SN: Aaron Sorkin, Mama always warned me about men like you — those sweet-talkers with chips on their shoulders, the arrogant, the fatally undependable. And oh, you’ve done me wrong this time.
Like many, I fell hard for “The West Wing’s” combination of heart and screwball banter, and in 2012, eagerly awaited Sorkin’s next workplace romance, created under the auspices of HBO’s prestige brand. “The Newsroom” would go behind the scenes of a fictional cable news show, Atlantic Cable News, and follow the personal and professional travails of its ensemble cast. I was promised idealism about journalism, an extended, modernized “His Girl Friday.”
But the debut of the “The Newsroom” left me first broken-hearted, then embittered. Everything everyone had ever said about Aaron Sorkin — that he was smug, self-righteous and not a little bit sexist — turned out to be true. The chemistry between the characters was virtually zero. No feminist could root for the budding relationships between anchorman Will and producer MacKenzie, or those Jim-and-Pam rip-offs, Jim and Maggie. This was a land where the men were brash and the women adorably incompetent, where romance was a lecture and a starry-eyed girl to deliver it to.
Season one yanked viewers two years into the past, so that they could be walked through Sorkin’s version of how events should have been covered. Sorkin, unlike actual newscasters in 2010, had the benefit of hindsight, so the moral wins racked up by his fictional producers and anchors rang hollow. Sorkin’s antipathy towards the Internet, towards the ignorant masses, towards youth itself, worked up to a fever pitch, even as it became glaringly obvious that he didn’t know the first thing about journalism. Why was this old man yelling at me to get off the grass? It wasn’t even his lawn!
The second season begged me to give “The Newsroom” another chance, and so I did. The show’s universe diverged from the real one; Sorkin’s dream team began to take a few hits. The characters struggled. The stakes were upped. I was in again. That is, until the finale two weeks ago, an episode so bewilderingly and unforgivably terrible that it cut me off at the knees.
GC: The reader will understand that Sophia took this one pretty personally. The backstory on that: For reasons that will never be entirely clear, I followed “The Newsroom” loyally. Don’t take that to mean that I liked it (or did I?); I didn’t (and yet I did). Still, I watched every episode. And read every installment of “Tolerating the Newsroom” at “Slate,” and “The News vs. ‘The Newsroom’” at “The Atlantic,” and (it really goes without saying) the coverage at “The A.V. Club.” Facts is facts. Sophia’s a good friend; terrible as she knew the show to be, she blazed through the second season to catch up with me in time for the two-part finale.
And first it was good, and then it was oh so bad.
The second season’s greatest virtue was its openness to criticisms of the first. Admittedly, Sorkin showed little understanding of how to connect means to ends (his woman problem is particularly intractable; where’s the ghost of Amy Gardner fled to?). But damn if he didn’t try to fix things. The credits are reformed, and it’s for the best that Murrow’s Olympian Heights were swapped out for the staccato rhythms of modern Manhattan. The staff’s infallibility is viciously sabotaged in an update of CNN’s Operation Tailwind debacle — rechristened Operation Genoa — a season-long conceit that peaks in a gorgeous collapse. The terrible, terrible, really terrible relationships hung around, but they were marginalized in favor of the tasty sausage-making story of ACN’s institutional failure.
And then, the finale. Holy shit, the finale.
Let yourself hope. Think back to the grandest sequences of “The West Wing.” Remember President Bartlet resolving to run for reelection to the strains of Dire Straits’ “Brothers in Arms,” or orating over Tori Amos’ haunting “I Don’t Like Mondays.” Think about the way Sorkin made you feel, the way he made you dream. Start to see, as the second season builds, the gauzy outlines of the show “The Newsroom” could be: flawed, inevitably, but human, idealism without sanctimony and wit without disdain. But wait, no!
Sorkin’s snuck up behind you, a dangerous look in his eyes and a shovel in hand.
SN: The Genoa plotline was a brilliant move. Season One was accused of giving characters too easy of a time, so Season Two’s main arc was an epic screw-up in which the ACN team accuses the U.S. military of using sarin gas, only to have their story, and biggest break ever, fall apart. The punishment seemed appropriate to the crime: of course their hubris, all that self-aggrandizing idealism, would lead them into this kind of trouble. Their fall from grace also presented them with a novel and genuinely compelling problem, and, moreover, one with real stakes in the real journalism world: How could these guys salvage any sense of legitimacy? How would they win back the trust of the public? And did they deserve it?
That’s why the finale feels like a betrayal, as well as a cop out. Everyone gets to keep their jobs. That spectacular mess gets swept under the rug as the team celebrates their smooth, bland coverage of Election Night 2012. A marriage proposal is made and accepted. Champagne is uncorked. Even that old, awful theme music returns.
Though the cast claims that there will be a third season, HBO has been tight-lipped on the show’s renewal prospects. I’m never allowing Sorkin to darken my doorstep again, of course, but I can’t help but wonder where “The Newsroom” can go from here, now that it took one step forward and two steps back.
GC: There’d be a comi-tragic justice to ending it here. News Night 2.0 was an experiment; it failed, brought down in more ways than one by the enormous vanity of all involved. It makes more than a little sense that they (read cast or characters here as you please) would smile and sing their ways off the cliff.
At least Jeff Daniels has an Emmy to keep him company on the way down.