"Will McAvoy" Wins Best Actor Emmy (and My Critique of Season 2 of HBO's The Newsroom)

Sunday, September 29, 2013
[NOTE: this post will discuss story elements--and probably introduce spoilers--from the recently completed second season of HBO's The Newsroom...if you have not yet finished watching, be advised!] 

Jeff Daniels, star of HBO's The Newsroom, proudly poses backstage after winning his Primetime Emmy Award last  Sunday night (photo copyright PA Images Dan Steinberg/AP).

In a somewhat mild upset, a fictitious cable news anchorman beat out a similarly pretend former teacher turned meth manufacturer at last Sunday night's 65th Primetime Emmy Awards, broadcast from the Nokia Theater L.A. Live in Los Angeles.  Jeff Daniels, who plays cable news anchor Will McAvoy on HBO's The Newsroom, was chosen over a group of five others, which included perceived favorite Bryan Cranston (Walter White from AMC's critically acclaimed series Breaking Bad) for the honor of Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series. This was Daniels' first Emmy award nomination and second major acting award win (his portrayal as Dr. Ross Jennings in the 1990 film Arachnophobia earned him a Saturn Award for best actor in a science fiction, fantasy or horror film or television role).  I am calling it an "upset" because Breaking Bad, a very popular show via live and streaming viewing, was coming to the end of its five-season run tonight and its lead actor had won three consecutive Emmys between 2008 and 2010 (he also bested Kevin Spacey, Congressman Francis "Frank" Underwood from another of my favorite shows, the Netflix non-broadcast series House of Cards).

Daniels' recognition was redemption for what I believe was a mediocre (but watchable) sophomore season of The Newsroom, the primary reason for me signing up for HBO about 15 months ago.  As a journalism student and lifelong news "junkie", one of my original hopes was to be able to get a behind-the-scenes look into the cable news industry and how they must straddle today's competing priorities of informing the public and reducing their monetary "drag" on the entertainment division many network and cable news operations have been relegated to.  In their first season, we saw plenty of the former with linkage with several important stories from 2010 and 2011 (the 2010 BP oil spill, the Egyptian "Arab Spring" uprising, and the killing of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden) and executive producer Mackenzie McHale's (Emily Mortimer) attempts at transitioning Newsnight, McAvoy's nightly show, into a platform for quality programming.  Unfortunately, these efforts hit almost predictable roadblocks along the way and drew the increasing scrutiny of Atlantis World Media corporate officials (the mother-son team of Leona and Reese Lansing, played by Jane Fonda and Chris Messina) when those changes start to affect the company's bottom line and lucrative Capitol Hill connections.  The end of the first season had Leona firing McAvoy, McHale and their boss Charlie Skinner (Sam Waterston), president of the news division but the tables were turned courtesy of a hidden voice recorder and a manilla envelope used as a bluff prop.

Season two got off on an entirely sour note--both figuratively and literally--when the show's opening started.  One of the things that I really liked about the program was their intro video homage to news pioneers during the introductory sequence and it was a saddening experience to see that they had to change it.  Here is that old version:

And here is the new (and less appealing to me) version:

No more Sputnik...no more Murrow...no more Cronkite, Huntley or Hewitt (and they shortened it by over 20 seconds to boot).  I understand that there was a change in writers as well as no longer having a need to set the mood for the inaugural season but to toss it away and change it into a Starbuck's/Red Bull caffeine and adrenaline-fused audio/visual version did not sit well with me and I let anyone who monitors my Twitter feed know it:

After that initial shock (and "tweet"), I settled in for what would become a season-long fixation on a story that, like everything else, actually happened in our past--but this time, you have to go back over 40 years to find it (but only about 15 for how the show "borrowed" it).  One of the things that draws me into their storylines is the inclusion of recent current events.  As I mentioned above, we got to relive some events that seem to slide out of our short-term memories when the next breaking news item comes across the wires or television screens.  The Newsnight team, temporarily augmented by a Washington, DC-based producer Jerry Dantana (Hamish Linklater), go through a long, painstaking process to vet a story with potential Oval Office repercussions concerning the use of chemical weapons during a military extraction operation in Pakistan.  Codenamed "Genoa", this activity--if confirmed--would be a violation of laws for conducting war and quite probably subject those who ordered their use to trials by international tribunal (the initial tip was described as "the kind that makes careers and ends presidencies").  Its timeframe was given as happening under the Obama administration (January 2009 onward) so I was racking my brain about what Genoa was being substituted for.  As it turns out, there was no Obama-ordered Pakistan extraction operation because the event it was actually based on one that allegedly happened during the Vietnam War.

Soldiers at a medical triage area during Operation Tailwind, the story on which The Newsroom's Genoa season-long storyline was based (uncredited photo).

Operation Tailwind, conducted in September 1970, was a covert US military incursion into Laos (a country bordering Vietnam) where a strong non-lethal version of tear gas was used to repel North Vietnamese soldiers away from the landing zones used by the American helicopters.  In 1998, CNN and Time Magazine (both Time Warner subsidiaries) ran stories alleging the use of sarin gas--a nerve agent--instead of that non-standard crowd control agent.  Producers of the program went to air with what they believed to be reliable credentials and witnesses that, after that "Valley of Death" segment was broadcast, seemed to change their stories.  Both the Pentagon and the news organizations conducted their own investigations and, after a three-week review that found no credible evidence, both CNN and Time retracted the story and fired the two key producers and reprimanded Peter Arnett, the on-screen reporter, for his role in the debacle.  The producers rebutted their dismissals with a detailed report that documented their original evidence for making such an extraordinary and damaging declaration and their cases were eventually out of court for undisclosed sums of money.

McAvoy's "American Taliban" commentary was the closing crescendo for a successful first season of The Newsroom. 
The beginning of season two started with several of the main characters providing depositions for an AWM-retained legal team to counter Dantana's wrongful termination lawsuit after the Genoa story went horribly wrong.  It was discovered that the temporary producer selectively edited an interview with a senior military official with knowledge of US intentions of using nerve gas in cases of exfiltration operations in last resort measures (he was actually caught by forgetting to crop out a basketball shot clock that was on a television screen next to the image- and voice-disguised Marine during an interview that had only the two principals in the room--the third was told to leave because the general had not "cleared" them prior to arrival).  In addition to this personal malicious act, we learned that one of Skinner's trusted defense sources (who also turned out to be McAvoy's source as well) fed him bad information to avenge his drug-addicted son's death after being let go by AWM for cause (he believed that Charlie should have stepped in to prevent the intern's termination and waited for his moment to exact his vengeance upon the journalist by setting him up with a key--but bogus--component for a story that he knew Skinner would not be able to turn down).  To further compound the unlikelihood of this event actually happening, one of the first-person witnesses failed to disclose a military service-related brain injury that causes memory loss and another supposed deceased operational participant was someone with the exact name who simply "parroted" answers that he had heard from other witnesses during his interview with McHale.  We saw the Newsnight team go through excruciating and deliberate "red team" reviews to ensure that what they had was actually accurate and, despite all of these precautions and safeguards, they aired a false story and were forced to retract everything presented to a record-setting television audience. Understanding what kind of negative publicity a protracted legal battle might cause to their employer, both Skinner and McAvoy try to tender their resignations to the CEO but, unlike her desire to get rid of them at the end of last season, Leona refused to accept them and instead hired a high-power legal team to help her defeat the $20 million lawsuit filed by the fired producer.  If the case goes to trial, it should make an interesting story line to follow during the recently announced third season.

Leona Lansing listens to Charlie Skinner and Will McAvoy plead their case for resigning from AWM.

While the inaugural season was meant to highlight the show and introduce the characters, the second primarily kept to the latter and expanded upon their interpersonal relationship and professional exploits.  Because of office friction between Jim and Maggie (John Gallagher, Jr. and Alison Pill) caused by her YouTube-posted feelings for him (which also ruins her relationship with her now ex-boyfriend Don and strains the one with her roommate Lisa), the producer got himself assigned to replace an injured AWN embed on the Romney campaign bus (this created the vacancy for Dantana) where he meets and gets romantically involved with Hallie Shea (Grace Gummer--the real-life daughter of actress Meryl Streep).  After the breakup with Don (Thomas Sadoski), Maggie wanted to expand her professional boundaries and volunteered to go to Africa; however, she experiences a life-altering event that has a profound impact upon her personality and job performance after she returned.  Neal (Dev Patel) got involved with elements of the Occupy Wall Street movement and gets roughed up by NYPD officers in a scene eerily reminiscent of real life events circa September 2011.  Sloan (Olivia Munn) had some very private photographs of her posted on the internet by a former boyfriend and she was used tangentially in many of the other storylines until the final episode where she finally makes her romantic move on Don at nearly the moment the network is calling the 2012 presidential election. As the show's executive producer, McHale took the Genoa situation extremely hard and wanted to pay for her mistakes by having McAvoy fire her (he supposedly was the only one with that authority).  During the next-to-last episode, Will finally agreed to do that but instead, as I alluded to earlier, he proposed to her near the end of the final show which sets up another thread to follow during the upcoming season.

This HBO video promo provides hints on Will McAvoy's personal journey throughout The Newsroom's second season.

Since there are numerous online sites that dissect nearly every second of every episode, I am not going to try to match their detail or level of analysis of the show; however, the most intriguing character in this past season was, in my opinion, the anchor.  After last season's blistering "American Taliban" rant against the Tea Party movement, he was "punished" by AWM's corporate leadership and was forced to sit out the network's coverage of the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.  As a man who continues to be uncomfortable in his new role as an on-air Don Quixote-like provocateur (his hospitalization over mixing alcohol and therapist-prescribed medications provided him the genesis for the commentary clip above), he sought persona counsel (and some carousing) with gossip columnist Nina Howard (Hope Davis) and is sent to the network's morning show to try and "soften" his image with the help of its perky co-hosts (their relationship ended soon afterward but Nina was not too broken up about it because she knew that there was someone else in his life--she had heard Will's voice mail to Mac that deletion off of her phone was used to blackmail Leona and Reece last season).  His overseeing guardian role over the program and its staff was on display when he got Neal out of jail after the OWS arrest and personally apologized to a representative of that movement (she wanted an on-air apology but settled for the one-on-one kind) for how he had treated her during a live interview in return for information on another critical Genoa lead).  He even got a dose of his own "patronly bravado" when his senior staff tells him that they would resign en masse if Charlie and Will are let go.  At the end of the first episode, he was seen sitting on the floor in a hallway outside the meeting room in a demonstration of moral support for his executive producer while she was giving her deposition to the legal team (and, as we found out as the season concluded, this act foreshadowed a major advancement in their personal relationship).

Will attempts to tell the gathered coworkers the good news about his recent proposal to Mac.

When that story did break (and quickly soured), he and Charlie both made several failed attempts to leave the show with the intent of keeping the remainder of the Newsnight team--from McHale on down--intact for the new host.  Mac, blaming her own perceived journalistic neglect for allowing the Genoa story to air, talked Will into firing her effective the end of the election night broadcast.  With everyone on edge awaiting Reese's decision (Leona had delegated it to him to see how he would do on his own), the former couple have heated words in an empty waiting area where each of their "buttons" (Will's narcissism, Mac's past infidelity) were pushed by the other and his revealing that the engagement ring that he bought was just a "practical joke" deeply hurt her to the point of her nearly physically harming him.  When McAvoy and Skinner meet in his office later in that evening to discuss their pending resignations, Will comes to the realization that her desire to be fired was just a personal attempt at seeking penance for the turmoil her affair six years earlier did to the anchor.  He retrieved the ring from his desk drawer (he had lied to McHale and said that he had it returned the same day she saw it) and searched frantically for her throughout the facility to the neglect of everything going on around him (she was sitting in the studio where he was supposed to be).  In a fumbling attempt to propose, he wanted to tell her that he would never hurt her again and asks her to marry him (not a surprise--she accepts!).  After some off-camera PDA, they walked in to the main newsroom area while Reese was explaining his decision not to accept any resignations to make their joint announcement.  After wandering along a nearly two-season long path of self-doubt, self-flagellation, self-reliance, self-promotion, self-righteousness, and short fits of selflessness, he finally realized that he truly wants (and probably needs) to bring McHale in his life to achieve self-actualization. 

While this Emmy win was for Daniels' performance during the first season, it will be interesting to see if this recent season's work will be similarly rewarded (hopefully his 2014 reprise of Harry Dunne in the Dumb and Dumber sequel--or the photo he recently "tweeted" with costar Jim Carrey below--won't leave a lasting imprint on the academy voters next summer).  I would also hope that those same voters will take a close look at Sadoski's remarkable transformation over that same nine-episode run when deciding their outstanding supporting actor honors.

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