I thought last night’s episode of The Newsroom was an improvement in its portrayal of the actual process of reporting and the kind of mistakes writers can make in both sourcing and tone when they’re in the heat of a broadcast, if not in Ladies Knowing How to Do Things, or Having a Modern Understanding of The Internet. But there was one thing I thought was disconcerting about the episode: the divide between the way the show talked about Will McAvoy’s father’s drinking and abusive behavior, and the way The Newsroom has consistently portrayed Charlie Skinner.
I’ve been bothered for a while by the way The Newsroom treats Charlie. He’s ostensibly on the side of the angels, and we do see him protecting News Night’s editorial independence. But the show also treats his heavy daytime drinking as if it’s an amusing character quirk, rather than a problem, something that leads him to get so angry at his colleagues at lunch that he’s spitting in their faces as he rants. And we often see him in full-throttle holler mode, going after his employees with an indignation that seems less passionate than abusive, and after executives in a way that seems less strategic than unhinged (speaking of which, where is Leona with the scheming?). Sloan’s screw-up tonight was obviously significant, if motivated by concerns about both the truth and the safety of Japanese people who live near Fukishima. But Charlie’s response, calling her “girl” rather than treating her as if she’s a professional who make a serious error, was bullying rather than a demonstration of commitment to high standards of journalism.
And it came in an episode where we learn that Will’s father was a physically abusive alcoholic. It was an interesting kernel of a revelation, meant to tie together Will’s response to the sorority girl questioner from the pilot and Will’s treatment of a black, gay aide to Rick Santorum, a callback to Chris Matthews’ on-air showdown with Robert Traynham. But instead of showing this and letting the revelation really sink in, The Newsroom chose to tell us in a therapy session Will finally attends after flubbing a show sign-off because he isn’t sleeping. It’s interesting to know that Will has a protective instinct, but given that he’s never demonstrated it to anyone other than MacKenzie before last night, there was something awfully tidy about suddenly making Will Sloan’s Kindly Brother in the story where we had this revelation. And just as The Newsroom’s told us that MacKenzie is a brilliant producer and thinks that means it never has to show her booking a guest or editing a story, the show seemed content to tell us that things had been bad and use that admission to drive plot rather than to make plot clear and to develop characters further.
A show with a stronger sense of drama might let us build to this conclusion and do work to set up Will’s journalistic relationship with Sloan rather than shoehorning it in when necessary to tell a story. A more searching one might even have questioned both Will’s instincts to bully and to protect as insufficient, given that saving women, especially by encouraging them to lie about their intelligence, is not the same as supporting them. And a more consistent one would recognize that certain behaviors are damaging whether exhibited by off-screen abusive fathers or shouty, grandfatherly news executives.