So I had no idea what ‘Willie Pete’ meant other than being the title of Episode 13 of HBO’s The Newsroom. I don’t think that going in that many of us knew what Willie Pete would turn out to mean, with the exception being those of you who have been deployed, in the military sense, as well as in the war zone sense. Or those of you who have prepared weapon packages for H-1 helos.
The episode was rapid fire and above all entertaining. It required one to pay strict attention. And to clear up some of my questions, and/or to create some new questions for you to consider, I’m going to discuss the episode with Noah Gittell of reelchange.net
Noah’s blog is about movies, tv, and politics, and is filled with good reads. So I think this will be a good talk. Constance Zimmer, who played a senior Romney press secretary called Taylor Warren and her assistant called Cameron, briefed the press with planned and printed talking points memos. We will not have what they call ‘talking points’. We will make it up as we go.
JMM: Noah, I was impressed by the episode’s beginning and end, but less impressed by the middle. I knew Aaron Sorkin had to give the newbies like Hallie, Taylor, and Jerry a lot to do to get their characters up and running, but I thought that there was far too many repetitions like 4 references to Will’s voice mail, 4 Q & A’s between Jim Harper and Taylor, at least 2 scenes with the campaign embeds speaking into hand-held microphones, and at least 7 or 8 faxes. I’m saying that to make the points, Sorkin hit us over the head with the points far too often.
NOAH: First of all, thanks for having me here to discuss the show. I have such mixed feelings about it that I’m afraid I won’t be able to make too many definitive statements about it, but I’ll try. First of all, I loved the title of the episode. Sorkin does this well. He gives an ambiguous, mysterious title, and at some point in the show, he reveals its importance. I thought Willie Pete would be the name of a second witness to Operation Genoa or something like that, but the reveal of its true meaning was a nice moment.
Regarding your point about repetition, I agree it’s a huge problem, but I see where Sorkin is coming from. With the Q & A’s between Jim and Taylor, as well as the scenes with the reporters televising their spots, he’s trying to build the audience up to a point of frustration and then offering them a release when Jim has his own little “mission to civilize” moment on the free press bus. I thought that moment worked well, and I’m not sure if the repetition didn’t help build to that moment. Having said that, I agree with you 100% about the references to Will’s voice-mail. I can tolerate the subplot about Will and Mac’s romance because they’re both great actors, but let’s move past the voice-mail, shall we?
JMM: Thanks and welcome Noah. Back to Jim for a moment – I liked him as a newsman last year, but so far this year he seems — simply annoying.
NOAH: I’m not sure I agree. Well, I’m mixed about it. I did like him as a newsman last year, but I absolutely hated the Maggie-Jim romance, and the further he gets away from her, the more I like him. In between seasons, Sorkin said that he listened to his critics and made some changes for season two. I wonder if putting an ocean between Jim and Maggie was his way of doing that. Either way, it’s looking like a welcome development. I hope he doesn’t get Jim together with that blonde, feminist reporter – I don’t like her either, which just points to how poorly Sorkin is writing women these days.
The bottom line, unfortunately, is that Jim doesn’t have much of a character in these episodes. He’s only there so that Sorkin can point out how lame the Romney campaign was. The incident with Maggie – which caused him to go to New Hampshire in the first place – didn’t seem to factor into his character at all this week. Does this bother you, too? I thought this episode, in general, worked well because it actually let the characters breathe a little, but too much of the time they seem like vehicles for Sorkin’s political views, and this leads to inconsistencies that make it hard to embrace them.
JMM: I agree about the problems stemming from the Jim-Maggie romance which is why I didn’t mention it above. And clearly he’s in NH and she’s about to be in Uganda is an ocean between them… but Maggie is still with him (in his head) on the bus and the bars and drinking establishments they frequent per Hallie (the blond).
Sorry, but the romance between these two seems inevitable.
But about Hallie – why don’t you like her. She’s seems competent to me as well as attractive.
NOAH: For sure, attractive. And a decent actress (she’s Meryl Streep’s daughter!), but I guess I just don’t find the character convincing. Her transition from jaded political reporter to passionate pro-choice advocate felt a little rushed to me. Don’t get me wrong – I’ll take her over Maggie any day (for Jim, not for me). But until we actually get a sense of who she is beyond a back story learned only through dialogue, I have a hard time liking her. I guess it’s because she was such a jerk to Jim for two episodes that I can’t quite forgive her for one shining moment.
It is interesting that you say Maggie is still with him on the bus. They keep talking about that moment on the Sex and the City tour bus, and man, I wish they wouldn’t. Do we need to keep replaying that hackneyed moment from season one? They are doing a good job of keeping the Jim-Maggie romance out of the limelight, but I feel like Sorkin can’t quite do away with it completely. I get nervous when I hear that you think their romance is inevitable.
JMM: [interjecting] I meant Hallie and Jim, not Maggie and Jim
NOAH: ‘Kay. I was really hoping Sorkin would make them go away. On the other hand, I could dig Sloane and Don getting together.
But enough about these relationships. I’m starting to feel like a gossipy high school cheerleader (which is one of the reasons I have problems with the show). I came to The Newsroom for the politics, having been a big fan of The West Wing and as a person involved with politics in my day job. How do you think Sorkin is handling the political content so far? Is he beating us over the head with the OWS stuff or do you find it woven well into the fabric of the story?
JMM: Not at all – OWS is still back seat to the Romney campaign, but Neal got off a good one about the shoes. Even MacKenzie liked it. Sorkin has definitely made MacKenzie less of a klutz and more of a superb EP this year. Thankfully. As for the downside of the show – that is Sorkin being Sorkin. He throws in the romances for the entertainment (and the unknown) as we already know the outcomes of the news events themselves.
Having said that – Operation Genoa is fiction, right?
NOAH: It is fiction, but I have heard that it’s based on Operation Tailwind, in which U.S. forces supposedly used nerve gas in Laos during the Vietnam War. The allegations proved to be false, and lots of news producers got fired over it. I liked the Operation Genoa story a lot more before I knew it was based on a real thing. I was really hoping that Sorkin had learned a lesson here because I think you hit the nail on the head.
It is very hard to engage with the show emotionally when you know how these news stories end. Even worse, we know that the entire narrative thrust of the show – Will’s “mission to civilize” – is a failure because here we are, 2 years later, and our public discourse sure ain’t civilized. For me, it often reduces “The Newsroom” to an intellectual exercise, and I was really hoping that Operation Genoa would be different, but Sorkin has this weird impulse to tell us everything that’s going to happen before it does. Even if we didn’t know about the connection to Tailwind, he told us in the very first scene of this season that Genoa turns out not to be true, and Jerry gets fired (I think). Why do you think he does this? Is there any value to knowing how the story ends at the beginning?
JMM: I think this is how the format change plays. Not something new each week…but a continuation. Not sure it was for the best but it anchors the story line. As for Genoa’s end already revealed, that’s okay because we get to see how they fucked up (in the coming weeks) , and that will bring us more of Marcia Gay Harden’s sharp attorney who bills ACN at $1500 an hour. Looking forward to that.
I think you stated in your blog that you like the Jerry Dantana role as performed by Hamish Linklater. I guess this is where I feel that Sorkin gave away too much. He already told us that Linklater’s Dantana is not a ‘favorite son’. Maybe that is why I am predisposed to not like him. But the actor is doing the role very nicely. Care to tell us a bit of why you like Linklater/Dantana?
NOAH: Ha, I think I feel the opposite about him. I like him because he is a no-nonsense character. There are no romantic subplots for him, and he doesn’t seem to give a damn about being clever, witty, or even liked by his peers. It kind of endears me to him, as the personal subplots of the show are, to me, the least enjoyable. Plus, I really like the actor. I didn’t know of him until earlier this year, but I thought his performance as Ralph Branca in “42” was terrific, and I think he’s equally good here.
JMM: I saw 42 and remember that Branca’ s role was decent, as well as decently written and performed. But, I didn’t connect Linklater to 42 once this show began.
NOAH: I would like to circle back to a couple of things you said earlier. First, yes to Marcia Gay Harden. She’s a wonderful actress and so far has been under-utilized. I’m sure we’ll see more of her. You don’t get someone like her on your show for what has so far been a pretty thankless role. Also, isn’t Patton Oswalt supposed to show up at some point? I remember reading about that.
But I also want to talk a little more about the scene between Neal and MacKenzie. Like you, I loved the moment where Neal got in his little zinger about her shoes (although it was another example of Sorkin being patronizing towards his female characters). There are great opportunities on this show to deal with the tension between the older and younger generations. Sorkin gets into it a little with Will and Mackenzie’s disdain for all-things-internet (or, in this episode (barista), but I like Neal’s passion for OWS and I’m interested in MacKenzie’s rejection of it. I hope the show develops that dynamic a bit more. You?
JMM: You will get more of OWS, but count on some of the ‘more’ being Neal and Shelly. And we still need to see Shelly on Will’s show. The OWS was slow to start but all the media was slow to pick up on it.
About that – what about News Night bringing in the flawed Fox coverage. Neal said their flawed coverage was better that our no coverage. Clearly Sorkin is giving Neal (Dev Patel) a far meatier role this year – but that might be lessened with the appearance of Patton Oswalt.
NOAH: So about that Fox coverage. I feel kind of “meh” about it. I mean, I don’t believe that Sorkin actually takes Neal’s perspective – that their crappy coverage of OWS was better than their own “no coverage.” It was just another example of Sorkin’s criticism of the Republican party (which Fox News is clearly an extension of), which coursed through this episode, starting with Will’s blistering commentary on the Republican nominees.
I do think the show genuinely criticizes news outlets as disparate as MSNBC, CNN, and Fox News. Sorkin is not playing politics there.
But we know where he lies on the political spectrum, and I do think it’s notable how little criticism is directed at President Obama. Did his name even come up during the discussion of drones? And when they have an actual scandal involving the executive branch – Operation Genoa – they fictionalized it and, again, leave the names of any higher-ups out of it. In these moments, the show lacks credibility and feels more like a partisan lecture.
JMM: Well Sorkin is partisan. Always will be. Fair is not a part of his DNA. And many have taken the show to task for it. I mean last year Will beat up one straw man after another – it was a weekly regularity, so I am not surprised that his partisanship (as well his obvious failure to attack Obama) attracts negative thinking. So yeah, it is a partisan lecture.
NOAH: And I guess that’s okay. But if the goal is to change people’s thinking on a subject, he’s not going to do it with such obviously biased writing. My problem is that it makes it hard to engage when I feel like I’m being lectured, even when I agree with the content (which I generally do when it comes to Sorkin).
The reason this episode worked so well for me had little to do with the politics. It was the engagement between the characters that are starting to finally round into form for me.
That moment between Neal and MacKenzie. That (and every) conversation between Charlie and Will. I love how Charlie was clearly wasted in that scene. And man, did Don make me laugh with that chair this week. It’s amazing what a simple pratfall can do for my mood.
JMM: Sorkin put Don into MacKenzie’s mishaps from last year. So far this year, she’s avoided them. Speaking of Don, does Sloan ever say anything at a normal pace. I think she (along with Charlie) are the two best characters on the show. And of the newbie’s I think I am going to like Constance Zimmer as the steam-rolling press secretary that will be dueling with Jim Harper every week. Loved it when she said – Good one Jim when he asked if she was controlled remotely. What did you think of her?
NOAH: I liked her a lot. Liked her on House of Cards, too. She’s carving out a nice little niche for herself in political shows. Her character really rings true for me, as someone who works in politics. I totally agree about Sloane and Charlie,
and I think the reason their characters are so effective is because they are able to make Sorkin’s dialogue – which is brilliant and lyrical but often a bit long-winded – seem natural. The scene between them last year, when Charlie yelled at her for her mistake with the Japanese translator (Don’t call me girl, sir!), is still one of my favorites.
JMM: I added a new one from Sloan this week to my list of favorites. That would be when she told Zane that she would break his knuckles with a ball-peen hammer.
On that note, we shall call this discussion one and done. I thank Noah Gittell for his participation in this talk about Willie Pete. Readers, feel free to jump in with your own comments. Until next time….