It's become clear that, the less time is spent on its characters' personal lives, the better "The Newsroom" is. "Bullies" spends enough time on the news to make it somewhat interesting, but the continued tedium of the other half of the show threatens to derail things.
The episode unfolds through a classic Sorkin technique: the therapy session that unleashes a series of flashbacks. Will goes to see his guy for the first time in a long time — so long, in fact, that he didn't know that his shrink had been dead for two years and had passed his practice onto his son. He's been unable to sleep; perhaps the series of plagues weighing on him have something to do with it?
Queue plagues. There's a death threat from a commenter on his website, which causes him to be given a wisecracking bodyguard; Sloan's disastrous handling of an interview about the Fukushima nuclear disaster; and Will's ten-car-pileup of a chat with a gay, black former Rick Santorum aide. (Before you scoff, know that Santorum really did have a gay black aide once.)
Before I get to the bad, the good: over the last two episodes, the journalism side of the show has markedly improved. That's not to say that it's become much more plausible, but Sorkin is suddenly diving into some of the things real journalists grapple with, and doing a decent job with it.
Olivia Munn gets her biggest showcase to date as Sloan, who speaks fluent Japanese, discovers from an old friend that the Fukushima disaster is much worse than is publicly being said. (Though he's getting better, Sorkin's devotion to having the team break huge global stories by just dialing their mysteriously well-placed buddies is baffling.) The problem? He tells her in an off-the-record phone call. When Will says that she has to start calling out liars, Sloan takes his advice much too far, badgering her friend on the air and revealing what he told her off the record when he won't repeat it to the audience. This is a clear ethical breach, and everyone blows their stack until they figure out a way to lie about the scandal and control it. Sloan is shocked that Will would ask her to falsely portray herself as a fool to get out of trouble, but she does it.
It's nice to have some of the pitfalls of high-stakes journalism portrayed this way. What should you do when a source tells you the truth in private and a lie in public? When is an off-the-record agreement null and void? Reporting can be a murky business, and Sorkin's examination of this is a nice change from the straight-up moral crusade that Will's Tea Party shouting has been cast as.
Will also gets himself into some difficulties when he interviews the Santorum aide, Sutton Walls, and asks him why he'd work for a man who thinks he's a sick deviant. His relentless and personal indictment causes Walls to blow a gasket and denounce him in the strongest terms. It's the most potent segment of "Newsnight" that we've seen so far, and it almost tips the show into more interesting territory.
But Sorkin pulls back, making Will fall on his sword with deep regret about the way things happened and swerving to the personal stuff again. The episode promptly falls apart, drowning in a sea of soapy suds as Will's session gets schmaltzier and schmaltzier.
This gets at the core problem of "The Newsroom" (besides all the misogyny): Will is ultimately really uninteresting to watch. He's just too good, too tender, too noble. Whatever flaws he has are mostly on the surface; underneath, we're assured again and again, he's got a halo traveling with him, and so we shouldn't pay attention to his bouts of unpleasantness. Anyway, if he does screw up, he feels it so deeply that we're supposed to forgive him instantly. The therapy session could be a way to tackle his dark side, but it mostly turns into a way to turn every flaw into an outgrowth of his deeply good qualities.
Every potential avenue that might knock Will a bit off his pedestal gets shut down. Will was secretly negotiating to move to LA and host a talk show, even while dating MacKenzie? Nope; he was never actually interested. Will gives Sloan bad advice and then makes her lie on air when things go wrong? His shrink notices how "protective" he is of her, how torn up he is about it.
Will is cruel to the Santorum aide? It was all a horrible error on his part. What if he'd stood up for that line of questioning? Wasn't it a legitimate one? What if he'd said that Walls had been changing the subject, pointed out that he'd even told him to shut up on air, tried to convince people that he'd done nothing wrong? Wouldn't that be a more interesting journalistic discussion to have, and a more complicated view of Will's personality? What if, just once, something were left hanging on this show?
But no, Will crumples on the spot, just like he's supposed to. Even when he's wrong, he's right. I'm not saying that he has to be some bitter misanthrope; it can get tiring watching the current parade of antiheroes grimly trudging across our screens. But the wrinkles Sorkin has written for him all get ironed out immediately, and that's just as frustrating. When it's revealed that Will's father hit him and his family when he was a child, it feels unearned and manipulative.
At least there's a clear path for the show going forward: stick to the news. Please, please stick to the news. I am not optimistic, unfortunately.
PS: Also on the plus side, "Bullies" isn't quite as sexist as previous episodes, though it certainly does have its moments. (Don chucking Sloan under the chin? Sloan harshly refusing MacKenzie's help and instead turning to Will? Everyone continually calling Sloan "the girl" and "little girl"? Maggie's … everything?) And that Sarah Bernhardt joke was pretty funny.