This past Sunday night the HBO original series The Newsroom aired its series finale, finishing up its third season as television’s smartest show, the final chapter in its ongoing “mission to civilize.” Created and beautifully written by Aaron Sorkin and starring Jeff Daniels as anchor Will McAvoy, Newsroom has dealt with the issue of how we get our news and what exactly comprises news in our modern society. The series begins in medias res as McAvoy, a complicated tragic hero, is about to undergo a dramatic set of life changes. Though possessing the soul of a man always in pursuit of truth, Will has been made famous and rich by the fever of 24-hours news networks and jaded by their superficiality. It takes his old producer (and flame) as well as the prodding of the director of fictional network ACN, Charlie Skinner, to set Will back on a path of Truth but once he is, he is undeterred, eager to restore honor to the profession he loves. Newsroom remains current with its news stories, delving into the BP Oil Spill, the Arab Spring from 2011, the Tea Party, the 2012 Presidential election, and the Boston Marathon bombing of 2013. It also boasts a highly talented supporting cast, among my favorites Jane Fonda as ACN owner Leona Lansing and Olivia Munn as financial reporter Sloan Sabbith. As I mentioned in my Sons of Anarchy article, there are a number of potential pitfalls as any show is brought to its final conclusion. The best shows end with grace, painting fitting end points for their characters and wrapping up peripheral and primary plot lines while adding a few final notes to the symphony. After watching last week’s second-to-last episode I worried that they would be ending on a dismal note, concluding their statement on modern news with pessimism as Charlie, the living embodiment of the dream, lay dying on the floor. With the finale, though, Charlie’s dream was shown not to be time wasted as he had created a whole team (and family) of people with the same ambition, the main characters all landing (a bit too conveniently, mind you) “on their feet” in new jobs and positions as the show closes.
For some, Newsroom feels like a lot of elite liberal lecturing and I have to say I understand that assessment, though I do not share it. I don’t hold it against anyone that isn’t a fan of Aaron Sorkin’s style and Newsroom displays Aaron at his Sorkin-est. Smart, witty (which are not the same thing), political and fast-paced, the writing is the real star of the show with Jeff Daniels in his best role EVER as a very close second. There’s an old Family Guy joke where two guys take psychedelics (doing some toad!) and one remarks,
“I finally get Aaron Sorkin’s Sports Night, it’s a comedy that’s too good to be funny.”
While it’s meant as a slight, I actually think it’s a pretty apt description of a great show where I was first introduced to Sorkin’s signature style and wit. I have been a big fan of just about everything he’s done since then, from The West Wing, to The Social Network and Moneyball. Sorkin’s style of clever, intelligent dialogue that never slows down for its audience paired with bright, clean shots (often while walking down a hallway) are as recognizable as doves in a John Woo movie or Bill Murray in a Wes Anderson production. Retorts that are both too quick and too clever to be possible provide the show’s sense of humor while working to express the fast-paced thinking we’d like to think is required of those working on our national political conversations. I understand that critics of Newsroom don’t enjoy being preached to but I happen to think we could use a bit more preachy and annoying and less fat, lazy and brainless in our television entertainment. Personally I think Sorkin’s pretention (if you want to call it that) is less about thinking we’re all stupid and more about wanting to have smarter conversations and substantive debates.
The series opens with Will doing a panel interview at Northwestern University and it’s the opening rant that sets the show’s plot in motion, as he loudly (and expletively) explains why America is not the greatest country in the world. It is that disillusionment that forms the basis of his apathy, his nostalgia for a time of a stronger citizenry and a stronger political system finally eating its way out from his core. Newsroom and its main characters are undoubtedly idealistic. The whole tone of the show, in fact, has a sense of unfailing idealism, a faith in the triumph of ideas. It’s what the running Don Quixote theme and the “mission to civilize” are really speaking to, the ability to be idealistic enough in a cynical world to change the way we report the news, to change the always divisive way we view the socio-political landscape around us. At times the show does indulge too heavily in its beating up on “alternative news media” (gossip columnists, blogs, Twitter), not because it’s unwarranted but because it takes up too much space. McAvoy’s (and Sorkin’s) mission to civilize is not the triumph of liberalism, though much of the show is spoken in that voice, nor is it the taming of the wild west that is “new journalism”, though that looms as a large antagonist through much of the final season. In terms of the news, MacKenzie sums up the mission to civilize in the pilot episode:
“Reclaiming the fourth estate. Reclaiming journalism as an honorable profession. A nightly newscast that informs a debate worthy of a great nation. Civility, respect and a return to what’s important; the death of bitchiness; the death of gossip and voyeurism; speaking truth to stupid. No demographic sweet spot; a place where we can all come together.”
As the show spun to its impending conclusion, forces conspired to break the news team up, sending Neil to Argentina and Will to jail in the wake of the FBI information leak. And behind it all a financial crisis for the company would force Leona to make the tough decision to sell the news network to Lucas Pruitt (B.J. Novak). It was a firestorm, a final fireworks display meant to test the crew’s mettle against a variety of on-comers. At the heart of the show has always been Charlie Skinner, brought to life fantastically by Sam Waterston. The charming, affable, drunken-uncle news director developed depth in small pieces as the series progressed, never wavering in his duties as Captain. In the show’s last two episodes, we learned, in a way I think we hadn’t yet, that Charlie was really Don Quixote, it was his mission that everyone else was part of and Will was the vehicle for making it happen. Though elements of the finale carried the scent of cheesiness – the pregnancy news and moments with Charlie’s grandsons were sweet but unnecessary – it was a graceful conclusion, wrapped around a funeral for a friend that was a metaphoric mourning for a noble profession facing dramatic change. The show concluded with a note of hope, believing that good, real journalism does still exist and will grow from within the new media avenues of the 21st century. I believe it truly is a noble profession, keeping the electorate informed, one that we have all allowed to decline over the last 20 years. With his latest production Aaron Sorkin has framed an idealistic but beautiful picture of what modern newsmen and women should want to look like. Arrogant at times perhaps, the maxim of “speaking Truth to stupid” expresses an ambition that is significantly lacking, not just in our broadcasters but in us as viewers, especially my own age and younger. An informed citizenry is stronger, safer and more productive and that is the mission that drove both News Night with Will McAvoy as well as The Newsroom by Aaron Sorkin. I wish I could tune in again to both.
from Episode #1.3: The 112th Congress