Aaron Sorkin may be one of my favorite writers, but Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom is not one of my favorite shows.
it’s quite possibly not even my favorite Aaron Sorkin show, but that doesn’t mean it’s a bad show, I like it, and I want to really like it, but I feel like I spend a lot more energy defending my liking of the show than I do actually trying to like it more … I’ll try to explain…
The Newsroom seduced me (and a lot of viewers) with the greatest opening scene in television history and I enjoyed a fun, albeit inconsistent, first season that was good, but punctuated by moments of greatness. The second season was… not so good, marred by a series of storylines that I’m not sure anyone wanted to see these characters involved in, and by the end I was only watching it because … “in Sorkin we trust” (though, less so after that season). By the end of Two, I found I couldn’t recommend the show as a whole, usually ending up at “Season one is worth watching, but… then there’s two… and, well- meh”. When I heard that Season Three was actually happening, I recall reacting with a smirk, the kind of smirk that you make when you get a call from an old friend that you had a falling out with a while back, and he asks you to help him move, and you really don’t want to but you used to be close so you’re going to do it anyway. Well, here I am, halfway through the final season and I’m actually really glad that I decided to help Sorkin move his couch.
Episode one of The Newsroom starts with the hideous tragedy that was the Boston Marathon bombing, but, as Newsroom fans know, covering tragedy is when this show is the most powerful (ex: Deepwater Horizon, Bin-Laden’s death and the Sen. Giffords shooting were the best episodes of Season One). The team races to get their facts straight, a point that they keep hammering home (as to remind viewers about the pain that was the overarching “Genoa” plotline from Season Two that had most of us pulling our hair out), while rocking some great Sorkin recap exposition or just having great character moments to remind us who we’re dealing with. So, in the midst of the search for answers, we’re reminded:
- Mac and Will (Emily Mortimer and Jeff Daniels, respectively) are still getting married, so, I guess we’ll just have wedding jokes to deal with and no more of the “you’re the love of my life, only you understand me, I’m going to torture you at work because of this” that really became the hallmark of Will and Mac’s relationship prior to the Season Two finale.
- Don and Sloan (Thomas Sadoski and Olivia Munn) are together, but they’re being adorably coy about it, and it’s all just a wonderful bit of fan service to put everyone’s favorite characters together (okay, they’re my favorite characters, and I assume everyone else will eventually come to that conclusion, too). I’m sure they’ll have gorgeous, brilliant babies.
- “Sorority Girl” is still around doing the production assistant thing, and, actually all your favorite featured extras are still roaming around in the background. Good for them.
- Maggie (Alison Pill) is still damaged from her ill-fated trip to Africa (that, still, wasn’t nearly as bad as everyone thought it was going to be), but she’s cast off her persona as the Maggie with the Dragon Tattoo, and is now Crossfit Maggie, with a healthy dollop of All-Business Maggie.
- Speaking of which, Jim (John Gallagher Jr.) is still the greatest producer a giant puppy could ever hope to be, and it seems his girlfriend Hallie (Grace Gummer) now apparently works for ACN, though for the life of me, I can’t recall her being hired.
- Neal (Dev Patel), resident Indian tech-expert, is still into his paranoid conspiracy internet groups.
That all established, we get right into the meat of what it looks like the season is going to be about: professional, responsible journalists with integrity and ethics vs. reactionary, citizen journalism and hype-based news. Season One was touting itself as a wakeup call to journalists everywhere (and to citizens of what they should reasonably expect of our journalists) that their obligation should be to truth over ratings, as to properly inform the electorate. Season Two… um, well, it was about not lying your ass off, and Africa is dangerous… and… you shouldn’t leak nude photos of Olivia Munn… and… hm, maybe just that thing about lying being bad. But I digress, back to Season Three: the investigation into the Boston bombing rages on, with other networks screwing up information; the twitterverse, the blogosphere and the unseen throngs of interweb bullies are doing a real cock-up job of passing “information” around that causes far more harm than good (see above: citizen journalism theme), while the ACN crew stays cautious and dispatches new-wardrobe Maggie and backup-backup-anchor Elliot off to Boston to get to the bottom of things.
Meanwhile, Neal is chasing a lead on potentially serious top secret happenings thanks to a top secret source that, through some real spy-games hooey, reveals 27,000 classified documents leading to the discovery that American misinformation spread by a secret PR firm caused rioting in a distant fictional African nation that killed a few dozen people. And while all THIS is happening, super-foxy economist Sloan uncovers that AWN is about to undergo a hostile takeover. Shortly thereafter, Maggie gets her chance to shine after a stupid Elliot moment (that I’m not even going to dignify by explaining) lands her in front of the camera. Maggie shines, and Jim stares dumbfounded as his former love interest does some damn fine journalism … and then I sigh and take a drink because I was really convinced those two weren’t going to be a thing anymore. Episode one ends with Will, Charlie and the “core crew” learning that AWN is about to be bought out; Neal has committed espionage in order to chase his story, and Tsarnev Cockface (wasn’t that his last name?) is trapped in a boat in a backyard in Boston. It’s all a bit much for Will, and there’s a bit of frustrated monologuing about how poorly the media/internet handled the Boston investigation (see above: professional journalism AND citizen journalism theme), but after some good ol’ characteristic rallying Will sets the tone to accept the challenge- and we’re off!
Episode two jumps right in introducing us to the two young heirs that are seeking to dissolve the AWN empire for a few billion paltry dollars. The culprits are none other than the children of the ex-husband of AWN head-honcho Leona Lansing (Jane Fonda, still smoldering at 76) who have picked up another 6% of AWN stock which, combined with their inherited 45% that they come into possession of upon their twenty-fifth birthday (rich young people being terrible also seems to be a recurring theme, more on that later), will give them control of AWN, and thus ACN and all the folks in the newsroom that we actually care about. The twins, because of course there are evil twins, are played by Kat Dennings as “the smart one”, and some guy who looks like he just wandered off of a porn set as “the quiet, dumb one”. Dennings is solid, and it’s nice to see her away from the schlocky laugh-track work she does on CBS, though it’s initially a bit jarring to see her walk through the door. Leona’s son/ACN president, Reese (Chris Messina, also seen as Danny on The Mindy Project) takes a stand for the news division and all the jobs that will be lost, alongside ACN Director Charlie Skinner (Sam Waterston), though the evil twins don’t seem to care because … money.
Meanwhile, Marcia Gay Harden returns as hardcore lawyer Rebecca Halliday who basically tells Neal that he’s pretty far up shit creek, a point that Will agrees with. Mac consults an FBI source of hers (because, of course she has one) and comes to Neal’s defense, citing that he would probably get a slap on the wrist, and as Neal keeps pointing out “Truth that matters can’t stay hidden” (see above: professional journalists with integrity theme).
Stepping away from this for a moment, there are other plots happening:
Don and Sloan have an adorable time at a buffet where Sloan makes Don put all the food she wants on his plate, because girls don’t EAT, silly. There’s a lot of great Sorkin banter here about whether or not Don taking Sloan’s bedroom financial advice constitutes insider trading and what their relationship could mean to HR, and then it becomes a whole series of comical tests on each other’s definition of their relationship. These two are still the most enjoyable part of the show.
Maggie, sans Elliot for reasons that really don’t matter (a bit like Elliot), finds herself headed back from Boston on the train of the stars! Okay, that may be a bit of an exaggeration, but she does find herself eavesdropping on an EPA official (Paul Lieberstein, a.k.a. Toby from The Office) and then flirting with an honest-to-god ethics professor (Jimmi Simpson, whom I always enjoy as a complete headcase McPoyle brother on It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia). Maggie does some shady work to get a recording of the official’s conversation, but has an instant pang of remorse and drops the subject, which ends with what can only be a journalistic game of “hard to get” where the EPA official ends up just giving her the story and an exclusive interview. It’s a win for ethical journalism (see above) and she even gets a date with the ethics professor, because … ethics. Yay!
Oh, and Hallie sends a stupid tweet that talks shit about Republican gun policy and is summarily fired. Not professional, Hallie. Not professional. There’s a scene where Jim comforts her in a bar, but I don’t remember it because I spent the whole scene checking to see if they were drinking the Ommegang Game of Thrones beer series – they were not, but I got the brand right. Jim really deserves a better plot for the final season.
Back at the grownup table(s)… In the boardroom, Leona Lansing herself has appeared to do battle with the evil twins, offering wonderful monologues and witty remarks, but ultimately using the only thing the twins understand: money. Leona offers to buy out the twins and then suddenly finds herself needing four billion (yes, with a “B”) dollars to save the company she loves from being liquidated. And that’s surely going to go smoothly…
In the News Night conference room, Neal appears to be reaching boiling point as the senior staff argues across him, locked into a battle of “protecting people” vs. “telling the truth”. Will steps aside with Neal and advises him to prepare a plan of escape, which all seems a little ludicrous until the FBI shows up. It seems Neal decided to take matters into his own hands and contact the shadowy PR firm for official comment on their involvement in the aforementioned riots. This brings a huge FBI response crashing down on the newsroom itself, and when it is revealed that Neal is in for some rather serious charges Will signals him to get the hell out of Dodge, which Neal promptly does. It’s a tense, harrowing moment as the newsroom is literally being dismantled by a small army of FBI agents. What will our heroes do!?
Bluff. They’ll bluff. That’s all. Problem solved. Episode three starts and Charlie leads the gang into a ballsy feint maneuver by breaking out cameras and firing up the control room. The FBI, who is apparently super camera-shy, turns tail and runs away. So, remember that awesome ending from episode two? It’s already gone. This lets Mac, Will, Rebecca and Charlie stay exactly where they are and deal with the drama of Neal’s whole espionage/treason debacle, but I’ll get back to them after I gloss over those crazy kids.
Super Maggie is very determined to get her exclusive piece on the EPA on the air, and she turns to Jim, which gives us a chance to see Jim act like a real dick about it, though Maggie retorts ever-so-cleverly by punching Jim … ugh (maybe these two actually deserve each other). The scene boils down to Jim saying “science boring” but begrudgingly taking a look at her source material. Soon afterward we get a Jim/Hallie scene, in which Hallie has accepted a job working for an online “news” rag called The Carnivore, where she’ll be getting bonus monies for driving page-views. It’s the epitome of “shocking headlines vs. actual journalism” — not ethical, Hallie. Not ethical (see above: themes of this season).
Jim makes his points about integrity and journalism and so on (again, see above) and Hallie gets super angry, and probably a little closer to doing something awful to the ACN crew — just to stick it to Jim (and we know this because she said she’d never do anything like that). Jim is forced to then eat his words in front of Maggie, though after explaining why he had the change of heart Maggie still calls him out for being unsupportive of his girlfriend’s horrible new job. Please give this guy something to do this season!!! I digress. Maggie’s EPA story moves along and makes it to air, and becomes an end-of-the-world focused, train wreck of an interview that is so uncomfortable for all characters involved that it literally made me laugh out loud.
Also, Twofer from 30 Rock (Keith Powell) appears as the new HR director and is immediately suspicious of Don and Sloan, prompting Don to deny everything, a lie that Sloan is painfully good at helping him perpetuate (her rant about her dating history is a high point in the episode). This subplot will likely continue to be hilarious bumbling until it inevitably ends with Don making some huge, self-sacrificing gesture of his undying love.
Back on the serious side of things, Will, Mac, Rebecca and Charlie find themselves in D.C. facing down an investigator who decides to insult his way through the proceedings much to the displeasure of Will, who in true form, stands up for his people and gives up nothing to the investigator. It’s a great looking, super well-written scene that doesn’t really give us anything new. But we can’t focus on that, since the very next day, all of our heroes have to break out their Sunday best for the White House Correspondent’s Dinner, which apparently EVERYONE gets invited to. This evening will be particularly special since Charlie is supposed to meet with a potential buyer of ACN, which Leona is willing to sell to save the parent company, AWN. We learn that the buyer is a tech billionaire and somewhat young, we then learn just about everything else we need to know in seeing his assistant nearly panic over the fact that the White House Correspondent’s Dinner lacks a particular flavor of carbonated water.
You might stop to think about how odd it is that this guy is even AT the White House Correspondent’s Dinner, but you don’t get a chance to because HOLY CRAP it’s B.J. Novak, and he’s pulled out his total douche face (as seen on The Office). He expresses complete bewilderment at the lack of his mixer of choice, then nonchalantly mentions firing his clearly terrified assistant, and THEN he talks down to Charlie and essentially calls him unprofessional, which is the third and final strike. Basically, the twins are evil, but this guy is THE DEVIL (see above: terrible young people with money). This scene only gets more uncomfortable as the billionaire continues talking to Charlie like he’s stupid, and announces his intention to convert ACN into a user-generated content new station (see above: citizen journalists) while Charlie struggles to keep composure.
Meanwhile, Mac is approached by Neal’s hacker source, who is apparently an attractive young woman (Clea Duvall)… and again, no idea how this person got into the White House Correspondent’s Dinner… who poses to Mac the ultimatum that if ACN doesn’t run her story in five days that she’ll leak all the documents herself. The episode ends with hero and soon-to-be-martyr Will McAvoy being served a subpoena, prompting him to utter a clever little line about “maybe I’m not as famous as I thought” before everything fades to black.
All in all, this season of The Newsroom is already more fun than all of Season Two, has more momentum and structure than Season One, and I also appreciate that Season Three is avoiding the worn-on-the-sleeve political leanings of the first two seasons which upset a good number of people (see above: time spent defending The Newsroom). Season Three is shaping up to be a real standout, but whether or not this season, and the resolution that’s on the horizon, is going to be enough to make the show on the whole worth recommending is still yet to be seen. I’ll let you know after I help Sorkin unpack his kitchen, I’m thinking he’s going to buy us all pizza and beer. After all, we deserve it.