After spending a fair chunk of her time on the show in the background, Olivia Munn steps to the fore as her character, Sloan Sabbith, gets to fill in for injured ACN news anchor Elliott Hirsch (David Harbour), who received the beating of a lifetime from an Egyptian mob while on assignment in Cairo. Sloan, an economist and ACN’s financial analyst, is ill-suited to any on-screen assignment longer than the requisite five minutes she has dedicated to her segment on the economy each night, and though she initially acquits herself well as an anchor, her inexperience catches up with her. This is to say nothing of how her anchoring duties fall on a particularly newsworthy period, as Japan is suddenly faced with a nuclear crisis following the earthquake of March 2011.
The pressure Sloan is under is understandable, given that Will (Jeff Daniels), who recommended her for the position, doesn’t exactly give her a sterling vote of confidence. Also, we specifically learned last week that Sloan has been told she lacks “human knowledge,” a certain paucity of tact as it relates to other people. So, given that she isn’t all that good with people, it’s no surprise that she crosses words with a spokesperson for a Japanese power plant. What is surprising is that these cross words are in Japanese. It really is a hell of an on-air trainwreck sequence, the kind at which this show absolutely excels. Except, this time, it isn’t really the anchors’ fault. Or, at least, while the anchor was wrong to do what they did, they did it for the right reasons.
In an off-camera pre-interview with Sloan, the spokesman admits that the International Nuclear Event Scale rating for the Fukushima reactor was a seven, and not the five that the plant would have the public believe. Basically, it’s the difference between an event with broad impact and an outright, full-scale disaster. Of course, it’s not anything that the man will admit to on the air, so Sloan, via indirect encouragement from Will, takes it upon herself to try and wrangle an admission from the man on the air. Sloan is trying to do the right thing by getting the honest, genuine truth to the public, reporting the facts in a way that is commensurate with Will’s mission statement when relaunching News Night. But Sloan isn’t filling in on News Night. And she isn’t handling the interview with anything resembling tact, and so the entire segment falls to pieces while Don (Thomas Sadoski) practically goes into a fit of apoplexy in the control room. You really feel for Sloan in that moment, but are immediately critical of how anyone could think they’d actually pull off a plan like that.
Meanwhile, Will is slowly losing his mind. He’s just received a death threat via the internet, and though Will doesn’t see it as all that big of a deal (in his past as a prosecutor, death threats were just part of the territory), Charlie and the network freak out and put a bodyguard on him. The bodyguard, played by guest star Terry Crews, serves to finally put Will in his place. Here, Will is utterly bereft of any say in what he does or how he does it. He’s now beholden to a man that has been tasked with keeping him safe. Suffice to say, Will isn’t happy with having his sense of control taken away from him. This is to say nothing of the fits of insomnia that have been plaguing him; a condition that drives him back to the therapist (Numb3rs’ David Krumholtz) he hasn’t seen in nearly four years. In the therapist, Krumholz provides yet another character who doesn’t take any of Will’s nonsense, demanding that Will start telling him the truth about what’s bothering him, instead of pretending that everyone is making a big deal out of nothing. In fact, Crews and Krumholtz are part of a trifecta of characters, this week, who aren’t going to put up with Will, as Will interviews a black, gay supporter of Rick Santorum to whom Will speaks with passive-aggressive derision. Will, in his obstinate narrow-mindedness, can’t reconcile the walking contradiction of this man, the mere fact of him. It’s yet another classic (or is the show too young to say classic?) trainwreck for The Newsroom, and while it isn’t as entertaining as Sloan’s slice of disaster, it still has a rubbernecker’s appeal and is far more satisfying than the disjointed romantic subplots. In a situation where his substitute anchor nearly sparks a minor international incident, I find it hard to believe that Don would suddenly cut in to ask if his girlfriend is into Jim (John Gallagher, Jr.), especially when Don is shown to be the most career-oriented, professional man on the staff.
That said, Jim and Maggie (Alison Pill) continue to have wonderful chemistry, to the point that I’m actively looking forward to the two of them finally getting around to hooking up. It’s a wonderful progression, and is actually fraught with conflict that didn’t exist before, as Don has actually become something of a likeable character. He might not necessarily be a nice guy, but I do feel he’s a good guy. It’s the strongest of the romantic subplots, at least. In fact, it’s the strongest of the non-news subplots, since I struggle from week-to-week to care about the “Will in the tabloids again” fluff. The Will/Mackenzie romance has even less import, as the two vacillate from week-to-week on just what they mean to one another, and while it might well be construed as part of the journey in building up their personal history, that doesn’t feel like a journey the show is actually making. It’s just presenting to characters (with some fine chemistry, to be honest) who act inconsistently above and beyond the usual degree of inconsistency which love usually makes one act. It’s just a very hit-or-miss piece of each week’s show.
However, I’d still have to rank this as the best episode of The Newsroom yet. The focus was tight and, much like “Amen” taught us about Neal (Dev Patel) and showed just what Will means to his staff, before last week’s episode showed us the inverse, this week’s episode allowed us to see Sloan develop to the point where she feels like an organic part of this ensemble. It really is Olivia Munn’s best work as an actress, given how few roles she’s had, much less roles with scripts that featured dialogue as challenging as Aaron Sorkin’s. His dialogue requires a very specific kind of actor. Not just anyone can pull it off, and so it was with a kind of giddiness that I found myself watching Munn pull it off. The show is cited in critical communities as below par for HBO, but I feel that this season has made a dramatic turnaround with these last three episodes, presenting a show that is good far more often than it isn’t, and which actually deserves a spot on the TiVo, if not a live viewing.