12:03 pm Aug. 6, 20124
Every Monday, Glynnis MacNicol writes about the new HBO series, "The Newsroom." Today, Episode 7, "5/1." (Earlier posts here.)
Do you remember where you were the night Osama bin Laden was killed?
Probably, yes. It was exactly the kind of big moment that functions as a national touchstone, even if a year and a half later its significance has been almost entirely lost in the acrimony of the 2012 election cycle.
Still, Bin Laden's death is the sort of story every cable-television news show (and network-news shows, in general) lives for. Singular, dramatic, driven by the details; the larger importance doesn't require any of the hyperbole cable news wraps its everyday stories in in an effort to keep viewers hooked. (As I've said before, the problem with cable news is not its ability to cover breaking news, it's how it fills the hours when there is no news.)
It's also the sort of news story best suited to Aaron Sorkin's talents: A black and white, good guys vs. bad guys narrative involving America at "its finest [if temporary] hour." The kind of narrative that allows for a clean, unambiguous tick-tock, one that embraces numerous moving parts that all fit together to provide a compelling snapshot of something important.
When Charlie Skinner asks Mackenzie McHale why it's worth taking a risk to beat the President's announcement of bin Laden's desk, her answer is taken seriously: "America thinks Bin Laden's alive," she tells Charles. "If I can make him dead one minute sooner, my entire life in journalism up until this point will have been worth it."
Sorkin lives for this sort of thing and he certainly made the most of it Sunday night in what was far and away the strongest episode of the show so far. Actually, this episode was so strong—in the best Sorkin way possible—it could have been a one-off special for HBO about the killing of bin Laden seen through the eyes of a cable news staff. If "The Newsroom" slinks back to its old ways, I'll wish that was all it had been.
But HBO almost seemed to know this was a good one, when they arrived with Sorkin and Jeff Daniels at the Television Critics Association last week. Mostly, Sorkin and Daniels defended the show, which has had some trouble with the critics (including this one) about its women characters, its attitude toward the internet and the news business.
"For sure, we all know there were critics who did not enjoy watching the first four episodes," Sorkin admitted. But they had produced a trailer showing some of the highlights of the rest of the season, and showed it to the critics, and it's already been renewed for a second season. Pretty confident. Whether that confidence is misplaced remains to be seen; one strong episode does not a good show make.
Sunday's episode, titled 5/1, opens at Will's swanky New York City apartment where he is hosting a Sunday night party for "News Night" staffers to celebrate their first year on the air. In the midst of the party Charlie receives a phone call from an anonymous source. "Call me Deep Throat," the source says. "I'm not calling you Deep Throat, that's a sacred pseudonym," Charlie responds.
The source tells Charlie that in 90 minutes he will be getting an email from the White House telling Skinner and staff to get to work. The source—"call me 'late for dinner'"—wants a skeptical Skinner to know he is simply tipping him off to this fact to establish credibility, presumably for use at some later date (more on that later).
Cut back to the party where everyone is having a terrific time, especially Will who has just scored some "medicinal marijuana" brownies from Neal's girlfriend Kaylee in an effort to self-medicate an old sports injury (that Will smokes pot has already been well-established; he's a liberal's wet dream of a Republican). Kaylee informs him too late that the brownies are extra strong and he shouldn't take too much. Too late! He's already had two plus some Vicodin. Funny stuff (I laughed out loud multiple times during this episode). And thus the historic news night begins.
Shortly thereafter the staff is indeed alerted to the news at hand (hooray for Sorkin for finally writing Twitter into the storyline in a useful, non-patronizing way!) and the party quickly decamps for the studio, speculating the entire way over what the news might be; you will recall in May 2001 Libya was embroiled in a civil war and Muammar Gaddafi had gone into hiding. Stuck in traffic halfway to the studio, a very stoned Will leaps from the car his bodyguard Lonny is chauffeuring, opting to run the remaining blocks and leaving Lonny to deal with a pair of over-suspicious NYPD officers, who quickly order Lonny to place his hands on the car after he alerts them to the fact he's carrying a gun ("You're a big guy, OK? Don't do anything that's going to make us nervous," says one officer. "Nothing I can do about being big and black at the same time," says a resigned Lonny.)
Side note: One of the stronger elements of this episode is all the little (and accurate!) nods to the realities of life in New York City, whether it's Lonny's overly-aggressive stop-and frisk, or the weekend construction, or the awfulness of flying into New York on a Sunday night.
Speaking of which, while the "News Night" staff is mobilizing, Don, Eliot, and Sloane are in the air returning from the White House Correspondents' Dinner in D.C. They haven't yet landed when, much to Sloan's dismay, Don and Eliot both start flipping open their phones. Don to Sloan: "The runway is right in front [of the pilot], do you use your navigation system to get from your driveway to your garage?"
The three discover big news is about to break and they are stuck on the runway with a flight attendant who takes the T.S.A rules very seriously.
"We are missing the biggest story in a generation," moans Don.
(Which, really? In a decade, let alone a generation, that began with 9/11 and ended with the election of a black president, I think we can agree that bin Laden's death, while important, doesn't exactly qualify as the story of a generation, or even of 2011, year of the "Arab Spring." It certainly makes for good drama, though.)
Meanwhile back at the studio everyone is scurrying to confirm bin Laden's death. And for the first time in this entire series Sorkin doesn't take a recent news moment and use it to lecture about how it should have been covered, which among other things made the episode exponentially more enjoyable. Instead, Skinner opts to hold reporting that bin Laden has in fact been killed—the news of which is now flying around Twitter—until they get confirmation from the White House. Not even Helene Cooper at The New York Times' anonymous confirmation is good enough for Skinner!
(Side note: Not reporting the New York Times story struck me as a decision a network news cast might make, but not a cable news operation. Cable news tends to jump on every scrap of information as if it may be their last, ever.) Meanwhile, even stoned on brownies Will is able to confirm through General Wesley Clark (still in his pre-reality-TV days) that Obama's announcement has nothing to do with Libya (if it had it would have been a NATO operation and "they know nothing"), all the while still stuck on the plane.
Don and Sloan have deduced the news is good because Obama will be speaking from the East Room; if it were bad news he'd be speaking from the Oval Office or the briefing room.
On the plane passengers begin receiving alerts from friends about the news and begin getting nervous that something has happened and begin pressing Eliot and Don for answers. Don, in a frustrated attempt to assuage their fears, stands up to address the plane with the news but is stopped by the "crazy lady" flight attendant (it wouldn't be a Sorkin show if there wasn't at least one crazy lady) who tells him, "you do not take over control of the cabin." When he refuses to sit down she gets the pilots (and I will admit to loving this moment) whose presence and uniforms suddenly remind Don—at this point in mid-rant, "how paranoid do you have to be…"—of the very terrifying reason these idiotic T.S.A. rules were initially put in place to begin with, and compelling him to tell them and the cabin that Osama bin Laden has been killed. Cue feel-good moment, which to be fair is true to that often very feel-good night in real life.
As it happens I was on a packed plane that had just landed at J.F.K. as the news began to break across Twitter about Obama's address and was also stuck on the tarmac that night waiting for a gate to open (related: catching up on breaking news in reverse chronological order is its own sort of weird, new media tick-tock). While we were waiting to deplane, in what I then might have described as a Sorkin moment, I read out the news on my Twitter feed to fellow passengers (none of whom seemed remotely panicked, it's worth noting), most of whom were New Yorkers returning home for the weekend, some of whom had lost people on Sept 11. "We reported the news," says Don after telling the pilots. Indeed.
Additionally, there were some not-head-banging-against-wall developments on the love front. After overhearing Lisa tell Jim she loves him and his having responded in kind (sort of), an aghast Maggie counsels Jim to break up with her. Immediately. However, before he can do so Lisa—in one of Sorkin's better moments for women on this show (though to be clear, the bar has been set painfully low on this front)—breaks up with him, acknowledging that she knows he was just being nice. "We'd be shopping for nursery schools before I realized you were just being polite," she tells him. This is enough to pique Jim's interest, and the episode ends with his asking Lisa on a real first date.
And finally, upon discovering an email from Joe Biden (an actual email—not the campaign ones signed by Joe Biden) 20 minutes after-the-fact—when national security is at stake it's OK to be slow—Will goes on air to report the news (funny moment: before going live one of the crew place two pieces of paper on Will's set deck, one says "OBAMA GOOD" the other, "Osama bad").
Skinner, meanwhile, has received another phone call from "Late for Dinner" who reveals he works for the N.S.A. with the unit that monitors illegal, electronic surveillance, and there is possibly some proof that AWM—"News Night" parent corporation and owner of TMI, the gossip magazine that has gone after Will and Mackenzie, may have been engaging in illegal eavesdropping à la the News of the World scandal the has rocked London and News Corp. this past year. So if you're wondering when Sorkin is going to go after Rupert Murdoch in any sort of substantial way—he's been pretty soft on News Corp. and its cable news arm, thus far, all things considered—the answer appears to be soon. Let's just hope he can pull if off with the same finesse he demonstrated in 5/11. Sorkin seems better able to paint grey areas for his characters when the storyline is black and white.
More by this author:
- What's really wrong with the White House Correspondents' Dinner?
- Nate Silver receives the adulation of New York's media demimonde in Nick Denton's Soho loft