25 November 2014
I was at a friend’s bachelorette party in New York when the second episode of The Newsroom‘s final season aired and I thus found myself in an unfamiliar situation- hearing the Newsroom reaction before witnessing the thing to which people were reacting. Even more unfamiliar was the tenor of said reaction. People liked it. They really liked it. “Run” was the episode when the cynical critics constantly being retweeted by Emily Nussbaum decided they liked The Newsroom. So, naturally, I was psyched to see the episode- clearly this would be the peak of Sorkin’s career, the moment when his genius was not just widely accepted but inarguable, even by the standards of the galactically pretentious.
It was fine.
I mean, it was good. The Newsroom these days is always good (I personally think the whole series is good, but I will grant you a dramatic improvement going into the second season). But I’m not sure what the fuss was about. Was everyone really just waiting for Maggie to smarten up? Because if your opinion of The Newsroom was hinged on the strength of Maggie then you were definitely focusing on all the wrong things. Does it mean anything that the show’s loudest critics appeared finally appeased by Maggie’s incredible (and spontaneous and outlandish and completely irrelevant to the character as established) growth in an episode that showcased Sloan at her most trivial? No one seems to care about Sloan… it’s just me, Aaron and Don out here in the Sloan-loving wilderness (oh, and I imagine Olivia Munn’s here too; that’s good, she seems fun). I get that they’re having to carry the funny right now, Sloan and Don that is (and they carry it well), but I’m going to need a proper story thrown their way really soon because it didn’t come in “Run” and it definitely didn’t come in “Main Justice” (by the way, how can that title not remind you of THIS?) and there are only three episodes left; a resolution to Don’s dangling law suit story would be nice, for starters.
What actually bothered me a bit about “Run”, even more than practically no story for Sloan, was the wild dramatics. The Newsroom has always been a show about people who talk a big game but ultimately mostly just fight their battles from behind a desk. That self-important juxtaposition was the sneaky irony of the show- remember the season one highlight “Bullies” when Will’s sanctimonious theorizing raised the ire of a black, gay republican uninterested in Will’s sidelines commentary on his life? Even last season’s major Genoa storyline was, at its core, about journalists trying to play hero rather than play, well, journalist. There’s been a lot of talk about the Newsroom characters’ tendency to monologize, and this season’s undercutting of that (Maggie hanging a direct lantern on it; Charlie, Will and Mac tripping over their speeches) has been credited for the newfound appreciation of the show (observe this condescending Vanity Fair piece), but that’s an element of the show that has always rung true for me. I’m not saying it’s a generally realistic human trait- Walter White had no need for more monologues and, I agree, it would be odd if the Chicago Fire characters started carrying on like Will does- I’m saying for these people, these few specific humans who do this specific thing for their life’s work, they are people who monologue. I say this as someone who monologues who spends time with those who monologue, these are people who monologue. They don’t do, they talk about doing, like the Dawson’s Creek kids sitting around talking about sex but not doing it until season five. These are not people who write cryptic notes on takeout menus then set fire to them, destroy their cellphones so they can’t be tracked, and fly to Venezuela to hide out from Homeland Security. That’s Homeland nonsense. Or, like, late Prison Break. I know people like plot, and having gigantic, dramatic plots like Neal evading the law cuts down on silly filler stories like Mac wanting to fix her Wikipedia page, but the final scene of “Run” felt borrowed from, I don’t know let’s go with Alias (for the record, I actually liked Alias, just less). You know what would make The Newsroom really bad? If it tried too hard to be like Alias (just ask Scandal, which went full Alias about a year and a half ago).
As much as I love Neal- because he used to pitch serious news stories about Bigfoot and wanted to cover Occupy Wall Street back when they had one, clear demand- I’ve decided that the best way to move forward with season three is to mostly ignore him. I’m going to ignore awkwardly forthcoming FBI agent Mary McCormack (late-series West Winger alert; ain’t nothing good about late-series West Wing) and Will’s strange chess game with whatever official body is supposed to be prosecuting these people (I’m not a fan of when Will shows off that he’s the smartest guy in the room; I prefer Will thinking he’s the second smartest person in the room- after Mac- when he’s actually about sixth, first place going to Sloan of course). I am, however, quite enjoying the return of Rebecca Halliday (Marcia Gay Harden) and her strange sense of humour. Mac continues to be a lost cause but she’s been mostly relegated to wedding planning this season so she’s not quite as overwhelmingly in the way.
That leaves us with four ongoing stories between “Run” and “Main Justice”, all of which I’m really enjoying, even though I’m going to complain about them a little bit in the coming paragraphs (it’s what I do).
1) The Lansing Takeover
Chris Messina continues to kill it and, the further he gets from NBC, the more humanity Sorkin is able to find in a ratings-driven executive. Here we have Reese’s soon-to-be-25-year-old half-siblings looking to take over the company and sell it off for parts. In a painfully reactionary but still wholly welcome little twist, the sister twin is running the show while her dumbstruck brother sits in the back and repeats after her. The aptly named Blair Lansing (after the queen of all American Princesses, I presume) is played by Kat Dennings who appears to be relishing the opportunity to remind us all why we liked her in the first place before she was imprisoned by CBS. Fantastically, Sorkin and Dennings don’t seem intent on hitting the princess button too hard, opting instead for self-awareness and aspiration culminating in the subtext-packed and ball-busty line of the season so far: “I understand we were born on 3rd Base but I’m stealing Home now”. Is it wrong to wish the upcoming network show Empire was really a Newsroom sequel starring Blair Lansing and her dumb, pretty brother?
2) Introducing BJ Novak
The Lansing Takeover resolves itself temporarily when Fiona agrees to pay Blair and her brother (whose name is… Randy?) the equivalent of what the sale would reap them. Considering she’s theoretically a brilliant business woman who built ACN… no, AWM; ACN is the cable news division of AWM (that could stand to be less confusing)… you’d think she’d realize how remarkably stupid it is from a business standpoint to fork over a random 4 billion dollars to make some kids go away. Anyway, that’s the plan but, because it will never work, she has to agree to sell ACN (again, that’s the cable news division) to a third party in order to save AWM (the larger corporation- think Time Warner selling off CNN). Enter BJ Novak (it’s important here to remind you that Sorkin was a big Office fan back in the day) who, like Clark Gregg before him, is here to be mysterious and vaguely threatening as a young man of unknown financial means looking to buy the news division and change it in accordance with his whims. The timing of Sports Night‘s cancellation meant that we never really saw the outcome of the Gregg takeover, though it did seem that he turned out to be ultimately benevolent. Novak does not, at least so far, appear particularly benevolent. He’s already torturing Charlie with ideas about “crowdsourcing the news”, not to mention torturing his assistant with Sally Albright-esque drink orders (yeah, that’s right, I made a When Harry Met Sally reference within a paragraph about BJ Novak; you’re welcome). I love me some Novak but- unlike Sorkin’s other major import from what I’m going to call the “Mindyverse”, Chris Messina- he’s not the most natural of actors (he’s a writer first, personality second, sidekick third, actor probably more like fourth) and so far his character is bordering on “wacky”, which could be trouble. With the humanization of Reese, and Blair more of a hoot than a real problem, maybe the season could use an unpredictable, sociopathic encroaching power to unite our flawed heroes. I’d rather it be more complicated than that but, hey, you never know what might work.
3) The Evolution of Maggie
I’m not saying it’s not working; it’s definitely working. Everybody likes Maggie more now and even Allison Pill seems more at home in the role. She’s finally useful; she can produce a story in the B plot and hold her own in scenes with fun guest stars like Paul Lieberstein (again, Office fan; Lieberstein’s also a producer this season). Do I wish she’d had a proper chance go grow into this person out of the person she was in the pilot? Absolutely. But there will only be 3 more episodes in the entire run of The Newsroom than there were in The West Wing‘s first season alone so Maggie just doesn’t have the privilege of growing up slowly, Donna-style. Maggie was a problem; she got solved. Was it subtle or clever or realistic? No. But she’s better now, so why fuss about it? I will say, though, I’m digging this new romance with the ethics professor. Jimmi Simpson, proof that speaking fluent Sorkinese can make even a McPoyle sexy.
4) The Devolution of Jim
The first thing you need to know is that Jim hardly ever gets lines anymore. He barely says anything and, when he does speak, he’s usually corrected pretty quickly by New Maggie who is not into Current Jim and will not tolerate anything but the utmost courtesy from the man who began the series as her endgame love interest (back when the show really was a romantic comedy at heart; nobody liked that, but I kind of liked that). It’s been a long time since the Jim/Mac dynamic I loved in the pilot was a thing and, since Neal’s gone and talking to Don has always been a weird thing for Jim to do, John Gallagher Jr. mostly just sits there and tries to look busy. His relationship with Hallie was fun for awhile but at this point they seem to argue more than, um, not argue and, with her having been written out of the News Night offices with an easy tweet-related firing, it seems like the end is nigh for little Streep. So that will leave Jim- the easy standout character early on- stranded, storyless with only my suspicion that uber-sentimental Sorkin might put him back together with Maggie in the end. Though he’s been underwritten lately, what I have enjoyed about Jim is the way he’s been pulled off his pedestal over the last season and a half, culminating in his short-sighted moral reprehension towards Hallie’s new job in “Main Justice”. I think the thing to note about Jim is that, while he majorly charmed us out of the gate, he’s possibly the darkest and most flawed person in The Newsroom. I’m obsessed with Don so my point of view’s a little bit skewed on this, but I have a theory that Jim Harper might just be the man you thought Don Keefer was, and Don Keefer was Jim Harper all along. Or maybe, just maybe, The Newsroom is a better show than it’s ever been given credit for being and all its people are just people, trying their best to be people worth being.