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“What Kind of Day Has it Been” — Josh Bids Farewell to The Newsroom

I have enormous respect for the talent and skill of Aaron Sorkin.  He has written the screenplay for some of my very favorite movies (A Few Good Men tops the list, but I also love The Social Network, Charlie Wilson’s War, Moneyball, and many others), and he is responsible for two of my very favorite TV shows of all time (Sports Night and The West Wing).  His third TV show, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, didn’t connect with viewers or critics and was cancelled after a single season.  When it was announced that Mr. Sorkin was returning to TV with a new show for HBO, this was exciting news.  I was eager to see Mr. Sorkin return to form after the failure of Studio 60, and working with HBO seemed like a match made in heaven.  (Fewer episodes, high production values, and a reputation for prestige productions.  What could possibly go wrong?)

Unfortunately, from the beginning, The Newsroom seemed to repeat many of the mistakes of Studio 60.  While both shows featured some wonderful actors and episodes filled with clever Aaron Sorkin-written verbiage, both shows seemed to be missing that special je ne sais qua that made both Sports Night and The West Wing so magically delicious.

It seems to me that The Newsroom had two main faults from the outset.  Number one, the shows’s central device, of being set several years in the past so that we could see the show’s characters report real-life news stories, never really worked.  It removed a lot of tension from the show, because we knew how all of these events turned out.  It also resulted in the show’s having a feeling of smug superiority as we watched these characters do a better job reporting these events than any actual reporters did, often leaping ahead to conclusions far faster than anyone had done at the time.  This often felt unrealistic, as the benefit of hindsight allowed Mr. Sorkin to write his characters as being consistently ahead of the curve.  While I loved the bold political point Mr. Sorkin made in the season one finale, in which he (through the voice of Jeff Daniels as Will McAvoy) accused the Tea Party of being the American Taliban, I often found the show to be a very preachy polemic.  (The West Wing was a very liberal show, but I rarely felt that show to be preachy.)

The second, and more serious, problem with The Newsroom was that I really didn’t care about any of its characters.  When the show began, I was struck by how derivative all of the show’s characters and relationships were of the far better, far more interesting Sports Night.  Think about it, almost every Newsroom character, along with their primary qualities and relationships, lines up with a similar character/relationship from Sports Night. But while I loved every single one of the Sports Night characters, I found most of The Newsroom’s characters to be quite unlikable for much of the show’s early run.  A best they were uninteresting.  Will and MacKenzie’s they-love-each-other-even-though-they-deny-it relationship was a pale shadow of Casey and Dana’s relationship from Sports Night (another on-air personality and his behind-the-scenes producer who were, of course, destined for one another).  The will-they-or-won’t-they puppy love between young staffers Jim and Maggie was far inferior to the Jeremy and Natalie dynamic.  I found Jim and Maggie to be actively annoying in the many stupid ways they continued to keep themselves apart from one another.  (As I have written before, Jim and Maggie are no Jim and Pam.)

The show improved on many of these problems over the course of its three short seasons, and I think this final six-episode season three is the best stretch of the show’s run.  It was a good move for the show to start dealing with fake news stories rather than real ones, and the characters did improve.  The biggest miracle of the show was the way that season two completely rehabilitated Don (David Harbour), who began as Maggie’s boorish jerk of a boyfriend.  Don turned into one of the show’s best characters by the end, and pairing him with Sloan Sabbith was a genius move.  By the end of season three, Sloan was my favorite character on the show.  Olivia Munn stepped into the big leagues with her performance on this show. Sloan was a great synthesis of a performer with Mr. Sorkin’s words.  Had The Newsroom begun with Sloan as the main character, I think we would have been enjoying a far superior show all these years.

I haven’t been “hate-watching” The Newsroom.  The show has never lived up to my hopes, but as I have often said, even mediocre Sorkin is better than most everything else on TV.  I’ve always found a lot to enjoy in the show, even as it consistently frustrated me by falling short of the greatness I had expected from the man who created Sports Night and The West Wing.

As I wrote above, season three was, for me, probably The Newsroom’s most consistently enjoyable run of episodes, but there were still plenty of flaws.  The season premiere frustrated me in that pretty much all the stories were based on the main characters bring surprisingly stupid.  Don doesn’t know that he shouldn’t buy stock based on a tip from his finance reporter girlfriend, Sloan?  Neal doesn’t know that if he asks his Edward Snowden-like source to get him more evidence to confirm the snoop’s claims, he (Neal) is now complicit in an act of espionage?  Jim’s girlfriend Hallie thinks that offensive tweet is really a good idea to send from the show’s official twitter account?  Come on.

But there was also a lot to enjoy this season.  I liked Maggie’s interaction on the train with the EPA official (played wonderfully by The Office’s Paul Lieberstein, who joined the show as an executive producer this season).  I liked the whole inspired-by-Snowden storyline (and I loved that it was based on events in Equatorial Kundu, a sly West Wing reference for the uber-fans).  I liked Sloan and Don together.  I liked the storyline of ACN being sold (even if, again, Sports Night did that particular storyline better).  I thought that Leona (Jane Fonda) and Reese (Chris Messina) had some of their best scenes in the run of the show (Reese in particular was great; this character has been redeemed almost as much as Don!) and I loved Kat Dennings in her brief guest appearance.  (I wish we’d seen more of her.)

The season took a stumble in the penultimate episode, “Oh Shenandoah,” one of the worst episodes of the entire run of the series.  Though I understand the point that Aaron Sorkin was trying to make, about the basis of this country’s legal system being the presumption of innocence, I found the whole rape story to have been massively ill conceived. Click here to read an excellent summation of this, or here, or here.  (Seriously, click on those links, all of those pieces are worth reading.) Worse than that was the whole Will-talking-to-his-imaginary-dad stuff, which I saw coming way too early.  And, good lord, I get it, Aaron Sorkin has issues with his father.  Enough already! What began as an interesting undertone to his work in his Sports Night has now, so many Sorkin characters with horrible fathers later, grown very tiresome.  Worse even than all that was the needless death of Charlie Skinner, which a) felt like a cheap way for end-of-the-show pathos, and b) was particularly disappointing coming at the end of an episode in which we saw Charlie inexplicably broken and defeated by new ACN owner Pruitt (B.J. Novak)’s demands, and taking the wrong side of every issue against his stubborn, standing-up-for-what-they-believe-in staff.  It felt like a total betrayal of Charlie’s character.  (This was sort of repaired by the finale, in which Charlie’s wife revealed that he secretly wanted his staff to oppose him on all those issues, but come on.  Charlie didn’t have the guts to stand up to Pruitt himself?)

The season and series finale, at least, recovered from “Oh Shenandoah” and left me feeling pleasantly nostalgic about the passing of this show after only twenty-five episodes.  (Though The Newsroom lasted for three seasons, it was only three episodes longer than Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip’s one and only season.)  Of course, this finale was titled “What Kind of Day Has it Been.”  (This was the title for the season one finale of both Sports Night and The West Wing, as well as the series one finale/series finale of Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip.)  I enjoyed the flashback structure and some of the retroactive adjustments made to the series’ characters.  (Don wasn’t such a jerk at the beginning!  Sloan had a thing for Don since the beginning!  The young girl who prompted Will’s America tirade in the series premiere wasn’t as naive as she seemed!  Etc.)  I liked seeing the show wrap back around to the beginning, here at the end.  The funeral and wake for Charlie was well done and provided a satisfying, melancholy but in the end upbeat tone that befits a series finale.  I was pleased that almost all of the series’ main and recurring characters had a nice moment in the finale.  Overall I was satisfied with where all of the characters ended up (except for poor, deceased Charlie, oh well).

Over-all I have enjoyed The Newsroom, though it was never the show I felt it should have/could have been.  This was not the triumphant return to TV for Aaron Sorkin that anyone was looking for.  (That has got to include HBO and Mr. Sorkin himself.  Even if he thinks all of the criticism of The Newsroom has been way off base, he must be disappointed not to have been greeted with the critical acclaim that surrounded Sports Night and The West Wing.)  But to repeat myself one more time, even mediocre Sorkin is better than most everything else on TV.  The Newsroom was a misfire, but there was still a lot to enjoy. I enjoyed so many moments of great Sorkin dialogue, and I respect Mr. Sorkin’s efforts to unabashedly make a case for his liberal perspective on politics (even if I didn’t always 100% agree).  I didn’t start off liking the characters of The Newsroom, but when the finale wrapped up I found that I was already beginning to miss them, nonetheless.

Never say never, but it looks like this is it for Aaron Sorkin on TV, at least for now.  That’s a shame, as Mr. Sorkin has a phenomenal voice and, at his best, he is capable of producing television above and beyond what almost everyone else is doing.  I am thankful for all four TV shows that Mr. Sorkin has created, even these last two.  (It’s getting to be about time for me to re-watch Studio 60, having only seen that show one time through, back when it originally aired.)  I thank Mr. Sorkin for so many years of wonderful entertainment.

And now, to quote Jed Bartlet:

“What’s next?”

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