The fans of Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom may not be legion–though it had enough to carry it to its third, abbreviated and final season–but they are ardent. Over the previous two years, as I’ve criticized the series, there’s been a common refrain in their defense of it: Sorkin’s cable-news drama may not be at the level of his past series, but it and its messages are needed on TV.
Beware the show whose fans or makers believe it to be “needed.” Because there is almost always a corollary to that “needed”: “…by other people, besides me.” By the TV newspeople who are failing America. By voters led astray, through sensationalism and demagoguery, to make poor, uniformed choices in their leaders. If only these messages got out to them, if only they were made to be exposed to reason, then by God they would finally see, and we could begin unmaking the mess we, which is to say they, have made of the world.
You cannot make a great story starting from that posture. There is too little oxygen on that pinnacle. And for all its other faults (thinly drawn characters, its women in particular) and flashes of twinkle-tongued brilliance, that has been The Newsroom‘s founding flaw: to imagine itself less as a work of art than as a repair manual for civic society. The most quintessentially Newsroom tableau is a group of characters looking up (see photo above)–toward a monitor, maybe, or toward Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels) making an impassioned speech, but really, their eyes are elevated Heavenward, as if gazing on better angels that only they can perceive. “Wake up, sheeple!” is not a dramatic principle.
To The Newsroom‘s credit, its second season seemed to acknowledge some of the problems with the first. Rather than positioning McAvoy and his ACN crew as the Gallant to the mainstream media’s Goofus on one true-life story after another, it built a story arc around the fallout from the network’s running with a bombshell military exposé that turned out to be a hoax. It was a less bad season, but also a less remarkable one.
But The Newsroom does have one asset going for it, one that runs through the rest of Sorkin’s TV work from Sports Night on: the belief that there can be hope even in a failed cause. And in the first three episodes of its six-episode final season (premieres Nov. 9), there are signs that The Newsroom could end its run as its best self.
Not at first, though, as suggested by the title of the first new episode: “Boston.” Oy gevalt. It’s become a parlor game to play “Next season of The Newsroom” whenever the media commit some screw up that Sorkin could later show ACN getting right, even if their principles cost them ratings. Sure enough, the first hour centers on the Boston marathon bombing, when major media outlets erroneously reported arrests and passed along the Reddit-posse “identifications” of suspects who weren’t. ACN, still reeling from last season’s Genoa fiasco, plays it careful, even if their principles–well, you see where this is going.
But at the same time, Sorkin starts building a final, fictional news-story arc that, like Genoa last season, serves the show better than its ripping-on-the-headlines approach has. Without giving away too much, the story does–again, as you might have guessed in 2013–borrow from the Edward Snowden NSA leaks (with Dev Patel’s Neal Sampat in the Glenn Greenwald role). But it uses that story as a jumping-off point rather than op-ed material, heading in different directions and imagining the ethical and legal peril for a news outlet trying to report on a secrecy-obsessed administration, and trying to balance its news responsibility with legitimate security concerns.
By the third hour, I can’t say I was in love with The Newsroom at last. But I felt like I was finally seeing the better version of itself that it could have been. I wasn’t watching a lecture–though several small ones still creep into the first hour–but simply the work of a sharp, intellectually engaged screenwriter taking a scenario ripe with conflict and seeing where it took him.
The same characters are here–albeit with fewer of the daffy moments that have plagued female characters like Mac–and they’re still operating in Sorkin’s preferred flawed-heroic mode. (Chris Messina’s corporate scion Reese sums up the philosophy well: “I’m a douche on the side of the angels!”) But it’s more compelling watching them when Sorkin has simply put them under plausible pressures–a potential hostile takeover of ACN on one hand, a federal investigation on the other–and lets them feel their way to an answer without instructing us on the way. This isn’t an editorial, it’s just drama with ideas built in. How do you run a business that has goals beyond just making money? How can a media outlet defend its independence against an ever-more-powerful security state–and how should it?
The Newsroom in the end will not, to paraphrase its Coldplay quote of the first season, fix America. But give it another few hours, and it might at least fix itself.