"What Kind of Day Has It Been?" Even on its best days, Sorkin's "The Newsroom" was a disappointment
Audiences can't watch The Newsroom like a normal show. The "best" episodes of Aaron Sorkin's orgy of preachiness are arguably the ones that are so irredeemably bad and offensive that they manage to do what the show rarely does, passing an important metric for success: They're interesting.
Take last week's disastrous episode. Its crimes against audiences were both grossly insensitive -- a third of the episode was devoted to shaming a rape victim -- and embarrassingly cliched. In one unintentionally hilarious sequence, Will is visited by the ghost of his father. This was a bad, bad hour of television. But at the risk of embracing Sorkin's own cliched writing, the episode was such a trainwreck that it was impossible for viewers to look away.
Last night's series finale, however, had an air of... subtlety? Had Sorkin put down his holy hammer of self-righteous moral outrage an episode early to focus instead on closing out character arcs in relatively unobjectionable ways?
Basically yes -- though subtlety alone is not a virtue. A dry fart is also subtle, and this episode had all the unpleasantness and dreariness of arid flatulence.
Sorkin opens on the funeral of ACN News Director Charlie Skinner, one of the few characters who possessed something approaching dignity. That is, until the last two months of his life when he began capitulating to ACN's new traffic-whoring owner, the villainous tech baron Lucas Pruitt. Pruitt is at the center of the few scenes that managed to lull me out of my Sorkin-coma -- though perhaps not for the reasons the writer intended:
Pruitt receives a wave of bad press (spearheaded by Valleywag!) over significant gender pay gaps at one of his many companies. We're also told that Valleywag has exposed Pruitt's predilection for throwing what essentially amount to sex parties -- or at least that's how they will be spun by the press.
I wonder if Sorkin is aware of the irony of choosing Gawker's Valleywag as the show's white knight. Its reports of sexism give Leona, Will, and MacKenzie the leverage they need to keep Pruitt from firing the entire newsroom for insubordination. And yet, The Newsroom fixates on trashing the kind of invasive, hollow, celebrity reporting conducted by the Gawker empire. In essence, Sorkin is saying, "It's deplorable to dig up dirt on the personal lives of elites... That is, unless the target is a member of the new tech gentry, then dig away."
It's the worst kind of social commentary, and one that's almost as ancient as money itself: Old rich attacking the new rich.
As for the more newsworthy attacks Valleywag launches over Pruitt's gender pay gaps, Sorkin reveals a personal double-standard there, too. Just today, the New York Times published an opinion piece written by Sorkin in which he shames journalists who have published information revealed in the Sony hack. Namely, he focuses on reports that quote the internal squabbles between writers, directors, and producers. But you know what else those hacked documents revealed? Some serious gender pay gap issues at Sony Pictures. Should journalists have ignored that? Again, in Sorkin's mind, Hollywood elites deserve to conduct business and pleasure far out of sight from the public's peering eyes. But young tech billionaires? Let the punches fly.
Oh, there is one other legitimately enjoyable scene: Neal comes back! The show's one intelligent and respectful digital journalist -- and the only person on the show under the age of 30 with any sense of ethics -- was packed off to Venezuela for the whole season to avoid extradition over his refusal to reveal the source on a story (and to avoid muddying up Sorkin's theories that there are no good digital journalists, and the Internet is a categorical menace toward real reporting).
Neal arrives just as his replacement, a perpetually-smirking millennial with a soul full of garbage, is about to publish a post called "The Nine Most Overrated Movies" of all time. Hilariously, Neal shuts down the website from his phone in the nick of time. (Hey, better to lose millions of pageviews on legitimate stories than have an innocuous listicle appear on your site, right?) He then gives a speech about the power of the Internet to actually improve journalism, while berating the web producer for being such a snarky downer and for not writing about "underrated" movies instead. Hey, it lacks the gravity of Skinner's and McAvoy's speeches about the power of traditional journalism, but I'll take it.
Like many series finales, the rest of the episode is more-or-less a victory lap, as Sorkin thinks up easy -- though not entirely unsatisfying -- endings for his principal characters (spoiler alert): MacKenzie and Will are going to have a baby; Maggie will move to DC but stay with Jim; Sloan and Don will continue having the only romantic relationship on the show that isn't completely unbelievable and obnoxious.
Maybe I shouldn't complain. While it's far less interesting to watch Sorkin make a wobbly but safe landing than it is to watch him crash and burn, there's something pretty gross and Gawkerish about hoping something is going to be bad, just so you can complain about it on the Internet. Nevertheless, the finale reinforces the notion that, even on a good day, The Newsroom is merely watchable, failing to achieve the kind of high quality television audiences expect from HBO.
As for Sorkin, if he does another series I hope he tackles a subject he actually cares about, like sports or law or politics. Throughout The Newsroom's run, it never felt like Sorkin was all that interested in journalism -- beyond the fact that, as an industry that's been upended by the Internet, it's a useful setting for telegraphing the writer's love of nostalgia and hatred of the Internet. More importantly, I'm not sure he even really believes in the power of journalism. After all, the book he namedrops most often in The Newsroom is Don Quixote, which is about a man fighting a useless fight for principles that no longer exist -- and maybe never did.
The final episode is called "What Kind of Day Has It Been." And like the show itself, even when the ACN team has a "good" day, it's never all that impressive or world-changing. Yes, Will McAvoy and his team fight the good fight. But they do it by dismissing outright anything that doesn't fit into their fetish for nostalgia, which is simply exhausting to watch. And if I did want to see a bunch of dinosaurs pretending they can change the world from behind a desk and a teleprompter, I'd rather watch The Anchorman series -- at least its filmmakers are in the joke.
[illustration by Hallie Bateman]