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TV Review: The Newsroom – Sloan Goes Rogue in “Bullies”

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This week’s episode of HBO’s new series The Newsroom, takes a peek into what makes News Night anchor Will MacAvoy (Jeff Daniels) tick. The fast pace and subject matter of the series make most episodes intense, but this week’s “Bullies” pack a powerful emotional punch when Will finds that he cannot sleep, and it begins to affect his work.

When we first meet Will at the beginning of the series, he is bottled up, more concerned with image than integrity, with ratings than real news. He is distant, and feared by his colleagues and staff.

Re-discovering his inner crusader (and a bit of his heart) when News Director Charlie Skinner (Sam Waterston) brings back former lover Mac (Emily Mortimer) as executive producer, the genie, as it were, escapes Will’s bottle. He becomes driven by a need to expose the lies and lay bare the truth, whatever the cost, especially hard-wired to punch back at the bullies of the world.

I hadn’t thought of it until this week’s episode, but has Will does seem compelled to be the bullies’ bully. But how far can you take the argument “I’m protecting people from the bullies” before you become one yourself?

Journalists, especially in these days of social media wield incredible power. Misdirected or miused, that power can destroy the lives and livelihoods of innocent bystanders, who become victims to hubris, intended or not.

In a news interview, when does agressive questioning become bullying? When Will interviews an advisor to the just-announced presidential candidate Rick Santorum, he crosses that line. 

Will mines the irony of an African-American gay educator being Santorum’s advisor, hitting the advisor with tough, unyielding questions, believing the attack is against the narrow-minded, former U.S. Senator. But Will’s line of questioning ventures into bullying, cross-examining the poor guy like a prosecutor forcing a confession from a recalcitrant witness on the stand.

Even after pretty much destroying the guest, Will keeps on punching, as Mac tries to get him to end it and go to commercial. It isn’t until Will lands a final crushing blow, asking the educator if Santorum would believe that he should have the right to be a teacher, given his sexual preference, all the poor man can do is say “no.” The whipping is at an end.

Now unable to sleep, Will consults his psychaitrist to get a prescription for sleeping pills. The doctor, whom Will has actually never seen (althought he’s been paying him for two years) wants to know more about the source of Will’s sleep issues. In a revealing session, we begin to understand Will’s need to protect the people around him, whether standing up to gossip-mongering reporters or the lying liars that spin talking points instead of facts, never mind the collateral damage. 

An abuse survivor, Will had been powerless as a very young boy to protect anyone—his mother or his siblings—against his alcoholic, abusive father. Finally, at the age of 10, young Will had the physical strength to fight back, but the damage inflicted upon him is something he’s carried with him since. 

No wonder he had kept himself bottled up, protecting himself behind layers of indifference for years. No wonder, too, that Mac’s betrayal several years earlier, still hurts him to the point that no matter how much in love with her he may be, he cannot allow himself to feel, to let her in too close. It’s not surprising, either, that Will chose to become a prosecutor before segueing into journalism. 

Subconsciously, Will is troubled by his own abuse of power in tearing down a decent man, someone, in fact, that Will would in other circumstances be inclined to protect. In trying to make Santorum’s advisor open his eyes to a bully, Will becomes one. He becomes what he hates; he becomes his father. 

Making matters worse, he has also advised Sloan (Olivia Munn) to follow his example and go for the jugular on camera to get at the truth. But the brilliant, but inexperienced, news anchor goes too far, nearly ruining her career, and the career of a Japanese TEPCO spokesman during the Fukushima nuclear disaster.

I really loved this week’s The Newsroom episode. Focused less on the news, and less on the various romantic entanglements among the staff, the script allowed us greater access to the man behing the news, Will MacAvoy. Jeff Daniels is excellent in showing us into Will’s heart and mind. I’ve always enjoyed Daniels’ work in film (well, maybe except for the Dumb and Dumberer stuff), and I could not be more delighted to see him starring in an HBO series that gives him so much to work with. An episode like “Bullies” allows him the room to really shine.

As a news junkie, I’ve tremendously enjoyed the episodes in which the breaking news takes center stage and we see the natural entropy of the newsroom coallesce into a brilliantly-ordered entity, fueld by the energy of its staff and catalyzed by the power of its leadership. But I didn’t miss it this week when it took a back seat to the emotional impact of Will’s backstory as it begins to unfold. I like that the series takes on varying tones and shades, even slowing down the pace slightly to tell a more personal story like this one

And I also hope that Will’s psychiatric sessions become an regular, albeit occasional, feature of The Newsroom. They would provide a great non-linear storytelling framework to get at Will’s inner life.

The Newsroom airs Sundays on HBO at 10 PM ET.

 

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About Barbara Barnett

Barbara Barnett is publisher and executive editor of Blogcritics, as well as a noted entertainment writer. Author of Chasing Zebras: The Unofficial Guide to House, M.D., her primary beat is primetime television. But Barbara writes on an everything from film to politics to technology to all things pop culture and spirituality. She is a contributor to the book called Spiritual Pregnancy (Llewellyn Worldwide, January 2014) and has a story in Riverdale Ave Press' new anthology of zombie romance, Still Hungry for your Love. She is hard at work on what she hopes will be her first published novel.
  • Kenn

    I agree with everything except your disdain for “Dumb and Dumber”…how dare you!?!?!

  • http://blogcritics.org/writers/barbara-barnett barbara barnett

    Sorry, Kenn! Not so much a fan of slapstick, though I love both Woody Harrelson and Jeff Daniels. My favorite Harrelson role: Zombieland. Favorite Daniels roles: Purple Rose and Good Night and Good Luck.

  • Tom Spano

    I was under the impression that the title of the episode was “Bullies”. Apparently, I was wrong!

  • http://blogcritics.org/writers/barbara-barnett barbara barnett

    Tom–no. You were right. I was wrong.

  • Tom Spano

    So glad – thought I was having an Alzheimer’s moment there for a minute!

  • http://blogcritics.org/writers/barbara-barnett barbara barnett

    Nope. That was me :)

  • 60 plus

    Couldn’t help fondly remembering Bartlett’s insomnia and calling in psychiatrist in West Wing. Josh, also. I’m loving Newsroom. Too happy to be back in Aaron Sorkin land to be analytical. Maybe after the honeymoon stage is over. :)

  • http://cinemasentries.com/ El Bicho

    Best episode of the series so far, though it still induced a cringe when Sloan poked the security guy’s pecs.

  • doc

    This is at least the 3rd time Sorkin has used the “main character sees Psychiatrist” theme. Remember when Danny went to the shrink in “Sportsnite”? Then Bartlett couldn’t sleep. Now Will.

  • http://blogcritics.org/writers/barbara-barnett barbara barnett

    Clearly this is a common thread for Sorkin. It works here nicely, I think. El Bicho–I have to agree with you. I’ve liked them all, but I really enjoyed the character story taking center stage this week.

  • Flo

    Sorry to be a little late to the party.

    Barbara, I loved the episode and I actually have nothing to add to you wonderful review.

    It was nice to go deeper into Will’s character and I often see that psychiatrist scenes (when they are brilliantly written) are a good way to provide this. Sorkin’s is a good writer of such scenes. It’s not its first. He wrote great ones in “The West Wing”. He actually wrote two entire episodes that could be considered as the fathers of this one: first revealing a traumatic experience of Josh and the second about President Bartlett, seeing the same psychiatrist, for insomnia.
    This episode of “The Newsroom” was extremely similar to the ones on “The West Wing”, particularly the Bartlett one. Both characters, volunteered to see a psychiatrist because of insomnia and both ended up having a good and emotional session. Interestingly, they also both revealed abuse by their father.
    The episode is a bit more like the Josh one though, narratively speaking. They are constructed the same way with backs and forth between the session and flash backs which, step by step, reveal the real reason for the session.
    It’s not the first occurrence of “The West Wing” made in “The Newsroom”. Sorkin sometimes takes scenes or entire pieces of dialogue of his old show and insert them into his new one. There is a lot of The West Wing in “The Newsroom” in general, both depicting a fictional, ideal world where debates, opinions and ideas are at the center, all for a greater, smarter and more moral good.

    I must add that it’s one of the things that makes “The Newsroom” so fascinating to watch for me. Because no matter how Sorkin re-utilizes some plots, dialogues and situations, they are all put in another context and characters. It’s interesting to see familiar stuff being used differently.

    In “The West Wing”, the Psy episode with Josh comes in mid season 2 and thus makes us view Josh in the total different light. He shows a vulnerability that we are not used to see at this point of the show (or on very rare occasions). On the other hand, it is an episode that revisit an old arc so we weren’t lost. Josh was still Josh.
    The Episode with Bartlett takes place in season 3 so we already know the character well. It made us learn something new about him but not see him in a new light either.
    Here, the episode comes at the beginning of the show. The effect is unquestionably different for the viewers who have yet to really know and be familiar with the character. I really didn’t anticipate such an episode at this point, where a lot of the Will’s past would be unveiled. Especially that we know very little to nothing at all of the other characters, by comparison.

    How this will effect the balance of the show? What character will be next to be more fully discovered? It really makes me wonder what’s next for the season and I for one can’t wait to see what will happen next.

    PS: @El Bicho, I was also had a WTF moment when Sloan poked the security guy’s chest.

    • Rog

      Agree. And I love Sorkin. I have a signed manuscript from him on my wall. But Bullies doesn’t just revisit the psychiatrist theme from The West Wing. It also has the bodyguard plot and the line ‘how does this work’ – and the gay employee supporting his boss who is anti-gay but supports his boss’ broader policies. All from The West Wing. It was like a best of TWW.

  • danmand

    They had to show that Sloan is not a lesbian.

    She has been so tough and strong, and nonresponsive to men – that we (male viewers) would have had a hard time regarding her as the sexy one, and that would have made the season end come-on hard to swallow.