“This is the best season yet,” is an all-too-common refrain for actors and showrunners when baited for a sound bite.
Then they turn the conversation to the direction of the characters and a polite dance around spoilers and criticism, as they should.
The hope is that they believe in the production they’re getting paid to be a part of, and if not, they could at least somewhat convincingly act the part.
When it comes to HBO’s drama-turned-walking-think piece, The Newsroom, particularly after its disparaged first season, interviews turned into a defensive struggle in year two. Series creator and head writer Aaron Sorkin took the brunt of criticism. Everything from the show’s tone and wordiness, to its direction and right down to the way it treats its female characters was scrutinized, chewed up and spit out by critics. It left Sorkin, his actors, Dan Rather and the show’s small but passionate fan base to pick up the pieces and lobby for one more chance to get it right.
There were plenty of reasons for HBO to cut its losses and move on from Sorkin’s great cable news experiment. Yet here we are again, with The Newsroom returning for a final 6-episode chapter starting this Sunday and Sorkin leaving us a sound bite reminiscent of the “human moment” he once wrote for his flawed newscaster hero. At a Tribeca Film Festival panel—similar to the “sorority girl” panel that made us hopeful about the series in the first place—Sorkin was down to his last line of defense: “I think you and I got off on the wrong foot with The Newsroom and I apologize and I’d like to start over.”
Unless you’re doing an anthology series, it’s hard to completely start over in television. And with only 6 episodes to work with, less means you need to tell a tighter story with little room for error. In the early portion of season three (this review is based off the first three episodes), Sorkin finds a punchy consistency, hitting his stride without completely rebooting and compromising the structure he’s lived and died by.
Naturally I was skeptical when I read interviews leading into the season, such as lead Jeff Daniels telling his hometown Michigan paper the Lansing State Journal: “We went into it trying to make it the best of the three… Everyone thinks we did.” Three episodes into the season, it appears that Sorkin and Daniels weren’t just giving the press lip service. It took a winding road to get here, but The Newsroom is now the show everyone thought it could be, just when it’s all ready to come to an end.
We pick up with the Genoa fallout still lingering over the newsroom, with Will now more than ever playing the righteous card as he wants to pull up ratings by delivering a respectable and reliable show for his audience. Sorkin still finds a way to romanticize the idea of reporters holding on to their integrity. You’ll see it in Neal’s character arc, with Maggie and of course Will as his request for moral high ground lands him in fourth place as ACN goes into crisis mode.
Before I can get into what’s working well for The Newsroom this time around, the prevailing thought when jumping into season three was “why are we back here?”
Didn’t Jim Harper get the girl and win the respect and adoration of the Mitt Romney campaign? Don and Maggie finally split up! Sad things happened in Africa, but we recovered! I seem to remember Jerry Dantana, the worst character in the series, getting fired in an embarrassing and public way. And sure, Will and Mac got together and it made me happy, but it came at the cost of my entire body cringing during the Most Awkward Kiss in The History of Television.
What else was there to prove, Sorkin? You wrapped it up so neatly. There really weren’t any threads left untied. We don’t need an entire season to tell us that Will and Mac live happily ever bugging the shit out of each other for eternity. I spelled that one out myself from the steamy romantic chemistry of the Most Awkward Kiss in The History of Television.
I’m looking at the series from the lens of why is it back, which is another way of saying why didn’t it get cancelled. The glass half full people, or fans of the show, will look at it and say why is it only getting one more season. Both are valid when we get into the finer details of The Newsroom’s star-crossed run.
The first season of The Newsroom averaged 7.1 million gross viewers per episode across all HBO platforms and showings. To put that in perspective, the third season of Girls averaged 4.6 million viewers an episode when HBO Go and on demand viewings are factored in. Lena Dunham’s well-received vehicle is a lock for a fourth season yet its highest-ever overnight rating only topped at 1.1 million viewers. In The Newsroom’s second season, Sorkin’s big Genoa fallout plot fizzled and ratings began to sink. Whereas 2.3 million viewers tuned in for the season one finale, only 1.7 million Sorkinites showed up as the election coverage closed out season two.
To me, falling ratings are only one part of the problem. The loud and harsh critical response from The Newsroom likely doesn’t sit well for a network that has gotten accustomed to nothing but praise. I do think the perception of the series played a small role in factoring in why HBO chose to move on. HBO, as well as Sorkin, painted it as the long-time TV writer’s decision to end the series on his terms. “I wanted to make sure that if we did, that it was for good reason,” Sorkin told the LA Times. “That there was a good story to tell. That everybody was still psyched about it. And that this wasn’t an obligation.”
Sorkin’s final story is aided by a marked improvement in how he uses his characters. Daniels doesn’t have to do as much heavy lifting this time around. Will is a bit calmer now that his personal life is in order and Mac is by his side in the office and at home. The once tragic hero is now just a plain old hero, going to great lengths to reestablish ACN as a reputable news organization and have the backs of his producers and staff – he also got around to learning their names.
Sorkin also seems to have a better grip of who the essential members of his newsroom are. Like Will, Don Keefer was a character that came on too strong, pushing around Maggie, airline attendants and any staffer in his way. Don’s screen time has been significantly reduced and when he does butt in, the stronger Sloane neutralizes him. The talented Chris Messina’s Reese Lansing got on our nerves all last season, but Sorkin is able to better utilize him by making the douche a “good guy” as his efforts to retain control of ACN are a central plotline of the season. Sorkin must have taken note of the criticisms of his female characters as he transforms the insecure, damaged Maggie into a major player, brings Mac out of Will’s shadow. The only real downside to these changes is a lessor role for fan favorite Jim Harper.*
*I’m Jim Harper’s biggest fan and I’ll be eagerly awaiting his spinoff series.
With the characters in a good place, Sorkin’s strongest arcs to date help give season three an unexpected cohesiveness. They’re still covering old news, but it’s much less of a focus, even when they cover the Boston Marathon bombing in episode one. The two major arcs—the potential takeover of ACN and an impending criminal investigation of a staffer—are airtight, leaving little room for Sorkin to venture off in the romantic side plots that he’s known for.
No matter how good season three turns out to be, the build up, the false start—Sorkin asked HBO to reshoot the early episodes of season two at a substantial cost—the three do-overs, and the apology will be the show’s legacy.
Sorkin’s “start over” comment seemed heartfelt enough as it showed he wasn’t blind or immune to the criticism swirling around his work. Season three is a testament to that.
Just before the premiere, Sorkin told the LA Times that he’s likely made his last foray into television. On his four series, Sports Night, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip and The West Wing and The Newsroom, Sorkin is his own harshest critic. “I’ve loved every minute I’ve spent in television,” he said. “And I’ve had much more failure, as traditionally measured, than success in television. I’ve done four shows, and only one of them was the West Wing.“
Just like America is not the greatest country in the world according to Will McAvoy, The Newsroom is not and will never be the greatest show on television – it never came close.
But at least its final episodes remind us of a time when we thought it could be.
Alternate Titles for This Story:
“I’m not Sorrykin: So What, We Fucked Up”
“Is The Newsroom Our Generation’s Freaks and Geeks?”
“Save Us All, Jim Harper”