Sep 19 2013

The Newsroom, Optimism, and Second Chances

Published by at 11:00 am under Reviews,Television

I’m not normally one to jump on bandwagons, so when I saw the truckload of hate that was poured onto Season 1 of The Newsroom, mostly by the internet commentators whom Aaron Sorkin lovingly refers to as “the Pajama People,” I was quick to take a contrarian view.  I went into it with an open mind, as a fan of Aaron Sorkin and his shows but also someone who acknowledges his weaknesses.  I watched it, and I saw both sides.  I watched a show that I really enjoyed, but had so much rhetoric and bloviating, especially in the first few episodes, that I wouldn’t blame anyone for writing it off.

If you did, though, you missed out, and that’s the truth.  The Newsroom is my absolute favorite kind of television show in terms of a timeline of quality.  Lost peaked early and got terrible.  Heroes did a 180 straight into into suck-valley.  The Wire was hot and cold (grading on a curve), and was great, then “meh,” then great, then amazing, then just okay.  The Newsroom is none of these things.  It’s tolerable early, you can see the potential.  After watching the first season, you could do a callback to the first few minutes of the first episode: Why is The Newsroom the best show on television?  Answer: It’s not…

I haven’t checked, but I bet I’m not the first person to make that reference in that way.

(Also, MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD – if you haven’t watched up to the season finale, stop reading this and go watch some TV until you’re caught up.)

If you stuck around for Second 2, you were in for a treat.  And you saw something amazing.  Aaron Sorkin did what I’m not sure he’s ever done before:  he put together not just a string of good episodes, but a good season.  Don’t get me wrong, Season 4 of The West Wing is one of the best things ever, but more so because it just does not quit, it puts together stellar episode after stellar episode.  The overarching plot, though, isn’t anything to write home about.  It’s set against the backdrop of President Bartlet’s reelection campaign as well as the repercussions of the Abdul Shareef assassination.  That, by itself, doesn’t really tie the season together, it just places it in time.  It’s nothing egregious, but it’s not particularly impressive.  It’s not something I’ve seen Sorkin pull out of his bag of tricks before, and one of the strikes against him is that he tends to go with what he knows.

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7jeuV3xXxUc

That’s why it’s surprising and gratifying to see Season 2 of The Newsroom play this card.  The whole season is defined, pulled together by, and colored by the Genoa story.  It’s a thread that runs through the season continuously, from the first shot to the last.  It makes the season feel like one long, 9-hour story rather than 9 related, but separate 1 hour stories.  And that’s television at its best.

We also got a real, genuine antagonist in Jerry Dantana.  Unlike previous shows that have the characters struggling with faceless, gigantic entities (The network, Sports Night.  Republicans, The West Wing, The network again, Studio 60), we have an actual face to actively root against.  And Dantana is set up perfectly.  By framing the season as a series of flashbacks as various characters discuss the events of 11 months ago with the lawyer (the excellent, scene-stealing Marcia Gay Harden), we can see Dantana’s dickery, villainy, and general sociopathy (I know some of those aren’t real words) from the perspective of dramatic irony.  The audience knows more than the characters.  We know the story is completely false, so when Dantana pushes it, we’re inclined to root against him, and when he takes the unforgivable step of doctoring the tape, we feel justified.

I hate him.  HATE HIM.  I want him to iron his clothes while he’s wearing them.

And to go alongside an actual villain to root against, the characters we root for all got better.  Don gets even more sympathetic.  His breakup with Maggie in the first episode is funny, kind of heartbreaking, and pretty much the exact right thing to do in that situation.  Sloan got some amazing, show-stopping depth with her “explicit photos” arc, an episode that ended in an extremely satisfying way.

Jane Fonda’s Leona Lansing went from a background anvil ready to drop onto Will’s head to a captivating, scene-stealing, Iron Lady.

And Jim, whose love triangle with Maggie and Don was wearing a bit thin near the end of Season 1, gets to ride the Romney Bus for the first half of the season, making for some of the most hilarious moments the show has seen yet.  That subplot also lets him spread his wings a bit, and flex his ideological muscles from under the protective umbrella of Mac and ACN.  And, can we just take a brief beat and think how awesome/strange it is that Jim is played by John Gallagher, Jr, who was once this young and this goofy-looking in the brilliant West Wing episode “20 Hours in America”?

Finally, we turn to the lead.  Will McAvoy.  Jeff Daniels has always struck me as the perfect Sorkin lead.  He’s darker and grittier than Bartlett, has more gravitas and more angst than Studio 60’s Matt Albie, and has more physical comedy skills than Sports Night‘s Casey McCall.  Case in point:

McAvoy is by no means a perfect character, and despite his own claims to the contrary, he’s abrasive and short-tempered.  He’s also a guy who sticks by his team, absolutely, without question.  I thought one of the best moments of Season 2 was when he got Neal out of jail after the OWS protest.  In a moment of honesty, breakdown, and frustration, he rants to a confused and intimidated police officer that he can’t fix anything important, so he’s going to fix this one thing, damn it, and get it right.  Throughout the season, he gets it from all sides.  His reputation, his job, his relationships – they all almost come crumbling down.

And that’s what I really want to talk about.  The fact that they don’t.  This season takes us to the brink, no question.  It’s a show that’s fundamentally optimistic, yes, but more of a “moral victories in the face of overwhelming adversity” than “everything sunny all the time always.”  Things get dark.  The ACN News Team ends up breaking a world-shattering story that ends up being completely false, and it totally destroys their credibility as journalists.  But we never lose sight of the possibility that it can get better – that second half of the card.  “But it can be…”

Breaking Bad is a show that also airs on Sunday.  I tend to watch shows the day after they air, and this has been a fun month having Breaking Bad and The Newsroom to look forward to on Monday.  The season finale of The Newsroom aired the same day as the soul-crushing, terrific, tough-to-watch “Ozymandias”.  Watching that episode was like being stabbed repeatedly.  It was brilliant and terribly beautiful because of its inevitability.  And in the telling of that tragedy, I lost sight of what I wanted.  I don’t know what I want for Walt, I don’t know how he can redeem himself or if that’s even possible.  I can’t imagine where the story goes from here, and while I’m still spellbound, I no longer want things out of it.  I’ve been shocked and battered into simply hanging on for the ride.  That’s not a bad thing.  Gritty, dark, incredibly well-written and well-acted shows are the MVPs of the roster.

Speaking of which…

But there’s something incredibly cathartic about a story that gives us what we want.  And in the second season of The Newsroom, I never lost sight of it.  Don (not Draper, despite the above image) said it best:

“I want to keep doing the news. Here. With Elliot. For Charlie. I want to keep arguing with Mac and Will. I want Dantana to iron his clothes while wearing them.”

And it happens.  We get what we want.  Television shows – at least, good ones – have gone in the other direction so often that I was caught completely off guard.  I was expecting a victory of sorts; they don’t resign, but Dantana’s lawsuit stirs up so much dust that it fractures some important relationships, the team has no credibility, and (to borrow a Sorkin phrase) they spend the next three years with two outs and a full count.  I suppose that’s still on the table in Season 3 (or at least that could be some of the drama), but to see the characters coming together like that was everything I could have asked for in a finale and more.  Crowning moments of heartwarming included:

-The senior staff unanimously deciding to resign if Will, Mac and Charlie resign.

-Sloan telling Will that he insulted the staff by not assuming he’d stand with them, and when asked how she knew that, answering, “because you insulted me.”

-Jim finally confronting Maggie about Africa, and getting Lisa to talk to Maggie about it.

-Sloan, Don, and the book.  Basically everything about this, even if it was super-predictable.  Don’s reaction to the kiss.  “What I have can’t be taught.”  Nailed it.

-Will’s hilariously inept and bumbling proposal to Mac.

-Charlie deciding they aren’t going to quit.

-Reese making the right call, standing by them, and then arguing with Charlie about getting the credit for making a call that no longer matters.

-Neal trying to get Mac’s Wikipedia page changed as a last, final gesture.

-Will breaking the news: “I would like to introduce the future Mrs. Mackenzie Morgan McHale McAv—that’s not gonna work, is it?”

And it ends with a rock montage.  I mean, of course it does.  Aaron Sorkin is almost uncomfortably earnest.  I love that.  With anyone else, you’d suspect a moment like the last 10 minutes of the finale was supposed to be subversive, or a head-fake, or whatever we’re calling irony these days.  No.  It’s not.  It’s trying to do a thing.  It’s trying to take an Optimism Shower under a Friendship Waterfall in the Vale of True Love And Journalistic Ethics.  And I could not be happier.  I want that.  I want to go to there.  I still love Breaking Bad, but people are more complicated than liking one type of thing.

Look at this picture again:

Yes, that’s the cast.  But who’s that sitting down at the typewriter?  That’s right, Aaron Sorkin.  Because, more than anyone else, he puts himself into his shows.  For better or worse, when you watch an Aaron Sorkin show, you delve into his “sense of life,” (a comment Chris made about my pop-culture touchstone article.  Chris, I’m totally stealing that phrase.)  Sometimes he falls on his face, sometimes he achieves huge, amazing things.  But he’s always doing it without rolling his eyes, always reaching for that new height.  And I can admire that.  Someone who leaves it all on the field.  Someone who’s not afraid of perspectivism.  Someone who understands that storytelling and storyteller are inseparable concepts, and embraces that fact.

I love it.  Absolutely love it.  Only someone who is not afraid of injecting his “sense of life” could write a line like this with a straight face and expect us to get the fact that he’s kidding, and at the same time not kidding at all:





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5 responses so far

  • https://twitter.com/XenoIrish XenoIrish

    I’m a big fan of this show and the cast of characters it puts on screen. Jeff Daniels is amazing to watch in it, as is Olivia Munn. I did prefer how each episode in season one was more about a single major news story and how the characters reacted to it, but I can understand the changes made to the show.

    I do wonder what happened to Terry Crews’ bodyguard character, they never really resolved the death threat plot line, or even acknowledged it this season. I also miss David Krumholtz as Will’s therapist.

    I want to reiterate how good Olivia Munn is in this show. I haven’t really cared for her in anything since “Attack of the Show” but her character is great here, and she pulls it off.

    All in all Season 2 was good, but I personally preferred season 1, maybe it was due to a higher frequency of Will and Charlie rants.

  • Ben

    I agree with XenoIrish, I kind of missed the Terry Crewes/Death Threat plot and you would think that after calling the Tea Party the American Taliban it would have only gotten worse from the zealot supporters that a political group like the Tea Party has.

    I have never seen the appeal of Olivia Munn, but her role as Sloan Sabbith has changed that. I don’t know if I like Olivia Munn or Sabbith but that works towards Munn’s favor. She has been fantastic in that role. A couple of her moments have been my favorite on the show, such as her showdown with Charlie over her reporting of the Nuclear disaster in Japan (Don’t call me girl, sir!) and the outcome of her explicit photos this season.

  • http://nickverboon.wordpress.com/ Nick Verboon

    I regularly tell people engaging in moronic political discussions that you can’t educate yourself about anything by watching TV and taking what the celebrities say seriously. The Newsroom may be the one current exception to that rule. As preachy as it is at times, a lot of the things that get said really, really, REALLY need to be said by somebody, so I can let it slide. If frustration with the utter uselessness of American media and subsequent de-education of the people who watch it leads to television of this quality, then preach away, Sorkin.

  • http://unrealitymag.com/index.php/author/indyz/ Indy Zoeller

    @ Ben and XenoIrish – Yeah, the more I think about it, the more I think my enthusiasm for the show has more to do with Sloan than I want to admit. Every great show needs that one character that you just really, really love, where there’s something about them that really connects with you and puts them in your corner. Stringer Bell. Jessie Pinkman. Josh Lyman. Rodger Sterling. Sloan Sabbith.

    @ Nick Verboon – As someone who follows the news of the day less than most people – or so I assume – I definitely take some valuable things away from this show. Not that I take it as gospel, but they bring up nuance to stories that I’d never considered, for sure.

  • Syden

    I totally agree I never saw the appeal of Olivia Mun until now but she is killing it, and I want more. I love this show it takes me to a reality I wish I lived in. A reality in which I could actually believe in news teams integrity, it’s a sad fact that I have to find it in fiction. Just an amazing show.

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