“The Newsroom” didn’t really cry out for a third and final season — even a truncated six-episode one — but Aaron Sorkin’s creation remains as fascinating as it is frustrating, affording the writer extraordinaire a platform to vent about media excesses in a manner that’s off-putting and sanctimonious enough to dilute its many legitimate beefs and criticisms. It’s a shame, since Sorkin has always presented the news business with inordinate insight and smarts, but his clear disappointment in modern journalism’s failings has to be reciprocated toward an entertainment whose flawed structural conceit and too-cute office politics consistently undermine its authority.
Although “The Newsroom’s” easily riled anchor Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels) and his principled producer Mackenzie McHale (Emily Mortimer) finally re-declared their love for each other at the end of the previous season, wedding plans have merely given them something new about which to squabble. Besides, there’s plenty of complicated romance among others on the staff, including financial anchor Sloan Sabbith (Olivia Munn) and her producer Don (Thomas Sadoski), although to be fair, having journalists bedding each other represents progress vs. sleeping with sources, which they seem to do in other dramas (“Ray Donovan,” anyone?) with wearisome regularity.
Sorkin’s primary device in the show remains covering recent events with the benefit of hindsight, then offering what amounts to instant commentary on where the coverage went wrong. Here, that’s the Boston Marathon bombing, freeing the writer to rail against the litany of misinformation and reliance on “citizen journalism” in the frenzied race to be first.
Yet that’s only the tip of the iceberg in terms of wrinkles with real-world parallels, including the danger of an ill-considered tweet bashing Republicans (mirroring an incident at MSNBC); a government whistle-blower, a la Edward Snowden, who dumps classified documents into the lap of a newsroom staffer (Dev Patel); and corporate politics that remind us of news’ tenuous status within the fold of media conglomerates — or worse, under the stewardship of entrepreneurs looking to reinvent the business, with questionable commitment to its traditions or integrity.
These are serious issues, to be sure, and worth exploring — especially since they are seldom ventilated in this kind of forum, offering a dramatic patina of quality to help the medicine go down. That said, it can’t help but feel that Sorkin’s lecturing the audience, sacrificing what’s best for the show on the altar of delivering an admittedly justifiable rant about, say, the corrosive effects of journalists being directly rewarded based on page views.
As with “The West Wing,” Sorkin’s writing brims with idealism, tempered by a vision of a reality that threatens to crush it outright. The show also features fine performances, from Daniels’ Emmy-winning turn as Will (few actors have meshed better with the writer’s rat-a-tat patter) to Sam Waterston’s wisecracking network chief to recurring parts like Chris Messina’s corporate boss and Marcia Gay Harden’s attorney.
For all that, halfway through this sprint to the finish, “The Newsroom” continues to represent a failed experiment — a series that won’t win any converts and too often risks irritating what should ostensibly be its allies.
At the same time, one hopes Sorkin’s feature schedule doesn’t keep him away from TV for too long. Because despite “The Newsroom’s” failings, discerning viewers needn’t have the benefit of hindsight to conclude that whatever he next chooses to sink his teeth into will at the very least provide food for thought.