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Monday, August 27, 2012

The Newsroom: "The Greater Fool"

There was a moment early in “The Greater Fool”, the first-season finale of The Newsroom, when I sat up in my chair in surprise. Will McAvoy, lying in a hospital bed after being driven to self-medicate by an unflattering profile in New York magazine, is going over the various things said about him in the profile: how he’s self-important, delusional, misguided, bombastic, and doing a poor impersonation of Edward R. Murrow. At the end of cataloguing these insults, Will makes a shocking admission: they’re all spot-on. Will realizes that his changes were driven by egomania, and he seems willing to change again, to become more humble, less incendiary, less convinced of his moral superiority.

And then Mackenzie McHale opened her mouth, and our hero’s path to self-realization was closed forever. Like I wrote last week, The Newsroom could easily be viewed, and more readily enjoyed, as a show about the cult forming around the charismatic figure of Will McAvoy, with Mackenzie the chief acolyte. In the hospital scene, despite assaulting him with a pillow mere moments before, she fulfills her greatest purpose on the show: making sure Will never, ever, questions himself or his superiority ever again.

It’s a scene that is staggeringly easy to read as a meta-commentary on the show itself. Will would here represent the parts of Aaron Sorkin’s psyche that realize the faults of his creation, and Mackenzie his superego, that part of him which believes that he is on a righteous crusade himself.

That, in the end, is the principal problem of The Newsroom. The show is essentially the product of one man’s consciousness, and there is too little to mitigate or improve upon it. Sorkin has achieved so much that HBO is allowing him to do whatever he wants, and he has taken that creative freedom and used it to stage arguments that he knows he can win, settling every old score along the way.

Too much of this show is devoted to establishing the church of Will McAvoy, and even worse, doing it by merely having other characters constantly talk about how great he is. When Will has to step up and actually show us his greatness, he just seems like any other man, only more so. He is egotistical, self-righteous, ill-tempered and consistently unappealing. His lack of actual charisma (so curious from an actor as charismatic as Jeff Daniels) has the effect of weakening every other character on the show by making their devotion to him seem misplaced and unconsidered.

The Greater Fool is all about re-establishing once again how great McAvoy is, but don’t worry, there’s still plenty of time for the love quadrangle to fittingly become Satan’s love pentangle. Yes, because Sloan Sabbith took her fancy job offer and decided to use it to throw a sexy grenade in the middle of Don’s plans to move in with Maggie. But because everyone on this show is an idiot when it comes to their personal life, Don chooses Maggie over Sloan, Maggie chooses Don over Jim, Jim chooses to be gallant about that (perhaps finally realizing what a bullet he is dodging) and everyone should really be more focused on saving America from the Tea Party, no?
Excuse me, make that the American Taliban, natch. Because of course the most important story for NewsNight to cover isn’t the debt ceiling after all, it’s just how rotten those Tea Partiers are.

Curiously, though there was plenty of time for awkward half-confessions of true feelings, there was hardly any time to pay off the phone-hacking plot, meaning Solomon’s suicide and the resulting blackmail negotiation took up only a few minutes, and really only served to set everything back to the status quo.

With Season One in the books, what can we expect going forward? Probably more of the same, unfortunately. There are elements of the show that are extremely interesting and compelling, but Sorkin seems less interested in them. His script for the finale shows that he is aware of what some people might think about these characters, and that he just completely disagrees. He finds their flaws charming and their goals noble. He thinks of them all as Don Quixote, and doesn’t seem to consider that in order for a drama to work, there have to be characters to offset and balance Don Quixote. Watching a bunch of people tilt against windmills isn’t nearly as much fun.

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