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Wednesday, August 1, 2012

The Newsroom doesn't put up with "Bullies"

HBO's The Newsroom is generally about a crusader and his gallant team championing the facts, standing up to those who would deceive and mislead the American public. But what makes the kind of man who becomes this kind of leader of the righteous army? That is the question at the heart of this week's episode, "Bullies."

Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels) can't sleep. He doesn't know why, and he doesn't want to know. But viewers do, and the only way Will can conquer his problem is to open himself up to inquiry. It's funny, but wholly authentic, how someone who can be so brave on the air shudders at the mere hint of personal analysis. Yet, that is exactly what happens. Luckily, Will does have some sense and wisdom, which is why he visits a mental health professional.

The doctor is named Jack (David Krumholtz, Numb3rs, The Santa Clause), a quirky prodigy, like just about every other character on The Newsroom, and Will has been paying him for two years without visiting. Actually, Will has been paying for four years, having previously been treated by Jack's father. It's as if, no matter how much Will protests, he knows he needs help, but just can't bring himself to ask for it, at least not until today. Jack sees right through the facade, and despite Will's attempts to just get a prescription for sleeping pills and get out, Jack makes Will confront those demons keeping him up at night.

The source of Will's issues? He has become a bully himself. Will is the son of an abusive alcoholic. The need to fight back is what drives him, first to become a prosecutor, and then to become the king of news. But there is a point where Will is no longer acting in self defense. Rather, he has become the bullier of bullies, kicking a man long after he goes down. Will might not want to admit to the bully label, but he knows what he's doing is wrong, and cannot live that way.

The subject of Will's attack this week is the former chief of staff for Rick Santorum, who happens to be a gay black man. Santorum is famously against homosexuals, and Will uses that angle. The staffer almost breaks, pleading with Will, near tears, to stop defining him by a simple label, and realize that his gayness is far from the only part of him. Will refuses, assaulting him over and over again. There's a moment where viewers think Will will back down, as the interview subject gives a wonderful speech. But Will can't resist one final blow, and respect for himself goes out the window.

This is a complex topic, both the conversation being had, and the psychology behind Will's actions. Will is right in that this man should not be working for someone who doesn't respect him. But the man is also right in refusing to be put into a box, and in defining his own priorities the way he wants to. That's what American freedom is about. Both are right, and yet, because they focus on different points, they can't reach an agreement. The Newsroom's masterful writing balances both opinions, as well as the way they are portrayed, so expertly, it leaves one in awe of "Bullies."

The question going forward is, now that Will knows his weakness, what kind of man will he be? Surely he will not slip back into the aggressor when it is unwarranted, checking himself. However, he also can't hang his head and be a passive anchor. So he must find his balance, being a protector, but not delivering unnecessary blows. Under the powerful skills of Daniels, this character is likely to remain intriguing and deliciously layered.

While this war rages within Will, a number of other significant events are going on around him. He rails on the internet, demanding a stop to anonymous posting. One commenter strikes back, delivering a death threat. This means Will now has a bodyguard (Terry Crews, Everybody Hates Chris, The Expendables). Adding the new guy into the mix changes the office chemistry slightly, and hints at a larger arc. Will anything come of this story, or is it just an excuse to bring in the talented, funny Crews to the ensemble? Either is totally acceptable.

Also, Will buys an engagement ring to gain the upper hand with Mackenzie (Emily Mortimer). He's not proposing, he's just messing with her so he can avoid embarrassment.

Or is he? A scene at the end where Will tears up the ring receipt, rather than returning it, might be a sign that he is forgiving Mackenzie for her past indiscretion. A year spent working together, seeing her passion, has rekindled something within him. It might take a bit longer, but he's thawing towards her, and there is definitely some spark left for the pair. One day, as cruel as this ploy might be now, he may actually give her the ring with all sincerity.

A year working together. Only six episodes in, The Newsroom has already covered an entire year in the lives of these people. This is an extremely rare pace for a show, and it's a little sad that so many news events get skipped over. It also means that the characters are soon going to reach present day, meaning season two (and any more after) will, by necessity, be more condensed. I don't know if I wish they'd started the timeline earlier, so they could keep up this rate, or if I'm looking forward to the series slowing down a bit, even if that means having to play into television drama conventions a bit more.

Another casualty of Will's unhinging is Sloan (Olivia Munn, Perfect Couples, Attack of the Show). She asks her trusted mentor for advice soon before going on air herself, and he urges her to not back down, turning her into a bully, too. Without the gravitas and reputation Will has, Sloan is called to task by Charlie (Sam Waterston), resulting in her suspension. Charlie does manage to fix things, but Sloan suffers a huge personal blow, and Will is feeling mighty guilty.

Sloan's story in "Bullies" is interesting because it proves the kind of woman that she is, and that Mackenzie chose very well in finding someone to sit alongside Will. It also shows that Sloan is still green and stubborn, unwilling to back down to Charlie, even though she really should to protect her career. She makes a mistake, but rather than apologizing and being humbled, she doubles down, yelling at her boss. Sloan will be a fine reporter some day, but she definitely has some growing to do in how she fits into the business.

An interesting result of the Sloan story is the revelation of Don's (Thomas Sadoski) vulnerability and compassion. He is deeply upset at Sloan for going off on her guest on his show. But knowing that she will get enough anger from Charlie, he holds himself in, and instead offers her support. This is a side of Don we haven't seen too much of, and makes him a much more sympathetic character. Credit The Newsroom for not just demonizing the man, who we've been rooting for to be dumped since day one.

There have definitely been hints that Don's girlfriend, Maggie (Alison Pill), might be interested in another man, Jim (John Gallagher Jr.). Amid the Sloan fiasco, Don still worries about that as much as anything. Are these feelings making him softer in his work, as his priorities shift? He really does seem to love Maggie. And while in most shows Maggie leaving Don for Jim would be a given, I'm not so sure The Newsroom will go down that path. It will probably still happen, but how interesting, and true to life, would it be if it didn't?

The Newsroom is an exemplary show with very realistic characters in an exploration of justice and shades of grey. It is brilliantly written and executed, with a team, yes a team, not a cast, of truly gifted performers. I dare anyone to hold up any show against The Newsroom, no matter their political beliefs, and find this series lacking. It will not happen. "Bullies" shows yet another side of the story, going in another direction from past episodes, and still upholds the expected level of excellence.

Watch The Newsroom Sundays at 10 p.m. ET on HBO.

If you like my reviews, please follow me on Twitter! Check out my new website, JeromeWetzel.com! Article first published as TV Review: The Newsroom - "Bullies" on Blogcritics.

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