed into his narrative Sunday night, however, is a different matter. “TV’s Frank” posted on his Facebook page Sunday night, “Wondering if the budget for tonight’s Newsroom episode will be reported as PAC money for Obama’s reelection campaign.” It was that duhvious and folds neatly into the glassy-eyed Saints-Walk-Among-Us message Sorkin has constructed as the vertebra struggling to hold this show upright.
Still more of that kicked things off, yet another party where yet more awesome things are revealed about Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels), onetime node on the ass of the information age, remade as curmudgeonly News Messiah by the exec producer he routinely abuses psychologically, MacKenzie McHale (Emily Mortimer). We have already learned McAvoy is a former prosecutor and an adept guitarist who sometimes “jams” with Leonard Cohen, and this week we get to see him play and sing an awful classic-rock ballad and find out he was once a major pitching prospect until he hurt his arm, for which he uses medicinal weed.
Sorkin has yet to reveal that McAvoy was also an Apollo astronaut, once knocked out Cassius Clay and is that guy who drinks Dos Equis, but patience.
The key thing going on, however, is that news division chief Sam Waterston gets a call from a prospective Deep Throat-esque über-source, who proffers a litmus test on his legitimacy. At 9pm tonight, May 1, 2011, he says, the White House will announce major stuff. If you were wondering why the News Night crew was celebrating the one-year-and-one-week anniversary of News Night 2.0, as McHale’s do-news-good imperative has been dubbed, it is because this makes it happen the night Obama nailed bin Laden, “05/01,” per the episode’s title.
Exhaustingly, stuff doesn’t just happen on The Newsroom, it happens poignantly. Sorkin’s Deus Ex Machina has no off-switch. Sloan (Olivia Munn) and Sorkin Archetype 5 (D-Baggish Pro Who Nevertheless Has Your Back When the Chips Are Down) are fitfully plane-bound on the tarmac when they start getting tips on their smartphones, prompting SA5 to act D-Bag enough to the awesome flight attendant to be banned from all transportation-including-his-car for life. Once they’ve zeroed the story in, but pilots have emerged from the cockpit to punch him, he realizes the significance to airline pilots and solemnly tells them the news. The two pilots share a meaningful glance and shake hands, leaving him unpunched.
McAvoy gets stoned conveniently enough to dash away from his bodyguard Lonny, who chases and is thus chased by cops, who escort him to the studio to confirm his credentials. There McAvoy tells Lonny, ex-Army guy, the looming story, and gives Lonny the privilege of telling them, the first responders. It is Supervillain-Death Christmas. Then there is staffer Neil’s girlfriend, irrelevant to show until, this week, we find out her father worked in the World Trade Center so she can look somberly across the skyline.
Waterston tries to cool the break-it-first mania, telling McHale they will find out when they throw to the White House feed.
“America thinks bin Laden’s alive,” she says. “If I can make him dead one minute sooner, my entire life in journalism up until this point would have been worth it.”
Supervillain-Death Christmas is for everyone. This is one of about 17 buttons in the episode Sorkin has jabbed to make us all cheer. Stoned or not, for example, there is no way McAvoy is not anchoring this story. When they confirm the nut of it, Sam Waterston again puts the brakes on. He tells a story about Gulf War coverage when Scuds were landing in Tel Aviv and his coverage led to helping Iraqis zero in on targets, but it feels we are being directed towards a vertebra point, that this is a moment to let Great Men be Great.
But, uh-oh! Hotshot Washington anchor has gotten wind of their confirmation. On the horn with McHale, Hotshot is gung-ho to go wildcat and announce, so MacKenzie cuts her feed like a whack on the snout. When linked up again, McHale says, “Move one inch in that direction again and you’re blacked out for the night. The decision to go will be made by the president of the news division [Waterston] and the announcement will be made by the face and voice of Atlantis Cable News, Will McAvoy.”
Ultimately, again, whatever hard work someone did a world away, the heroism somehow goes transferred to the sagely authority who tells people somebody did it and who, in this case, throws it to another sagely authority figure, Obama’s address-to-the-nation rolling over the closing credits. News Night 2.0 has carved its niche as deconstructor of the Official Story, but when it is Obama’s Official Story, face value will do. And, again, it is not Sorkin’s politics that offend, it is how stupidly he wields them. The show lurches with every clunky machination to make us feel exactly as he does and, however genuine his sentiment, this assures it comes off as contrived and, thus, cheap.
I have strong feelings regarding the “removal” of bin Laden — and of course it was a good moment for Obama — but here’s the thing, which I have said every damn 9/11 anniversary: Don’t presume in your facile, overwrought TV way to tell me what it means. I’ll keep Supervillain-Death Christmas in my own way.