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Josh Reviews The Newsroom Season Two

The two-hour finale of The Newsroom season two, “Election Night” Parts I & II, were in my opinion probably as good as the show has ever been in its two short seasons on HBO (ten episodes in season one, only nine in season two).  This is good news and bad, as on the one hand I quite enjoyed these two episodes, while on the other hand I think The Newsroom remains the weakest of all four of Aaron Sorkin’s TV shows.  (Yes, my feeling right now is that this show is weaker than the much-criticized Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, though I have never re-watched Studio 60′s single season, so I readily admit that perhaps absence has made my heart grow a tad fonder for that show without good reason.)

In The Newsroom season two, Aaron Sorkin took a different approach than he did in season one.  While the show continued to be set in and around the real history of  2011 and 2012, allowing the characters to be involved with actual news-stories and political events, this season Mr. Sorkin crafted a season-long story-arc that was focused on a completely fictional event: the news-team’s discovery of an operation called Genoa, in which US troops used illegal Sarin gas during an operation in Afghanistan.  Unfortunately, as was made immediately clear in a framing sequence right at the start of the season two premiere, the story that News Night (the fictional news show featured on The Newsroom) reported about Genoa wound up being completely false, a huge journalistic screw-up that threatened to end all of our characters’ careers.

This story-line was hit and miss for me.  On the one hand, I loved the idea of a season-long story-arc.  While I enjoyed the device in season one of having the fictional show take place in and around real-life events, by the end of that initial season I was tired of Mr. Sorkin’s approach to those events, because usually they were used to make his News Night characters appear smarter thany all of the real-life journalists who reported those events.  It seemed a little too much to me.  I am all for TV characters being idealized — and that certainly worked perfectly in Mr. Sorkin’s greatest TV triumph, The West Wing — but in this case it seemed like all of the characters on The Newsroom were just a little too good, a little too perfect, for the show to be at all realistic.  It’s easy to criticize the media, looking back two-to-three years late with 20-20 hindsight, and making his characters super-perfect robbed the show, in my opinion, of some of its story-telling strength.

So I was excited by the story-telling opportunities that a fictional story-line presented, and I loved the sense of tension and mystery the framing scenes in the early episodes gave to the start of season two.  We knew something bad was going to happen and that our heroes were going to screw-up big-time, and it was exciting to watch and try to figure out just when and how that big mess-up was going to come.  It also helped that the deposition scenes set after the events of the fateful broadcast were a lot of fun, with well-written, snappy dialogue and some great performances, in particular by guest-star Marcia Gay Harden as the network’s lawyer deposing all of the News Night staff.  (Yes, Mr. Sorkin used a similar structure in his big-hit film The Social Network, but I can forgive him for that.)

Unfortunately, ultimately I wound up being disappointed by the Genoa story, because it turned out that, really, none of our characters did anything wrong.  They were all duped by a deceitful guest-star character, the producer Jerry Dantana.  In fact, although over-all I really enjoyed the season’s two-hour finale, one of the things I really dis-liked about the finale was Charlie and Will’s realization that, the heck with it, we’re not going to resign because we didn’t make any mistakes — we are awesome and, in fact, we are far more awesome than anyone else out there reporting the news, so we need to stay right here and keep doing what we’re doing.  Now, obviously I am not suggesting that Mr. Sorkin should have written a story in which one of the main characters engaged in journalistic fraud, because clearly that’s not the type of show this is (these heroes are idealized) and also, just from a story-telling perspective, if one of our characters did something like that they’d obviously be fired and thus out of the show.  However, I do think this Genoa storyline would have been far more interesting had any of our characters been in the wrong, even a teensy bit.  Heck, the story-line could have unfolded EXACTLY as it did, and that still could have led to some genuine soul-searching on the part of our heroes.  After all, this fraudulent news story DID get on the air, despite all of their efforts to check and re-check and check everything again.  We could have had some interesting reflections on the structure of their organization or their procedures that led to this happening.  (And indeed, we sort of did in the episode “Red Team III,” before that was un-done in the finale.)  We could have had some self-reflection as to whether their idealism blinds them sometimes.  There were lots of stories and character-development that could have come from this Genoa story-line-line, but ultimately I think the route Mr. Sorkin went — that his characters were blameless and it was all the result of someone evil from outside of their team — was too cheap and too easy.

So what was good about season two?  Well, first and foremost, as I wrote above, while ultimately I didn’t love where the Genoa story went, I do like the idea behind it, and I really think the structure of the season — not only the thread of the Genoa story running through all nine episodes, but the flash-forwards framing device of the deposition that took place after the airing of the story, was an engaging through-line for the season.

I loved getting to see a lot more Sloan Sabbith (Olivia Munn) this season, and I was vey pleasantly surprised by the complete character-recovery of Don Keeper (David Harbour).  The continuity-nerd in me is a bit flummoxed by how the Don in season one (a jerk) was so completely different from the Don in season two (nice guy and the voice of reason in the newsroom –taking the place of Jim, who served that role in season one), but I really LIKED season two Don.  I’d like to see more of that character.

And hey, if Mr. Sorkin could so recover and repair the Don character, it gives me hope that maybe, if this show gets a third season (something still very much in question), that he could perhaps repair Jim and Maggie.  Even more than Genoa, this was in my mind the biggest storytelling failure of season two.  Not only did I not buy any of the new romantic entanglements that kept Jim and Maggie apart (after it looked like, by the end of season one, after a season of ridiculous and not-really-funny romantic shenanigans, the two were finally going to get together) but worse than that is that I really disliked who those two became in season two.  Maggie was an emotional wreck, throwing herself at strange men in bars night after night, and Jim was a coward — avoiding being emotionally honest with either Maggie or Lisa, and then running away to an unimportant job (unimportant relative to his central job on News Night) on the campaign trail.  And while the character of Jim’s new girlfriend Hallie seemed nice and all, since the structure if the show is clearly directing the viewers that Jim and Maggie are soulmates, though they just don’t know it yet, I didn’t care any more about the Jim-Hallie relationship than I did about the Jim-Lisa relationship back in season one.

As I wrote at the start, the two-part finale that closed season two was, over-all, a lot of fun.  We were back to a real news-story — election night, 2012 — and it was fun seeing our characters bounce in and out of that real evening of political developments.  There were some great jokes and a lot of great Sorkin dialogue.  I loved seeing Will happy (for the most part) and in command of his show.  I loved the Sloan-Don stuff (I can’t believe how much I was rooting for that character-pairing!!  A very nice season two development).  I liked seeing poor Neil getting driven crazy by Mac and Sloan (two powerful women!) and I liked how front-and-center Charlie was, taking the brunt of wrestling, personally, with the impact of the Genoa story and being the point-person for sorting out where he, Will and Mac were going to go from there.

With the future of the show in question, Mr. Sorkin wisely chose the write this season finale as a possible series finale, and if this is indeed the last we will see of this show, I am very happy with where all the characters were left.  I loved the happy ending for Will and Mac, out-of-the-blue though it was, and while Mr. Sorkin was not able to undo the two-season-long mess he had made of the Jim-Maggie story, I was pleased with where he left the two characters.  (Though ugh, the Jim-Lisa scene was terrible. I guess we’re supposed to see Jim as the good guy just trying to do right for Maggie, about whom he is concerned, but to me it just seemed like one more time that he was sticking his neck into Lisa’s life.  Can’t this dude just leave that poor girl alone?  Sheesh!)

The Newsroom has never quite been the show I thought it would be, and I don’t think Mr. Sorkin has nailed the comedy/drama balance that once seemed so effortless for him, nor do I think he was nearly as successful as he was in Sports Night and in The West Wing at setting up characters, and specific character-relationships, that an audience would relate to and engage with.  (I have said this before and I’ll say it again, but if you are confused as to why I’m not wowed by the characters in The Newsroom, go and watch Sports Night.  I think you’ll be struck by how derivative the characters and character-relationships in The Newsroom are of Sports Night, and I think you’ll agree with me that Mr. Sorkin told these stories far more effectively in Sports Night.)

There is enough that I loved about The Newsroom that makes me want to see Mr. Sorkin take a third crack at this show, and there is enough that I disliked about that show that would make me happy if this is indeed the end of the series and Mr. Sorkin was moving on to other things.  We’ll see what happens.  For now, I am certainly glad to have watched The Newsroom.  As I have said before, even imperfect Sorkin is better than almost everything else that is on TV.  I continue to respect Mr. Sorkin as a huge talent and a unique voice, and I will eagerly follow him to whatever he does next.

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