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TV Review: The Newsroom – “Amen”

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This week’s The Newsroom episode “Amen” shifts slightly from its focus on the news story, instead using the February 2011 Egyptian protests (and the anti-Scott Walker protests in Wisconsin) as backdrop for a lot of character development. It’s an intense, highly emotional episode during which classroom jerk Don (Thomas Sadoski), Internet nerd Neal (Dev Patel), and Will MacAvoy (Jeff Daniels) emerge as heroic, with Will completing his transformation from grouchy, difficult boss to true leader and mentor. But it also gives Neal’s character a poignant back story, making him so much more than the office social media geek.

Will also reveals the depth of feeling he still has for his executive producer Mackenzie MacHale (Emily Mortimer) when she is compromised by her boyfriend, an aspiring U.S. Congressman, and is accused of using her position to promote his career. The result allows us to see demonstrated what we have so far only been told about Will’s true character.

Will has had enough of the gossip campaign being waged against him by “Page Six” of TMI, a tabloid published by ACN’s parent company. Now that the innuendo has spread to Mackenzie, Will’s really pissed off, ready to let his wrath out on the sleazy tabloid reporter.

Is the smear campaign’s mastermind really ACN’s owner Leona (Jane Fonda), upset that Will is intent on reporting the news, never mind that it ruffles the feathers of influential government types and close corporate allies, the Koch Brothers? This newsroom backstage drama is revealed against the backdrop of the very real drama played out on Twitter and on television 24/7.

Yes, “Amen” paints an ideal and idealistic portrait of those responsible for reporting the news. Portrayed as passionate about getting the story, nobly defending freedom of the press, despite the personal or physical risks, news-folk are noble knights.

From the on-the-ground terrified and courageous young Egyptian freelancer (whose Twitter handle is “Amen”) to the news anchor who gets physically beaten covering this breaking story, we are to understand the risks involved in bringing us the news and the impact on those making the sometimes life-threatening decisions to send reporters into danger. We are also to understand the forces that attempt to undermine it: the Rush Limbaughs of the world whose lies pass for “news” in some circles.

Does The Newsroom present us with a self-righteous portrait? Absolutely. Is it preachy? Definitely. Is it true? It can be, but not necessarily. The Newsroom presents us an impossible ideal of what the news can be, but seldom is—not in the reality of 21st Century America.

Will MacAvoy is an idea; he is an ideal. With enough personal wealth and power within the East Coast news establishment, he is finally willing to use it, unafraid of taking risks for some greater good, ruffling the feathers of his superiors.
I am a middle-aged guy who’s never lived up to his potential,” he threatens tabloid reporter Nina, telling her that she does not want to get on his bad side if he ever does. And in “Amen” we begin to see that he does.

Encouraged and supported by his boss, Charlie Skinner (Sam Waterston), and Mac, he uses his capital, inspiring those under his wing. Even until last week’s episode, Will had been at least concerned about reaction to his renewed passion for news from the executives who sign his enormous paycheck.

What inspires Will? Is it the personal courage with which he’s surrounded: Neal, Amen, the beaten anchor Elliot, and Skinner? Fueled further as he becomes enraged by the personal attack against someone he cares about as collateral damage to the war being waged upon him, Will awakens fully to become the man both Mac and Skinner know him to be.

Although this week’s episode lacked the political bite of previous weeks, ratcheting up the emotional intensity of the backstage story, I found it deeply satisfying. It felt in many ways like a finale, the ending of a significant arc in the series overall narrative. And I wonder where creator Sorkin, et al will take it from here.

The Newsroom airs on HBO Sunday nights at 10 p.m. ET.

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About Barbara Barnett

Barbara Barnett is Publisher/Executive Editor of Blogcritics, (blogcritics.org). Her Bram Stoker Award-nominated novel, called "Anne Rice meets Michael Crichton," The Apothecary's Curse The Apothecary's Curse is now out from Pyr, an imprint of Prometheus Books. Her book on the TV series House, M.D., Chasing Zebras is a quintessential guide to the themes, characters and episodes of the hit show. Barnett is an accomplished speaker, an annual favorite at MENSA's HalloWEEM convention, where she has spoken to standing room crowds on subjects as diverse as "The Byronic Hero in Pop Culture," "The Many Faces of Sherlock Holmes," "The Hidden History of Science Fiction," and "Our Passion for Disaster (Movies)."
  • #18 is filled with so many inaccurate statements it seems to suggest ulterior motives.

    “There is no such thing as Fox News for liberals”

    If you think that, I question the amount of American media you take in. I saw Keith Olbermann delve into FOX territory by passing false information on his MSNBC show. There are liberal radio shows that do the same thing.

    “that is not at all what this show’s premise is trying to achieve.”

    What it’s trying to achieve and the result it achieves are two different things. Until you find a conservative raving about the show, I’ll stand by my statement.

    “I’ve never understood the argument that a show has poorly rendered characters”

    Then you either don’t understand the phrase or have really low entertainment standards.

    Sticking with TV, I hope you can agree that writers in the business have varying degrees of talent and as a result have varying degrees of success creating characters.

    Now, let’s pick one at random: Dr. House. Considering the way so many fans have connected with the character, it’s apparent the writing staff in conjunction with the actor have created one that comes across as authentic, whose actions and motivations are believable (setting aside the car crash) to viewers.

    Are you trying to say every other character on TV is created with just as much depth as House? If so, and before Barbara’s minions assail you, I can point you to a few bad sitcoms where characters are lucky to be one-dimensional. Try Charlie Sheen’s last two.

    “real life is full of poorly rendered characters so such criticisms seem to suggest ulterior motives”

    Real life is full of real people not characters so I don’t understand what you are saying, but I am more curious what it suggests in thinking that Sorkin is doing a bad job in writing some characters, like Maggie and MacKenzie, which is a shame considering their prominence.

    And he’s certainly capable of doing better. He does a very good job with Will, though the character’s consistent nobility is starting to get nauseating; Charlie may be the best thing on the show; and hopefully Leona makes a speedy return. Granted, the actors likely help elevate the script, but every episode has problems with plot and characters that a heartwarming scene or speech can’t hide.

    If the show works for you, I am glad you enjoy it, but even Sorkin knows there’s problems or he wouldn’t have fired the entire writing staff.

  • Flo

    Damn I just went to imdb to see where I could have seen the younger ones, and it turns out John Gallagher Jr (Jim harper) was actually a guest on The West Wing!!! Tyler!!!!!

    Oh and of course, Allison Pill was Zelda Fitzgerald in “Midnight in Paris”.

  • Right, Flo. Of course (more ironic casting). I adored David Strathairn in that movie (and had a chance to chat with him at Comic-Con earlier this month!)

  • Flo

    Jeff Daniels was also in “Good Night and Good Luck” which was a very good movie about Murrow. “The Squid and the Whale” also. Fantastic.

    Sam Waterson also was on Heaven’s Gate & some Woody Allen’s movies in the 80s.

    I don’t know the younger actors/actresses but find them real goo too.

  • Flo, I’ve always loved Jeff. He’s done some very interesting work (along with some real clunkers–but haven’t they all?). I remember first seeing him in Purple Rose of Cairo (I know he’d been in Terms of Endearment as well) and just loving him in that. He brings a great Midwestern sensibility and a lovely understated texture to everything he does.

    I’ve also been a fan of Sam Waterston ever since first seeing him in The Killing Fields. He was brilliant in that. And what a perfect ironic casting of him as the News Director in this show (almost as ironic as Jane Fonda’s casting as Leona, but not quite). The entire cast is great.

  • Flo

    Barbara, I also love what the show is trying to achieve. The lack of subtlety is okay here, because, as I said, Sorkin is talented enough to sell it. I LOVE Jon Stewart.

    The West Wing was also a fantasy show but it was brilliant. Anything smart which tries to open consciousness is good in my book. It’s great to have some healthy people out there, like Sorkin & Stewart, in this industry.

    Now, if only we could have that in France too.

    Also, about Jeff Daniels, he may not be a big star but he has a real interesting and rich carrer, especially in independant cinema.

  • I think as the various backstories are revealed we’ll get a richer and richer picture, Flo. I’m excited about that as well.

  • The show is a fantasy: what cable news could be if only…

    People are messy: they’re inconsistent, they make bad decisions, they make decisions based on emotion rather than reason, and sometimes they try to rise above the fray and fall on their asses.

    I really love what the show is trying to achieve. In a way, it’s what Jon Stewart has been trying to do from a different angle. I’m glad it’s been renewed for another season. Yeah, as a progressive (liberal), it makes me feel good. But as someone who sees the media as a crucial cog in ensuring our freedom, it makes me feel even better.

    The show isn’t particularly subtle, but I’m not bothered by that either. A lot of people are talking about it, and mostly in a positive light (despite what some critics are saying).

  • Flo

    To which his own, I guess. The only criticsm I found dumb were the ones that basically accused a smart guy of doing a smart show. There is no such thing as “too smart” IMO.

  • Flo

    Okay, I feel like I didn’t express myself clearly, earlier. I Like the show very much and I liked the episode. I never said it was bad. I just found it A BIT too preachy. At the end with the slow motion and all, I think it was a but too much.

    Also, I’m French and was born in the 80s & not a huge fan of overly moralistic stuff so I guess I have a different view of the show. I don’t know what Rudy is. The scene Will describes seems a bit pompous to me. Perhaps I’m wrong. This sound as something I typically dislike though. Fortunately, Sorkin is talented enough to sell pompous, moralistic scenes.

    I really like the show. Like I said, I think its idealism is salutary. I like all the characters. They are really brilliantly written. I like the idea to invent a fantasy world to shake things up and debate. That’s also why I liked The West Wing. I can get why people would find the show irritating though.

    Sorkin is a brilliant writer and I love the smartness of the show.

    Barbara, I really love Neal’s backstory as well. He’s not just the geek guy of the show. It’s more complex than that. I like how, little by little, every character reveals themselves plainly. That’s another reason why I think the show keeps getting better.

  • There is no such thing as Fox News for liberals and, even if there was, that is not at all what this show’s premise is trying to achieve.

    I’ve never understood the argument that a show has poorly rendered characters; real life is full of poorly rendered characters so such criticisms seem to suggest ulterior motives…

  • Considering angry dates don’t get to waltz passed security into cable newsrooms and you couldn’t find that many people in 2011 carrying checks even if they worked in a check-printing facility, what else could it be?

  • Barbara barnett

    Well, even sorkin, himself, said the series was a fantasy

  • mari, what is there to get that critics don’t understand? The show has some good moments, but it’s the dramatic equivalent of Fox News for liberals. And it has plenty of flaws such as poorly rendered characters and forced plotlines that stick out every episode. Sorkin is in dire need of an editor, but likely won’t get one.

  • I hope that as well. It makes me sad to think that Edward R. Murrow would likely be shooed off the air (or labeled such a radical that he would have no impact).

    I grew up in the Woodward and Bernstein days of journalism. They inspired me to pursue the craft in a very real way.

  • I just hope it helps the USA rediscover its head and its heart, because the current state of the nation is truly depressing to people like me who love the idea of America, which has been terribly corrupted over the last 40 years and doubly so since 9/11

  • Hi Chris. It just gets better and better as it finds the rhythm. Great writing and perfect casting.

  • I’m just right this minute watching the third episode of this series and I just had to leap on here and say how much I love this show!

  • Hi mari–Sometimes the most brilliant, intellectual people are hopeless when it comes to social skills: awkward, clumsy, idiotic. But all that turns off when it comes to doing what they do best (whatever field). I like that as well about The Newsroom. When the mind has to turn on, it does ndash; organized, effective, brilliant.

    I found Neal’s backstory with the London train bombing affecting. And yes, a smart executive producer can feel lost in the minutiae of economics, especially when being asked to sit on a panel at the Paley Center. My graduate work was in political science and public policy. My eyes glazed over with every economics course I had to take to pass my Qualifiers, except for those having to do with very macro issues and political economy.

  • Barbara J

    Love the show. Hope that it continues. Even though it was approved for season 2, we know things can change.
    Think Sam’s funny side is great!
    I can’t help thinking there is something between Sam and Leona, other than 20 yrs. of knowing each other.

  • mari l stitt

    I taught Sociology and the Newsroom seems true to reality. Human relationships as they are and the news presented to clarify distortions. Thank you for your thoughtful review — many critics of this program seem not to understand it.

  • Heath Jacob

    Great episode, loved the ending, but the female actresses should be hotter if their characters are going to be such flakes. The Rush Limbaugh thing was kind of laughable – like Rush would still have a career if he mocked journalists being put in real peril by any government (even one they were cheering for). When is Republican McAvoy going to come down on a Democrat? I know Sorkin is a lefty but he chose to make McAvoy a (sort of) righty so if he wants the character to be believable he has to come down on the Dems at some point. Hopefully it won’t just be some lame potshots at Anthony’s Weiner.

  • Lisa–you are right on the money. This is exactly what Sorkin is trying to show. It’s an ideal. I know the show has taken some heat from the media, but I’m really liking it.

  • Lisa Solod

    Love love love the show. Amen made me weep. I don’t care if it is preachy… it shows how we could be.

  • Thanks guys! I’m really loving the series. I confess I got teary-eyed during the Rudy (and I never even saw the movie). Ironically, I did an impromptu interview with Sean Astin last week at Comic-Con!

    I’ve always loved Jeff Daniels, and thought that he has been so underutilized as an actor over the years. great to see him in such a meaty, intense role.

    Please spread the word about this column. I’m hoping to make it the go-to place for discussion. (whether you agree or disagree with me :))

  • Angel Marie

    I must be preachy too, I LOVE this show and I loved “Amen”. I don’t think it was corny, it was touching, then again I am a person who loves the movie Rudy. I am a person who wants to believe that there is still good in people and in those who report the news.

    Great cast! Jeff Daniels has never been better, have always loved Waterson and the rest of the cast is surprisely! I look forward to the rest of the season and hopefully a renewal!

  • Georgann Marks

    Then I must like preachy. I love this show. Since Luck, I have been looking for another scripted drama to follow.

    Downton Abbey is in production, so I am testy and impatient.

    But Jeff Daniels has perfect pitch in this role. Ditto for Fonda and Waterson. Actually, I love the entire cast – the back stories, all of em.

  • Flo

    Hello Barbaba, nice review as always.

    Liked the episode even if I found it a bit too preachy and even a bit corny in the end.

    We live at a time where there’s a lot of cynism concerning the news and how they’re delivered and I can’t help but think that Sorkin’s idealism is salutary.
    He always been an idealistic man. The West Wing also was the protrait of an ideal democrat WH. It is rather fun to see the connection with what remains is masterpiece, IMO. Some scenes are literally taken from TWW. This week it was Sloan teaching Mac about economics. It was just like Sam teaching CJ the census in TWW.

    I, too, am wondering where all this is going. Now that Will “came out” as the guy he truly is, we’ll see how it goes.