'The Newsroom' review: Killing Osama bin Laden, committing screwball comedy, and bullying a flight attendant

So last night we saw how the ACN news staff would have covered the killing of Osama bin Laden on The Newsroom: With an anchor who by his own admission was “wasted … completely baked,” and in the midst of a newsroom romance that dares not speak its name.

Creator-writer Aaron Sorkin pulled what was arguably his most delicate balancing act on this series to date, decorating what he depicted as an extremely heroic, grave, and serious act with the frills of broad comedy and lovey-dovey looniness. Plus, Jeff Daniels’ Will McAvoy and John Gallagher, Jr.’s Jim Harper jammed to Jonathan Edwards’ oldie “Sunshine,” which was fun.

The May 1, 2011, date was placed onscreen as we were shown how the cable news network would hear rumors, track confirmation, and finally broadcast the news that Navy SEALS had killed bin Laden. As it happened, this occurred on a night when a reluctant Will was throwing a party for the one-year, one-week anniversary of the new, saving-the-culture version of News Night. The staff was partying, and Will had consumed two pot cookies plus Vicodin for some old athletic injury pain.

Alison Pill’s Maggie was witness to a video phone call between Jim and Lisa, during which it emerged that Jim had told Lisa he loved her, out of politeness and cowardice after she’d told him he loved her. By Maggie’s vehement logic and rules of screwball-comedy decorum, this meant Jim had to immediately break up with Lisa. The subtext, as always, was that Maggie had been freaked out by this exchange because she’s in love with Jim, even though she’s still seeing Don, who was stuck on a plane with Olivia Munn’s Sloan and big-slab news anchor Elliott (played by the excellent David Harbour).

In interviews, Sorkin has defended his often poorly-reviewed Newsroom by saying that he writes for grand emotions and likes mixing genres within any given hour. To the specific charge that he has treated the lead female characters (such as Maggie and Emily Mortimer’s producer MacKenzie McHale) as often flighty, foolish creatures, Sorkin told the scores of TV critics gathered in Los Angeles last week at the Television Critic Association that “I completely respect that opinion and one-hundred-percent disagree with” this notion, saying that they were shown being “good at their jobs … plainly smart. And once you nail that down, you can have them slip on as many banana peels as you want. That’s just comedy.”

Fair enough, and in this episode, you could argue that Will is the biggest silly of them all, with his stoned shenanigans. Daniels continues to deliver a superb performance, even managing to make amusing a brief scene in which his consciousness-impaired mind could not fathom how to tie a Windsor knot before going on the air to deliver the bin Laden death news.

But here’s the element of last night’s Newsroom that stuck in my craw and unfortunately does not permit me to glide into full enjoyment of the show. That airplane that Don, Sloan, and Elliott were stuck on, being held to their seats, even as news was breaking, because the plane needed to taxi to a terminal that hadn’t yet been freed up? That flight contained a female flight attendant who laid down the literal law to them, that the trio could not leave their seats according to FAA regulations, and for this, she was ridiculed by Sorkin via Don.

In Thomas Sadoski’s marvelously intense performance, Don here and earlier has been shown to be an arrogant, cocky, yet fundamentally insecure man. Which is okay if the character is sparring with Will or Maggie or Jim, Don’s equals. But last night, Don sneered at the flight attendant’s rules, smug with his Higher Calling Of Broadcast Or At Least Cable News, and asked this woman to “start using logic and see where that takes us” — i.e., shut up and let him get up and confer with his colleagues over his very important job.

If you want to lose me in a TV show or movie, show me a character who is in no position to defend her- or himself being abused by a blatantly more powerful character who revels in his or her superiority. The woman cast as the flight attendant played it primly and intensely — she was directed to be humorless, the better to be a target for the show’s scorn, which prizes humor even in the face of emergency above all else. By the time Don referred to her as “Flight Attendant Crazy Lady,” I was insulted on her behalf; if I’d been aboard the plane I’d have been daydreaming about giving Don a good bip on his beezer to quiet him. When you start thinking that the attitude of the characters might well express the feelings of their creator, it takes you out of the drama.

And so even though The Newsroom revved things up with fine patriotic fervor, with the good folks in the ACN newsroom standing at attention as Will, suddenly able to read his copy flawlessly whereas minutes ago he could not tie his own necktie, set up President Obama’s announcement, the hour was once again marred by irritating elements.

Remember how last week’s episode was titled “Bullies”? This week’s episode, titled “5/1,” contained an act of bullying that nearly sent it spinning. In dramatic terms, Sorkin gave equal storytelling weight to the killing of bin Laden; to Maggie’s ridiculous, but by the terms of the show’s comedy-logical, insistence on Jim breaking up with Lisa even as they’d been instructed by Sam Waterston’s Charlie to spend no more than “three seconds” to pause while reporting this story; and the ritual humiliation of a flight attendant by more powerful personages.

I was with him for two out of three of those plot points, but the third one suggested that when it comes to the show’s woman problem, I would politely respect Sorkin’s opinion of disagreement, and disagree with his disagreement by at least 66 33 1/3rd percent.

Twitter: @kentucker


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