Elementary and the Case of the Disappearing Characters

I don’t care all that much about Mycroft Holmes on Elementary. That is, I don’t care about him as a main character. He’s a good supporting character, with the potential to be great – he’s interesting for the reactions he elicits from the protagonists, and for what those reactions tell us about them. I like Rhys Ifans and his believably prickly-fond sibling chemistry with Jonny Lee Miller’s Sherlock. And if he’d been around a little more this season, I might even care about him more as a main character.

But he hasn’t been around all that much, and a decent portion of his appearances has been involved in this “slept with Watson off-screen” silliness. (Elementary, please give Joan Watson something to do. Please. I beg you. That’s a separate, but related, issue.) So, while I trust that there are more plotcakes to come this week as Elementary ramps up to its second season finale, the big reveal last week about Mycroft? Ok, whatever. I guess I admire the technical misdirection, but I found it hard to care. I wasn’t shocked – or, frankly, interested – nearly as much as the episode seemed to think I should be, only because I don’t think he’s been shown to be that important a character. He’s certainly no Irene/Moriarty.

It’s a weirdly common situation for Elementary, which has had some problems sustaining plotlines and recurring supporting characters this season. There was a promising middle stretch, when it seemed like the police department’s widespread resentment of our heroes, along with Holmes’ culpability in getting Detective Bell shot, were building to a larger, game-changing crisis situation. And then … that all sort of fizzled. And sure, I guess the writers could have been laying the groundwork for some sort of shocking dramatic showdowns in the next couple of episodes, but even if that happens at this point, I’m just not sure how much I’ll care.

The main problem is that the show seems to be getting wrong what it did mostly right last season. (West Wing comparison coming up ahead.)

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-“I think my character was just … raped.”

-“No. No no no, that’s never happened to me. You must have pressed the wrong button.”

Amy Schumer’s perfect parody of Aaron Sorkin, The Newsroom and Good Women Existing to Support Great Men quite rightly got linked pretty much everywhere, but this is even better. Schumer takes on the military rape epidemic, victim-blaming and misogynist video game culture, all in three minutes or less!

"Not because of me. Because of Africa."

This season finale of The Newsroom, like the episodes that preceded it, was not quite as howlingly bad as the first one: there were no Sex and the City buses, no additions to the unrequited Love Polygon of Doom, and even a few (amazingly abrupt and unearned, but whatever) romantic resolutions. I’ll take them, just so that I never have to hear Mac and Will have the same massively unpleasant and uninteresting argument again.

But wow, does this show still have rough edges. “Because of Africa.” Yep, Africa! All of it. The entire continent is almost as important as the actions of one Jim Harper, hapless truth-telling Don Juan of the cable news industry. (More on him in a minute.)

The Instagram-filter flashbacks to all of one season ago were premature and cheesy, an effort to manufacture nostalgia for something that hasn’t aged enough to earn it. (I’m with Alan Sepinwall, this entire episode felt like a valedictory wrapping up of loose ends, and I’ll be surprised if there’s another season.) The debate over Grace Gummer’s “new media” versus Jim’s “old media” was tediously literal and antiquated in the way I just have to ignore with Sorkin and his approach to my profession (for which I blog and Tweet and also write for an actual printed newspaper, so I’m not really sure on which side of that supposedly bright line I’m supposed to fall). And then there was Jim, handily winning his season-long campaign to be The Worst with his blessings for the three women who loved him. Solving the mystery of Maggie’s hair trauma, healing Lisa through on-the-job harassment, and goading his current girlfriend into reassuring him that no, no, he’s not at all patronizing. Sorry, Aaron, but having the loathsome character worry that he’s loathsome doesn’t make him a good guy, or even a very interesting one.

Catching up on The Newsroom: Two solutions to the Jerry Dantana problem

It took me practically all season, but I am now caught up on The Newsroom. And I’ll reserve judgment on the two-part season finale until part two airs (except to say that I am really quite tired of Sorkin’s humorless, righteous heroes protesting how “good” they are to the women who Done Them Wrong), but let’s talk a little bit about Genoa and the season-long clusterfuck of a framing device. Because it was doomed from the beginning, but it was only in the last two episodes that I pinpointed why, exactly, I had more problems with it than just the usual objections to flashforwards and how they undercut dramatic tension.

The season-long Genoa flashforward was a particularly unfortunate choice for The Newsroom, which already struggles to make us care about the stakes of its near-past setting. We already know the outcome of pretty much every story that Will McAvoy & Co. cover, because the real press already got there – but with Genoa Sorkin had the (good) idea to let us see how his fictitious journalists cover a fictitious story, freeing them (in theory) from the boundaries of a pre-determined outcome and giving them an opportunity to be real characters, instead of Real Doll versions of TV journalists. So of course he had to undercut them, and himself, right from the start, by telegraphing the outcome to the viewers and creating the same curious lack of dramatic tension that the show has when it handles Benghazi or the 2012 elections.  

And then there’s Jerry Dantana, the newcomer who was created out of whole cloth to come into our cozy nest of bumbling heroes, to lead them astray out of righteousness before actively doing bad things to them, and then to disappear at the end of this season. I was willing to give him, and Sorkin, the benefit of the doubt – right up until the scene where Sorkin shows him manipulating the tape of the interview. That doesn’t work. There are two other ways it could have, though:

1) Remove that scene and the flashforward framing device, and it works. Dantana as the outside villain is still clumsy but more effective – he shows up, he’s smart, he’s intense, and he’s not less righteous than the characters we know and love to loathe. Maybe he even gets in on the office romantic polygon for kicks and authenticity! We the viewers don’t realize until Mac does that the tape was manipulated, and we the viewers share the heroes’ growing unease after the story airs, and then their eventual horror at having been played into airing a false report of military war crimes. Dantana otherwise isn’t a cackling, sneering villain – he’s an abrasive, savvy newcomer who fits in with the News Night clan.  And when Mac wonders to Don whether or not she should trust his instincts, it’s a genuine dramatic moment and a genuine character moment, instead of an obvious case of the Writer Knowing All and dumping buckets of dramatic irony onto his characters’ heads.

OR – and I think this would have been even more interesting —

2) Jim did it. No Dantana necessary. Give the storyline to an existing and (supposedly) sympathetic character, someone we’re already invested in. Someone Sorkin has portrayed as a hero, as the goodest of good guys. Then the speeches about chemical weapons on civilians and military torture have the ring of conviction, coming from someone we know and are inclined to think of as being on the side of righteousness. Slowly build over the season to show his conviction overtaking his judgment, to the point where, when we see him falsify the interview, it’s inevitable and horrifying and earned, dramatic character development, instead of mechanical plot development. I think Jim would have been an especially good candidate for this storyline given his role as the scolding schoolmarm to Maggie – since their failed flirtation has apparently sent her down the rabbit hole to alcoholism and one-night stands and professional screw-ups and Africa-inspired haircuts (all of which Jim has noted and scolded her for), wouldn’t it have been an interesting parallel to watch him try to recover from the almost-affair by throwing himself into his work (without the Romney bus), and then screwing up to a much greater degree?

Anyway. I have liked some of the set pieces more this season. When Sorkin gets a good round robin of signature fast-paced workplace dialogue going, he’s hard to ignore. The women, though. Did we really need to see not one but two ladies, two episodes in a row, getting so emotional they had to punch the men who wronged them? You can just see Sorkin shaking his head: “Bitches be crazy, amirite? And bad drivers, Mac!” And poor Hope Davis, whose character has gone through about four different personalities in the span of just about that many episodes, got to go from Mary Jane Watson to a painfully on-the-nose “Lady Macbeth” in her last two incarnations. Did Will even break up with her? Because Jeff Daniels delivered that line with all the mild sarcasm of someone joking with his wife that he’d divorce her for finishing the milk and not picking any more up.

The Newsroom, Season 2 Episodes 3-4

Getting caught up on The Newsroom and … ye gods, Will McAvoy is The Worst. So is the Occupy Wall Street straw-woman who needs to be schooled by him. As a financial journalist, I’ve seen a lot of arguments on the presentation and messaging and leadership of OWS, and how they did and didn’t sabotage themselves, and how they were and weren’t covered by the media. I’d like to see those issues covered deftly, subtly, smartly by a sophisticated show about the news media. And Sorkin tried - you could see him straining to be even-handed and to have every character who interacted with OWSSW raise another part of the debate for and against the legacy of Occupy, but he shot himself in the foot with his persistent need to have Will Know Best, even if Will admits to being an ass while Knowing Best. Is this really what people were talking about when they said that Sorkin was getting better at having other characters call Will & Co. on their bullshit this season?

Also the worst: Jim, always. In so many condescending ways. And Grace Gummer’s blogger and her ridiculous regular Vassar mentions and her falling for his condescending ways.  And Maggie and her “Africa” trauma and her symbolic PTSD Cutting of Hair. And I generally like Constance Zimmer, but between this and Grey’s Anatomy last season she’s kind of specializing in playing the clear-eyed-yet-humorless bitch administrator character. (Though in the spot-casting department, it was great to see Julia Cho getting work - hi, Charlotte Lu!)

Credit where it’s due, though: Mac is 50% less incompetent this season, despite the awful recurrence of The Least Interesting Voicemail of All Time. And Olivia Munn continues to make Sloan delightfully watchable, despite some truly atrocious ongoing romantic pratfalls. Can’t wait for the sex tape episode.

entertainmentweekly:

Shhh. Can you hear that? It’s the winds of change… and they’re blowing blank pieces of paper all over the Desert of Discontent, or something!

Apparently the new season of The Newsroom will take place in a post-apocalyptic nuclear wasteland, where one rag-tag team of intrepid journalists must find a new power source for the world’s last cathode-ray television, while fighting to preserve the remnants of News and Culture and Civilization from the survivalist Tea Party hordes and the Sex and the City zombies overrunning the earth.

entertainmentweekly:

Shhh. Can you hear that? It’s the winds of change… and they’re blowing blank pieces of paper all over the Desert of Discontent, or something!

Apparently the new season of The Newsroom will take place in a post-apocalyptic nuclear wasteland, where one rag-tag team of intrepid journalists must find a new power source for the world’s last cathode-ray television, while fighting to preserve the remnants of News and Culture and Civilization from the survivalist Tea Party hordes and the Sex and the City zombies overrunning the earth.

(via popculturebrain)

The opaque women of The Hour and The Newsroom

imageThe Hour is a much better show than The Newsroom. It’s more entertaining, funnier and more sophisticated in its depiction of a team of television journalists chasing stories and Standing Up for The Truth. Its characters are more interesting and more likable than their counterparts on The Newsroom and it’s more feminist, mostly.

Which is why it was so blasted irritating to keep having Newsroom flashbacks during this season of The Hour, and to realize that I have the same problem with the main woman characters on both shows. Abi Morgan’s Bel Rowley is essentially Aaron Sorkin’s MacKenzie McHale - a news producer who’s supposedly brilliant at her job, even though we spend most of our time watching her lose arguments to her hot-headed, even more brilliant male colleague-slash-love interest. Bel has so much potential, and admittedly at times she’s allowed to show flashes of actual professional competence. But like MacKenzie, she’s a cipher in the romance that the show tells us is its all-encompassing, overriding central relationship. Like MacKenzie, she’s the misguided partner in the relationship for rejecting the hero’s love. Like MacKenzie, her reasons for doing so remain mostly hidden to the audience.

Spoilers for The Hour's second season…

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Bel, Freddie, Lix and Marnie: Cautiously optimistic about The Hour, season two

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I was bitterly disappointed with the first season of The Hour, otherwise known as the British Newsroom by way of Mad Men, plus spies. (And oh, those halcyon days of last October, before I knew how acute “Aaron Sorkin’s massive inability to write consistently intelligent women and/or romances” would become.) The show seems to have gotten a lot more buzz for its second season on BBC America; some of the attention is of the wary, “please don’t bring back the spies” variety, but much of it applauds The Hour's glamorous atmosphere, pedigreed cast and seeming feminist bona fides.

I was less convinced, especially after this season’s first episode. It featured nominal heroine Bel Rowley (Romola Garai) once again passively reacting to events, having lost her “spark” along with her spurned platonic soul mate (Ben Whishaw playing Ben Whishaw, eerily pubescent face not improved by a breakup beard). “She’s an excellent producer, you know,” was said of Bel late in that episode, in a throw-the-remote example of “tell, don’t show” characterization.

The second episode was much better. We actually got to see Bel working on her own, protecting her reporters and digging up information from cagey sources. It was the first time in several episodes that the show bothered to show us the professional competence of our main woman character, rather than assuring us that really, she is professionally competent, trust us, and wouldn’t you rather see her make another disastrously bad romantic decision? (Of course, the episode couldn’t help teeing up a bit of the latter. Someday I’d love to see a female journalist on television whose characterization doesn’t boil down to “professionally brilliant, personal screwup.” But at least Bel’s personal foibles this season seem like they will pale next to the implosion of her co-worker and ex-lover, Hector “Jimmy McNulty” Madden.)

And there were other promising developments. Whishaw’s Freddie Lyon is still a little too perfectly saintly and Gary Stu for me, but the second episode showed a few interestingly ugly cracks in that identity. Notably: his new wife is attacked in a hate crime, and he leaves her side to catch her attacker — not to punish him, but to convince him to come appear on Freddie’s TV program. Freddie’s crusading morality and drive to get the story at any cost was already a big part of his character and the plot in season one, but I found it interesting that we’re now shown how extreme he can be even when the stakes are relatively minor. He’s not trying to crack open a super-secret Soviet conspiracy (spies!), he’s trying to book a guest for what amounts to a talk show. This choice, the privileging of professional over personal, is one he will always make, and his wife Camille is understandably upset when she becomes the “personal” in this episode. Freddie later tells Bel that eventually, “she’ll love me for it,” but whether that’s truth or foolish optimism remains to be seen. Camille would be a more interesting character if it’s the former, but given her romantic-spoiler status in the core Freddie-Bel-Hector triangle, I suspect it will eventually turn out to be the latter.

And then there’s the marvelous Anna Chancellor, whose Lix Storm seems to be getting a bit more background and screen time with a new love interest. (Yes, Lix also invited Freddie into her bed, for reasons that probably had to do with her role as a partial Abi Morgan stand-in, allowing the showrunner to consummate her crush on her favorite character. Let us never speak of it again.) Lix spent much of last season fondly mocking the shenanigans of the kids around her, which made it all the more unsettling when she decided to partake in them. But with Peter Capaldi’s Randall Brown, she sparks against an equal. Brown is a strangely compelling character, somehow managing to balance quirk with gravitas, and Capaldi and Chancellor show how chemistry is done. In the second episode of this season, they exchange glances - just a look, just fleeting expressions — and it’s like an entire relationship in a few seconds.

I haven’t even mentioned how much I like what Morgan is doing with Hector’s neglected wife Marnie, a onetime Betty Draper who just staged a coup in her marriage. I loved how Marnie mentioned Bel when she told Hector that she was done with all but appearances, that by then Bel was not The Other Woman but another example of Hector’s mistreatment of “two smart, beautiful women.”

So yeah, I’m hooked again. Here’s hoping the next four episodes don’t implode quite as much last year’s did.

The Newsroom’s completely forgettable season finale

There’s a special art to ending a season of a television show, especially if that show’s future is uncertain. A season finale has to leave the viewer hooked, willing to wait a summer or a year or more for the future adventures of the characters — but also satisfied to some extent, in the case of cancellation or other catastrophe. I’ve never been a fan of the big cliffhanger ending: “Tune in next year to see what’s in the hatch, who was shot, if the main character lives or dies!” I like the milder cliffhangers, the ones that provide a certain amount of closure while opening the door to new questions.

Unfortunately, The Newsroom's first season finale failed as any kind of cliffhanger. “The Greater Fool” was the opposite of enticing - nothing and nobody changed from their season-long stasis, no questions were raised that demand answers or even invite speculation while the show is off the air.

Will McAvoy’s news program is pretty much back where it was at the beginning of the season - tilting at windmills, making little difference, with a reprieve from the network ratings mandate that wasn’t even a known threat when the series began. Will McAvoy’s romance is pretty much where it was at the beginning of the season, and even more frustratingly, Will McAvoy’s staff’s romances are pretty much where they were at the beginning of the season. Yes, Sloan has been invited to join the least plausible office incest pool ever, but her conversations with Don were maddeningly emblematic of how this show treats romances - Aaron Sorkin finds any excuse not to move any relationship away from its season-long holding pattern, even after a big splashy kiss in front of a painful Sex and the City reference. (I could have found some excuses for that scene if it had actually led to some sort of change in the characters, but no - Maggie and Jim have now made explicit what they’ve both known, and what the audience has known, for ten episodes, but please let’s not do anything hasty, like actually act on that knowledge.)

As a contrast, rival summer TV series Bunheads and Political Animals knocked their season finales out of the park. For Bunheads, renewal was confirmed by the time I watched it; for Political Animals, it seems much less certain. But for both shows, I could almost be satisfied if their first season finales were their last.

Political Animals ended its season on an upbeat note, Bunheads on a relative downer, but both left me wondering about the characters’ futures, without leaving them in mortal peril. Michelle will crawl back to Vegas, waiting for a call from Fanny that may or may not come. Elaine Barrish will run for president, and may or may not succeed. Both finales showed the main characters making decisions and changing course, reaching some resolutions while opening up new avenues of conflict. 

But not at The Newsroom. Sorkin basically pushed a big reset button on his characters and his setup, assuming a (granted) renewal, assuming that we want to see the same stories over again next season. Why should we bother? Sorkin did a major disservice to his characters and his stories by giving The Newsroom one of the most forgettable television season finales I’ve ever seen.

More TV I Like: Political Animals and Bunheads, pre-finales


Bunheads got renewed, hurrah! I finally caught up on last week’s episode, which unfortunately was as disappointing as advertised. All of the characters were written to be the cartoonish parody versions of themselves, acting more like escapees from a painful Saturday Night Live sketch than actual human beings. (Fanny injuring students — really? All of the girls losing their brains and/or voices when faced with boys who maybe liked them — really? Michelle and the interminable saga of the coffee shop… I mean, there were literally at least four pratfalls in this episode, with the falling student, the falling Ginny, and Michelle’s double coffee-shop knockout, which is at least three pratfalls too many for any television series that isn’t an improv comedy show.)

Michelle and Sasha’s talk near the end was great and perfectly in line with the show’s failure-and-regret strengths, but that was one minute of good versus 44 of bad. But let’s focus on the positive — a surprise renewal, which hopefully will mean a much better balance of good-to-bad in tomorrow’s finale and future episodes.

I’m hoping for a similar ratings reprieve for Political Animals, the other summer show I’m watching and mostly enjoying. The good:

-Sigourney Weaver plays Hillary Clinton as the badass she’s so publicly become these days. Some of the best parts of the show are watching Weaver’s Secretary of State character handle international crises while navigating internal White House politics and personalities.

-Carla Gugino plays an actually believable veteran journalist who manages to be both professionally competent and an occasional screwup in her personal life without ever “slipping on a banana peel" or forgetting how email works (take notes, Aaron Sorkin). I don’t buy her massive, massive lapse of judgment in last week’s episode, but — focusing on the positive here!

-The newsroom of Gugino’s paper actually somewhat resembles an actual newsroom, complete with at least a token nod to the importance of blogging and online publication in the 2012 media universe.

-The relationships, especially the non-romantic professional ones, are wonderfully complex. I’m not enthralled by the Gugino-editor-blogger triangle, but I really enjoy Gugino’s interactions with the younger blogger. She’s a personal and a professional threat, but also an inexperienced journalist who needs Gugino’s mentoring, and also a colleague who has some information Gugino needs and who will withhold it unless she gets to share the byline. Like the wary relationship between Gugino’s character and Weaver’s character, there are a lot of nuances and the show takes the time to at least nod to most of them. (I wish the show would focus on them and drop some of the tedious gay-suicidal-addict son shame-spiral, but again - focusing on the positive.)

Political Animals has its finale tonight at 10. It has yet to be renewed, so my fingers are crossed for another Bunheads miracle, if only so I don’t spend all of next summer only inside Sorkin’s newsroom.