Jeff Daniels and his team of crack cable-news reporters are back for one last hurrah.
Let’s start with the 800-pound gorilla in the room: During its two 10-episode seasons on HBO, The Newsroom was plagued with pretentiousness, embarrassing portrayals of women, and an exhaustive use of expository monologues when one or two sentences would have sufficed. Sadly, replacing the Aaron Sorkin-created drama with a one-man show about Sam Waterston’s perpetually drunk, old-school newsman Charlie Skinner wasn’t an option, so instead, The Newsroom is being allowed to die a slow death with an abbreviated third and final season in which not enough has changed.
The female characters remain poorly written, maybe not as badly as in the past, but the extreme shifts from brilliant to blithering idiot (see: McHale, MacKenzie, under “bridezilla”) are still there and are still inexcusable. And while the show has been strong enough to allow us to develop feelings for these characters—we really don’t want to see Neal Sampat (Dev Patel) in prison (although he might just find some Bigfoot-believing kindred spirits up the river)—Sorkin is giving us a lot to process this season. Who knows? Maybe he’s taking his frustration over The Newsroom’s premature cancellation out on the critics, as well as the audience, because he’s decided to, like his monologues, cram not one, but two hot-button plotlines into the six-episode season.
The result is an overwhelming desire to scream at the TV screen, which is then rendered impossible because you’re so exhausted from trying to keep up with how financial-news analyst Sloan Sabbith (Olivia Munn) figured out that ACN is poised for a corporate takeover or what exactly Neal did to necessitate legal action that you’ll probably fall asleep before managing a weak, “Khaaaaan!“-esque “Sooorrrrkkiiiinnnnn!!!!“
At the same time, it’s not like we expected The Newsroom’s lame-duck season to all of a sudden present us with well-written female characters or snappy, concise descriptions of how the U.S. government was involved in causing fatal riots in a fictional African country. But, there are some high points to the new season, which make it worth checking out, even if it’s just to say goodbye. The acting by Jeff Daniels and his supporting cast is as impeccable as ever, and credit must be given to both the actors and Sorkin for the exquisitely staged reporting montage of the Boston Marathon bombing. Daniels’ pained expressions as his character, Will McAvoy, struggles to keep his composure upon learning that one of the bombing victims was an 8-year-old boy, reminds us that all of our hearts broke during that awful week in April of last year, even that of an arrogant, stubborn celebrity news anchor.
So it’s a few months after the end of season 2. Maggie Jordan (Alison Pill) has grown out the PTSD-related spiky crimson hairdo that was the result of repressed emotions following a psychologically disturbing trip to Africa, is back as a blonde and seems to have ditched all residual lusty feelings she had for colleague Jim Harper (John Gallagher Jr.). Completely unbelievable, but good, since Jim is still dating former Romney bus embedded reporter Hallie Shea (Grace Gummer), who has conveniently landed herself a gig at Atlantis Cable News Digital.
NEXT: Same problems, different stories
Also, with two big story lines on the horizon, everyone’s love life needs to take a back seat for these final episodes. Except for the love affair brewing between Sloan and Don Keefer (Thomas Sadoski), because they don’t make moony eyes at each other, are adorably hilarious together and are, in essence, the only tolerable relationship on The Newsroom. A typical snarky exchange:
Sloan: “How do you know he has a blog?”
Don: “My phone can Google things.”
However, there is not enough room in this recap to unleash all of the frustration over Sorkin’s (unsurprising) decision to make Emily Mortimer’s MacKenzie a stereotypical bride now that she and Will are engaged. The same woman who is a multiple Peabody Award winner begins her first scene of the season begging her fiance to get more friends so the groomsmen-to-bridesmaid ratio will even out. It’s a very, very sad day when it takes a bombing at the Boston Marathon to get this woman’s head in gear.
The same kind of aggravation comes into play when Maggie, who heads up to Boston with Elliot Hirsch (David Harbour), gets to change out of her sensible flats and into a pair of Mac’s Louboutins and turn into Cinderella a grownup for one special broadcast. In a painfully contrived plot device, on-air talent Elliot eats a hearty helping of walnut-filled—surprise! He’s allergic!—chicken salad, and within seconds, Maggie has to “do the thtory.” Despite Maggie’s three-year tenure as a capable news producer, Will, Mac, and Charlie are visibly stunned at her competence in delivering an on-camera report (Charlie: “Did she just age 10 years this week?”). Props to Sorkin for reminding the female leaders of tomorrow that “We girls can do anything!“
So, while every news agency is trampling over one another to be the first to break the Boston bombing story—and Charlie stands in the middle of the ACN bullpen with motivational speeches like, “If I learn what happens by watching the news, I’m going to lose my f—ing mind!”—Will and Mac choose to ignore the reports coming off Twitter and wait for more “traditional” confirmations. Just as it looks as if the News Night staff has morphed into a well-oiled machine, they are forced to deal with the new kid in town: the concept of social-media journalism. Will and Mac’s reservations are understandable, given how they all came thisclose to losing their jobs last season after putting a doctored interview on the air in what’s come to be known as the Genoa debacle. But the admirable decision to maintain ACN’s credibility and integrity comes with a heavy price: By the end of the episode, they’re fourth in the ratings.
But that’s not even the worst thing Will and the News Night team have to deal with, because while catching some air on the Atlantis World Media roof during the episode’s final scene, the three biggest story lines of the season are all thrown at Will and the audience at the very same time. In one corner, we have Neal, who, after spending two seasons (and most of this episode) as the Bigfoot-theory-spouting crackpot of the newsroom, now wears the snazzy label of federal-crime-committing espionage conspirator.
NEXT: Neal and the Giant Breach
In another corner, we have financial genius Sloan, who, thanks to a big plot-exposition scene with ACN president Reese Lansing (Chris Messina)—and her new $24,000 toy computer—has figured out that ACN is about to be the victim of a hostile takeover by Reese’s 25-year-old twin half-siblings. This, of course, makes it the best time for Jim to burst in with the news that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev has been captured in Watertown, Massachusetts. This is one of those rare moments where Will’s subsequent super-Sorkin-y monologue actually make a lot of sense, because wouldn’t your head explode after 1. Learning your colleague is in possession of 27,000 government documents and also induced his anonymous source to commit a felony? 2. Learning your new millennial bosses are about to play a game of Monopoly with your job? and 3. Realizing that you now have to compete with every individual with an iPhone in order to remain a credible journalist?
Jeff Daniels naturally gets the trophy for Most Expository Speeches this episode, but honorable mention must go to Dev Patel for Neal’s point-by-point rooftop rundown to Will and Charlie about his latest predicament. In short, he obtained stolen government documents that prove fake press stories planted by a U.S. PR firm caused fatal riots in the African nation of Equatorial Kundu. If not for Neal’s long-winded, Sorkin-penned explanation, however, the next graf of this recap would probably read something like this:
“Dev Patel is saying a lot of words really quickly. He seems scared. They’re making an Edward Snowden/Glenn Greenwald reference here, right? Okay, classified leaked documents. Got it. Sounds like a whistle-blowing situation. OhmigodIthinkhe’sinreallybigtrouble!”
Those “big trouble” suspicions are confirmed by Will, whose convenient law-school background paints a pretty bleak picture for not just Neal, but for the audience—because we’ve developed a soft spot for the young British spokesman for the “nocturnal nut brigade.” When Neal naively admits that he asked his anonymous source for one or two additional simplified documents to present to Will and Mac, the News Night anchor and legal expert drops one hell of a bombshell: “The moment you asked him to give you stolen classified documents, you committed a federal crime!”
Will’s episode-closing monologue is incredibly exhausting, but Daniels, as always, nails it. He’s ready to lead his News Night brigade once more unto the breach, because let’s face it, he’s got plenty of good fight left in him. Was it necessary for him to announce to MacKenzie that “We’re not in the middle of the third act, we just got to the end of the first”? Absolutely not. Did he need to launch into the pitch-perfect, uplifting speech he had failed at in the newsroom so miserably earlier in the week? Nope. The episode could have ended very nicely with his affirmation that he’s “not so easily surrendering to citizen journalism and citizen detectives,” and that “Neal needs a lawyer… because he’s in very serious trouble.” But that would’ve sucked all of the Sorkin essence—i.e. its character—out of the show, and the thrill of watching Daniels brilliantly deliver these kinds of histrionic speeches that only he can.
–The fictional African nation Neal keeps referring to is called Equatorial Kundu. If this sounds at all familiar, it’s because the country is a Sorkin creation that existed in The West Wing universe.
–Full disclosure: I went to junior high and high school with David Harbour. This may be why I found the scene in which Elliot’s tongue swells up to be one of the funniest television moments of the year. Trust me, I’ve known the Walk Among the Tombstones actor could do comedy ever since he was a seventh-grader lip-syncing “Fish Heads” in a school talent show.
–How exactly does Gary Cooper (Chris Chalk) know that there are 106,000 hotel rooms in New York off the top of his head?