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Review: Jeff Daniels & His Award-Winning Performance

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We’re now more than halfway through the first season of HBO’s The Newsroom and what I’ve been most impressed with is how Aaron Sorkin and the creators of season one have been able to focus on the lives on different characters every week, push the narrative, create memorable and emotional scenes, and still keep improving their storytelling every week.

The most recent episode, “Bullies,” was just the second time we’ve seen the main character, Jeff Daniels as Will McAvoy, in a vulnerable position throughout the episode where he was dealing with things where his smarts and experience couldn’t make the situation easier to handle. His lack of sleep and the fact that the episode is told from Will’s perspective as he sits for a therapy session open it up for possibilities that we hadn’t seen in the previous five episodes.

It was also surprising because last week’s previews made it seem like this episode would focus more on Olivia Munn’s Sloan Sabbith character.

Instead, it was on Will and Daniels showed more range in this episode as that character than he had before. The most poignant scene and the one that HBO should submit for next year’s Emmy Awards is the climax of the episode when Will has a guest that goes off on him. The scene serves as an incredibly effective commentary on name-calling and accusations on the right and the left, but mostly on the left.

For all the complaints about how “liberal” the media is and how The Newsroom glorifies the “liberal” media in every way, the climactic scene demonizes the supposedly left-leaning anchor as he takes his attacks too far against a gay, black man who works for a Republican who doesn’t agree with him on every issue. It’s a scene that everyone who’s ever been in a political argument that went too far should watch. And it’s quite effective because The Newsroom’s audience is mostly left-leaning. Rush Limbaugh and NewsBusters have both come out against it as pushing a “liberal agenda.”

What’s interesting is that the Newsbusters article linked there, which includes a clip of the episode, misses the point of the exchange. They think that the show is being hypocritical because the episode is titled “Bullies” and it shows Will McAvoy bullying someone in the climactic scene. But that’s exactly what the show was trying to do, demonize Will’s actions and make him realize that demonizing someone with name-calling and belittling them by narrowly defining them is wrong, no matter what side you’re on, even if you think you have the moral high ground. Everyone else on the show sees it and thinks that he’s going too far. Will doesn’t realize that he’d gone too far until days later because he still needed the last word and still needed to declare victory even as it was happening.

If there are a handful of clips that should define what this show is about, then this was one of them. It was well-done and sends a powerful message in an unexpected way.

Photo courtesy ABC 

And now we move on to our weekly recap of the Sorkinisms we find in every episode of this series. Having watched the entire runs of Sports Night and Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip has really come in handy for this segment.

Firstly, the episode begins with Will McAvoy mixing up names and saying things incorrectly at the end of the show. Emily Mortimer as executive producer Mackenzie McHale goes into his office after the show and holds up a self-made and silly Snellen chart and makes Will read aloud the funny things she’s written on it. In an episode of Sports Night, Peter Krause as Casey McCall reads something wrong on a teleprompter at the beginning of the episode. Josh Charles as Dan Rydell then gives him a silly eye exam by using a tiny flashlight and knocking on his head, telling him he might have a tumor.

In this episode of The Newsroom, the staff starts doing opposition research on Will. They find that Maggie once filed a complaint against Will because he shouted at her over a mistake. Mackenzie says that seems unlikely because “Maggie wouldn’t complain if her hair were on fire.” In an episode of Sports Night, senior associate producer Natalie played by Sabrina Lloyd is sexually assaulted in a locker room. After Casey check on her, he goes to talk to executive producer Dana Whitaker (played by Felicity Huffman) and she asks how she’s doing. Casey’s response: “Natalie wouldn’t complain if her hair were on fire.”

The entire structure of the episode is also based on something done on Sports Night. The episode “The Local Weather” starts with Dan in his therapist’s doorway saying that he isn’t there for a session and that he’s just stopping by, much like Will in “Bullies.” In the end, both characters ended up staying for the full hour, with the episode revolving around their session. Among the reasons Dan felt like he needed therapy was his inability to speak correctly on the air, just like Will.

Finally, we learn in the episode that Will was once offered a late night talk show, but turned it down. We don’t quite know why because part of the scene where he gives his explanation to Mackenzie revolves around a lie. Where don’t know what is the truth. On Sports Night, Casey was offered the late night talk show that eventually went to Conan O’Brien. He turned it down because his confidence had been shot by the trouble with his marriage. Will’s relationship with Mackenzie might have affected his chances at a late night talk show, but we don’t quite know the truth surrounding that situation.

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About Javi Perez

Javi Perez is a contributing editor with Playmaker Magazine heading up the sports desk, as well as covering the San Antonio Spurs, Dallas Cowboys, Houston Texans, Texas Longhorns, Dallas Mavericks, Houston Rockets, film, and TV. He currently lives in San Antonio.