'The Newsroom' Recap: Episode 2

There appears to be an interesting critical split emerging around "The Newsroom." Reviewers -- including myself -- have mostly weighed in with negative assessments, while viewers have tended to praise the show much more fulsomely.

The split has seemed so wide, in fact, that I worried that I'd been too cynical and too hard on the show. But the second episode, "Newsnight 2.0," did not do much to bolster my hopes for "The Newsroom." To be clear: For a series with so many problems, both episodes have mostly held my interest throughout, and as with the pilot, there are frustrating glimpses of a better show lurking within the hour. It's too bad that show hasn't fully emerged yet.

"Newsnight 2.0" also happens to be MacKenzie McHale's name for her reboot of Will McAvoy's show. She unveils it on a whiteboard (she sends the board toppling to the floor. Metaphor alert!) in a meeting with the show's staff.

Will and MacKenzie argue about what should lead that day's show. Will, sensing a story that will run and run, wants to lead with more about the BP oil spill, which his team apparently broke all by itself last week. MacKenzie, integrity at a high, says that there's not enough news in it. She wants to lead with the then-red-hot controversy (we're in 2010, remember) over SB 1070, the Arizona immigration bill.

This is where we get a little taste of Will's rightward leanings. MacKenzie tells the staff that he supports 1070, and that, even though they may have thought him a closet liberal, he's actually a "closet moron." His retort consists entirely of saying "no one in this newsroom's job is being threatened by an undocumented worker."

A "hilarious" moment also ensues when MacKenzie reveals that, even though she's one of the most brilliant journalists of her day, she can't work email! In a little bit of comedy that might have seem outdated in 1995, she tries to send Will a private email, but winds up sending it to the whole staff instead. Whoops! Hopefully she didn't get this mixed up dodging Bin Laden in Pakistan.

This trope is all too familiar -- the hotshot woman is also a kooky klutz. Emily Mortimer is very endearing in the role, but she seems too sensible at her core to descend into screwball shenanigans.

We are led to believe that Jan Brewer, the governor of Arizona, is giving Will an exclusive interview to talk about 1070 because, as MacKenzie puts it, she knows she "won't have to out-shout a crazy person."

It's an odd concept; politicians will normally go just about anywhere to push their message, and why would arch-conservative Jan Brewer skip Fox News for Will, a man who is on record loudly trashing the current state of affairs in America? Unfortunately for Sorkin, he sets himself up for this kind of nitpicking by choosing to weave real events and people into his storylines.

Sorkin then immediately pits the only two black characters on the show -- producers named Gary and Kendra -- against each other. Gary dings Obama about the oil spill and Kendra snaps at him about it. Then Will, who has been showing off about how much he knows about his staff, says, "Gary's a smart black guy who's not afraid to criticize Obama." It's a real clanger of a line.

We then meet Reese (Chris Messina, decent in a thankless role), a numbers guy and friend of Will's who detests the new tone of the show. He meets with Charlie Skinner, Will's boss. Sam Waterston is still just about the most enjoyable part of the show so far. Charlie tells Reese that he has to stop sharing ratings information with Will, because he doesn't want anything interfering with the new format. "We're going to try doing the news and see what happens," he says. It's hard to convey how wearying it is to have Sorkin whomp this message over your head so many times. We get it! They're renegades, and Will is being torn between his ratings head and his hard news heart.

I'm choosing to mostly skip over the section where Maggie and Jim, the two producers, bicker about immigration, and her news skills. But of course, they are really bickering about each other and setting up the love triangle between the two of them and Don. She has to do the pre-interview with Brewer's people, and the look on her face when Jim, who just met her, finally tells her he approves of her talents made me queasy.

Next up, in what must have seemed a slightly sadistic move on Sorkin's part, Mortimer has to utter the words, "Sloan Sabbith, I'm MacKenzie McHale." The deliriousness of those tongue-twisting names is compounded by the fact that Olivia Munn is playing Sloan Sabbith, hottie economics anchor for the network, who is tapped for a nightly feature on the show. (Also she is a professor at Columbia!) Munn isn't helped by Sorkin's constant references to her looks.

We then find out that everyone thinks that the reason Will and MacKenzie split up years ago is because he cheated on her. Will's told her she can't talk about the real reason they split up, but she gets very agitated about the whole thing. Mortimer and Munn, against all odds, sell the scene, though there are some moments of real peril.

For instance: How could people think that about Will, MacKenzie whines, when he's "an extraordinary man with the heart the size of a Range Rover"? Where is this saintly fellow with the freakishly enlarged heart? The Will we've seen so far is mostly just a pill.

Back to Maggie and Jim! Must we? Yes, we must. Jan Brewer's pulled out of the interview because her press aide went out on a few dates with Maggie in college and is now trying to screw her over. I started noticing that John Gallagher often leaves his mouth open like a fish, and that Alison Pill is much too good for the material she's given -- like seemingly all the women on "The Newsroom," Maggie is smart but stammering, fierce but flighty -- and wow, this conversation is still going on?

"Please, tell me what to do," she finally asks, looking pleadingly up at him. Bad, bad, bad.

So basically they have 90 minutes to find a replacement for Jan Brewer. If you watch cable news long enough, you know that all the networks have a rotating cast of pundits who will show up at a moment's notice to blather on about any subject in the world. Sarah Palin and James Carville have studios set up in their homes for this very reason. But apparently all of AWM's gasbags are on strike or on holiday, because the only people the "Newsnight" bookers can find are a lunatic professor from an online college, a beauty pageant contestant and a gun nut.

Far be it from me to say that these types of people don't pop up all of the time on cable news, but it strains credulity to imagine that a program that prided itself on its intelligence wouldn't at least fall back on some of its network's predictable voices. It also turns what was the best part of the pilot -- namely, the news gathering -- into a drag on the episode.

Unsurprisingly, the whole thing is a total mess, and, for good measure, MacKenzie's idiocy with email rears its head again when she accidentally tells the entire company that she cheated on Will, not the other way around. There's a heated conversation, and then a gentler one, between the two, and we see glimmers of something better between these two very good actors shining through.

MacKenzie delivers another lecture to Will, who strayed by putting a stupid Sarah Palin bit in the night's show. "Be the leader, Will. Be the moral center of this show. Be the integrity," she says. It's maudlin, but at least she asserts her authority over the show's content in the scene, in a nice bit of forcefulness from Mortimer.

Will goes home, only to find that his doorman watched his show and thought it sucked. He then calls Neal and says he's going to anonymously help an undocumented immigrant who Neal brought up earlier in the show. It's supposed to be an example of his essential decency, I guess, but it is mostly just extremely icky. It also makes no sense. Wasn't Will supposed to be against undocumented workers? It would seem that it's hard to maintain your principles when your car-sized heart is revving its engines.