“The Newsroom” takes on Megyn Kelly and Michele Bachmann

Will is still on a "mission to civilize" in the third episode of the season!

Topics: The Newsroom, HBO, Aaron Sorkin, jeff daniels, Emily Mortimer, mackenzie mchale, will mcavoy,

"The Newsroom" takes on Megyn Kelly and Michele Bachmann (Credit: HBO/Salon/Benjamin Wheelock)

As “The Newsroom”‘s third episode begins, anchor Will McAvoy is gravely intoning about the merits of the Republican slate seeking nomination for the Presidency — this is, after all, fall 2011 (September 23, to be exact!), and though we can presume Mitt Romney will be the nominee, all the other candidates have to sort themselves out. (Oh, God, this season is going to see McAvoy specifically rebuking each putative frontrunner in turn, isn’t it? Weren’t we all so done with Herman Cain? Can I plead PTSD, as a recapper?)

McAvoy plays clips of candidates Bachmann, Cain, Romney, and Santorum praising the U.S. military before showing the clip of the gay soldier booed at a GOP debate for asking a question about how the candidates would, as president, deal with the end of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy. “Soon, they’ll be in hell, though not soon enough,” says McAvoy of the audience, then notes that those booing would have gone “Corporal Klinger faster than you can pull on a yellow taffeta picnic dress.” This show is truly an evocation, for those who like him, of what the ideal world ought to be. On planet Earth, a cable news host condemning people to Hell would be front-page news for, oh, two-and-a-half news cycles, and Sorkin-y dialogue only works between two people presumed to know what’s going on, not broadcast to a putative audience of millions of viewers. Wouldn’t anyone whose face, like mine, contorted into befuddlement and annoyance at the weird twists in that “Klinger” remark switch to something less abrasive, like “Princesses: Long Island” or a DVD of “Faces of Death”?

Anyway, McAvoy tells the soldier that “a grateful nation is waiting to say thank you,” which the clip he just showed explicitly proves they are not, but reporting on the level of enmity existing in the right wing of the GOP in order to expose it is hard for the (allegedly) reporting-based show, so it’s easier to presume everyone agrees with us (this recapper very much included!) and anyone who doesn’t is a hell-bound outlier. “News Night” over, MacKenzie tells Will that he needs to let the light hit his face in order to have a visually pleasing broadcast. He tells her to fix the lights and when she says it’s impossible he ignores her. Great Man coming through! Watch out, those who say you should work to make your broadcast watchable! Soon you’ll be in hell with literally every member of the GOP!

The leitmotif of this episode is a voicemail Will left MacKenzie after the killing of Osama Bin Laden. She really wants to know what it said! He doesn’t remember, as he was high, so he goes and meets with Charlie. Charlie tells Will he should have told “what’s-her-name” (debate moderator Megyn Kelly) to “go fuck herself” on-air, because nothing rises to meet homophobia like casual misogyny and a cable news employee in 2011 would have no reason to know who Kelly was.

Asked why he’s still a registered Republican, Will tells Charlie he’s “changing it [the GOP] from within,” because no one can have as much influence over a party as the liberal member who has a framed picture of Nelson Rockefeller over their bed. Just ask former U.S. Rep Chris Shays, or influential “Walking Dead” live-tweeter Meghan McCain!

Anyway, gossip columnist Nina Howard found out that Will “didn’t have the flu on 9/11,” when Will took a day’s absence to avoid contaminating the tenth-anniversary coverage of the Sept. 11 attacks with the stench of his scandal, having referred to the Tea Party as the “American Taliban.” I make fun of a lot of elements of this show but Will’s absence on Sept. 11, when involved in a war of words over the “Taliban,” seems at once completely obvious and totally justifiable? Would anyone sane think he did have the flu? Furthermore, since when do cable news shows put forth their commentary personalities to cover ongoing news events — or are we still pretending “News Night” isn’t explicitly “Rachel Maddow” only more liberal?

The two go back and forth as to whether or not Will should be forthright about his absence. “I really thought we were done with the ‘mission to civilize,’” says Charlie after Will bizarrely spouts the catchphrase that has made every non-white non-straight non-man’s eyeball blood vessels pop. “Did Don Quixote de la Mancha give up? [sic., he's referring to 'Don Quixote'],” asks Will.

“Yeah, he died of being crazy,” says Charlie.

Speaking of which! Jim bedevils the Romney aides constantly and yet expects to get 30 minutes with the candidate. Not that one isn’t sympathetic with his point-of-view, naturally, but the nature of access journalism isn’t a new invention, and challenging press aides on point-of-fact isn’t a particularly good way to do anything but challenge press aides. Why not hold your fire until actually meeting the candidate? The answer is idealism! The Jim thread runs through the episode as he continually presses random functionaries on why they are on-message (and they yell back, about Will’s coverage of the gay soldier, to which Jim replies that Romney “would have won the election that night” if he’d stood up for the soldier. Leaving this one alone!).

The intransigence of press aides, and the degree to which one must work not through them but around them, shouldn’t exactly be news to Jim but whatever, until he decides to form a splinter group of journalists to cover the Romney campaign guerrilla-style, off the bus. One of them is a feminist blogger played by Meryl Streep’s daughter. This will be fun!

Will makes a throwaway remark to MacKenzie that no media, including “News Night,” covered the opening of the so-called “Ground Zero mosque.” O-K-A-Y. Let’s fast-forward to his meeting with gossip columnist Nina, whom he gives a mimosa, saying, “I learned that on Facebook — no pulp,” as though Facebook has an “O.J. preferences vertical” or as if even the most hardened Grovestand loyalist wouldn’t concede that a mimosa with pulp is revolting. A hired pianist is playing “What the World Needs Now Is Love” on the piano. It’s an appropriate way for a media professional to meet a media reporter, not least when he admits to her, on the record, what everyone already knew about his absence, saying that she should ask herself, “Are we okay with being ‘Mean Girls’ and ‘Heathers’?” Breaking news, Sorkin: you don’t need to be one of the girls you deplore to be a Mean Girl. This show is your Burn Book.

She holds her fire, won’t run the story, and reveals to Will the content of the voicemail. For a MacGuffin, it’s pretty anodyne? Will calls “Osama” “Obama” but… whatever! Later in the episode, MacKenzie calls Nina about the contents of the voicemail and she’s cleaning up after a shower at Will’s place. It’s his right, after all! He already delivered a lecture, earlier in the episode, saying he’d convert her from “snark”: “All it takes is one Great Man!”

I’m approaching word count and I haven’t even addressed how MacKenzie hates Occupy Wall Street but is convinced the show should cover a good “representative” of the movement after Neal guessed how much her shoes cost. Other stuff happened with the overarching season-long plot, too, so keep an eye on that.

Daniel D'Addario is a staff reporter for Salon's entertainment section. Follow him on Twitter @DPD_

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