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'The Newsroom' comes to a close: Was the finale a fitting end?

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THE NEWSROOM
Melissa Moseley

On Sunday night, Aaron Sorkin’s drama The Newsroom ended its run on HBO. (Read EW’s recap here.) Here, EW.com news editor Ashley Fetters and EW.com intern Jonathon Dornbush discuss the series finale,”What Kind of Day Has It Been,” and its role in wrapping up a troubled, occasionally riveting three-season run.

JONATHON: The Newsroom finale—which boasts the same name as several other finales in Sorkin history—was like a microcosm of the show’s highs and lows. The setup is a smart one; by exploring how the characters began the Don Quixote quest presented in the pilot, “What Kind of Day Has It Been” offers a unique new perspective on each of them. The flashback-heavy hour also allows the show’s best regular, Charlie Skinner, to come alive again; ending without him would have been a real loss.

But there are also aspects that falter. Will’s speech for Charlie feels like Sorkin overstating the point of the series—just in case you forgot (like the show seemed to many times along the way), this was a series about a group of journalists trying to change the way modern news reporting works. And though I loved Charlie, the series as a whole never used him enough. Much of Will’s speech sounded nice, but it left me wishing I had actually gotten to know this character we’re supposed to care for so deeply.

ASHLEY: Oof. “Just in case you forgot … this was a series about a group of journalists trying to change the way modern news reporting works.” Yes—certainly, that that’s the message the episode is hammering home. But I bet I’m not the only one who greeted that news with, “Oh, really? … Okay.” For most of its run, The Newsroom sure did a great impression of a show about a group of journalists bungling their intra-office romances and getting outsmarted by the outside world.

The finale has its moments. The ending musical number, for example, is surprisingly heartwarming (more on that later). But it has laughably unnecessary elements, too, like Will briefly transforming into Harry Dunne as he stands there doofus-grinning in church, and the bewildering last-minute character overhaul that leads Will to become not just a dad but everyone’s gentle and bumbling dad—so much so that he quite literally toddles off into the sunset holding hands with a small child.

Overall, though, the last episode of The Newsroom suffers from the same ailments as many of its earlier ones: For starters, it doggedly presents love as a solution to a problem that, realistically, love would not solve. (“I wasn’t in love with them,” Jim tells Maggie, explaining why he wants to try a long-distance relationship with her despite his previous long-distance relationships failing.)

But perhaps more damningly, it once again raises an interesting question—what can we do about a lazy, complacent American public that only cares about what it wants to care about?—then gives viewers a lecture instead of a thoughtful answer. (A windy, self-important lecture at best—and as last week’s campus-rape episode proved, an infuriating one at worst, with bonus points apparently awarded for making a female character look nuts in the process.) Maybe the best way to describe the finale, then, is “disappointing but fitting.”

JONATHON: I do think aspects of the finale work as ideas for a finale of a show. Just not this one. Sorkin loves to bring everything back around at the end, and the finale presenting the pilot in a new light is a wonderful motif. But it’d help if I cared about these characters. Sure, seeing Will and Mac’s states prior to the first episode is fun, but it’s also a reminder of all the show’s missed opportunities and false notes. Remember how Mac was introduced on the show as this powerhouse producer who’s one of the best in the business? Did the show ever ask her to do anything but yell, not understand email, and fawn over Will? Not really—and that’s a shame.

I honestly believe there’s a great finale somewhere in this episode, and there are aspects of it that Sorkin could have nailed had this been The West Wing or Sports Night. But after spending three seasons with characters I don’t care about, these sequences don’t quite have the punch I know Sorkin wants them to deliver.

ASHLEY: You’re right that “What Kind of Day Has It Been” works pretty well as a small-scale model of the problems with The Newsroom overall, and I would add that it perpetuates some of the show’s most offensive qualities. It slaps shoddy, convenient solutions onto big journalistic problems, like the Internet threatening ACN’s commitment to hard news, so that it can get to the real stuff—like, uh, Mackenzie and Will having a kid together.

That’s always been the (well, a) problem with The Newsroom. Like other Aaron Sorkin shows, it’s best when it’s about work. But it’s almost never really about work.

It’s unoriginal, I realize—and a little depressing—to talk about The Newsroom by comparing it to The West Wing. But for what it’s worth, Sorkin’s mega-successful NBC show—like a lot of riveting television—became must-see TV by staying focused on highly educated, highly capable humans solving difficult problems worthy of their pay grade and specific to their field. For instance: It just came to light that the U.S. President didn’t tell the American people he has multiple sclerosis before assuming office—how should we handle it?

By contrast, The Newsroom all too often gives its highly educated, highly capable characters completely pedestrian, mostly personal problems to solve: I like someone from work—how should I handle it? My girlfriend and I disagree about her job—what do we do?

In short, there’s a reason why it’s more satisfying to watch Don Draper nail a tricky ad pitch or Olivia Pope pull off a high-risk white-hat operation than it is to watch Jim and Maggie hash out their feelings for each other on a Sex and the City-themed New York tour bus. And it’s the same reason “Red Team III”—which largely puts the staff’s personal lives on hold to focus instead on how they deal with a massive journalistic-ethics crisis—is arguably The Newsroom’s best episode. (To be fair, of course, The West Wing did detail its characters’ personal lives and relationships. But it frequently did so with a concern for how their outside-of-work lives would affect their work, while The Newsroom all too often seems have its priorities the other way around.)

JONATHON: I completely agree that The Newsroom excelled when it was more focused on the work lives of these characters and how their personal matters extended out of them, rather than the other way around. Take the Lansings, for example. Any time they appeared on the show, there was the inherent issue of their family being at the heart of things. Leona (the ever great Jane Fonda) and Reese Lansing (the ever great, though audiences are now just realizing, Chris Messina) are a mother and son who work together, yes, but their plots were rarely about their emotional or familial struggles. (I don’t remember the show ever discussing nepotism with regard to that relationship.) Instead, it was about Leona and Reese trying to keep ACN afloat—and their scenes were often the series’ most riveting.

Or take Sloan Sabbith, one of the few characters, male or female, who worked in the first season. Olivia Munn brought some of Sorkin’s best work on the show to life, and as much as I love her and Don together at times, her storyline started out by examining her place in the 24-hour news cycle. And I loved it. The show had fascinating aspects that it too often ignored—and as you rightly suggest, they were often about these characters solving problems related to their office, not their bedrooms.

Changing directions: We need to talk about the musical number that Will sets off in the garage during Charlie’s wake. That’s a phenomenal scene. The song choice is wonderful, everyone sounds great—it’s the type of sappy end-note that series finales are totally allowed to indulge in. That is, until you remember how annoying Jim is, how the show never really settled on Will’s character, and how Charlie’s family has been irrelevant until this hour.

ASHLEY: I’m so glad you mentioned the musical number at the end. Everything about it works, except for the part where, oh, right, it’s sung by two protagonists who haven’t earned enough affection to be missed and one kid whose entire run on The Newsroom will only span these four or so minutes. The farewell scene is lovely—lovely enough that The Newsroom doesn’t deserve it.

JONATHON: And it’s a shame, because the writer has almost created a map for how he establishes his television shows. Sorkin’s body of TV work all follows a similar format—a behind-the-scenes look at a subject in which the screenwriter has taken an interest. He’s found varying degrees of success with each: Sports Night is remembered as Sorkin figuring out his voice in a television format while dealing with the confines of network comedies. The West Wing stands as the best marriage of the writer’s liberal idealism and knack for delivering that message through dialogue. Studio 60 will remain the show that everyone thought would make 30 Rock a quick blunder in the career of Tina Fey, only for the reverse to be true—and it’s something even Sorkin pokes fun at.

As for The Newsroom? Well, in the pantheon of TV, it may only be remembered for failing to consistently capitalize on its promise, while simultaneously pushing its weaknesses to the forefront. There’s the basis of a great show in The Newsroom, and occasionally it reached those heights—but rarely thanks to the core show. Charlie, Sloan, the Lansings—The Newsroom‘s brilliance was on the periphery, occasionally coming to the fore only to inevitably be pushed into the background. As a Sorkin fan—a claim I will always makeThe Newsroom will be a reminder that Sorkin’s break from television should have lasted a little longer.

He’s still capable of great work, but The Newsroom indicates it might just not be on TV anymore.

ASHLEY: I once heard someone describe the now-retired American tennis player James Blake as “a great underdog story, but without the crucial triumph at the end.” Blake, it’s true, had all the heart, charisma, and seemingly insurmountable obstacles of a sports legend—and at the end of his career, it just felt like a damn shame that he never figured out how to play like one.

The Newsroom sort of fits this “almost an underdog hero” narrative. It had a bad, much too smug start, but it also had the ingredients of a great TV series: a respected screenwriter, actors with formidable and diverse resumes, a premise that invited discussions of provocative present-day issues. So it had to eventually get on course, right? … Right? (To extend that metaphor a little further: What made Blake’s story especially heartbreaking was that he did show flashes of brilliance, even if he couldn’t string them together effectively. His famous five-setter at the 2005 U.S. Open wasn’t just great tennis by Blake standards, it was great tennis by tennis standards—in much the same way that the Genoa storyline in season two wasn’t just great Newsroom, it was great TV.)

But in the end, the optimism (my own optimism, I’ll admit) that The Newsroom could live up to its potential didn’t make it so. It’ll always be the show that couldn’t—or wouldn’t—learn how to be great.

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