'The Newsroom' Ended As It Began: Weird, Controversial, and Noble
Few series arrive with the buzz of Aaron Sorkin's HBO drama. And few end with such polarizing reaction and controversy. The agony and the ecstasy of watching The Newsroom.
There were people who were never going to like The Newsroom. And there were people, like me, who wanted to like it very, very much.
Aaron Sorkin’s very particular, very Sorkin-y style of writing and storytelling—whiz-bang banter interrupted by extended grandstanding of implausible eloquence—is polarizing. It is loathed by some critics who find it patronizing, silly, and superficial. Fans, however, relish it, blissfully walking and talking their way through Sorkin’s liberal fantasyland.
Such has been the much talked about run of The Newsroom, which ended Sunday night after three seasons.
The series came to life just as the era of “hatewatching” was at its peak. Given that Sorkin’s weekly hour-long examination of how the government’s watchdog—the news media—has lost its way and its mission dialed up the Sorkin tropes to 11, the series was ripe for “hatewatching” by the writer’s detractors.
For the rest of us, though, while certainly not firing at the level of The West Wing at its heyday or The Social Network, The Newsroom was a bit of comfort food, cooked with Sorkin’s special recipe. There was the curmudgeonly hero with the heart of the gold (Jeff Daniels’s Will McAvoy), the hapless-brilliant ensemble of hyper-sarcastic minions helping along the way, and the signature blend of intellect and emotion: the rapid firing of facts and figures in monologues and storylines ultimately meant to tug at the heartstrings.
Sunday night’s series finale of The Newsroom was weird. The episode that aired before it, which involved a campus rape victim, was highly controversial. And the string of episodes that aired before that were gripping, noble, and simply entertaining to watch. It’s a progression of quality—entertaining to controversial to just plain weird—that has come to define The Newsroom, too. For better and for worse.
First, Sunday night’s weird finale.
Coming after a season focused on two grand story arcs—protecting a source the government wants unveiled and the compromising of news values to cater to the people who hold the purse strings—the episode loosely and with little fuss tied up story lines while offering up a bizarrely kumbaya “how we all learned to get along” flashback hour.
It’s Charlie’s (Sam Waterston) funeral. If you’ve watched a Sorkin series, you know that this guy can write a funeral. Remember Mrs. Landingha,'s death on The West Wing? Tears just thinking about it. It was strange, then, that rather than use Charlie’s death to tug at heartstrings, which the audience kind of wants Sorkin to do, it was used as merely a venue for eye rolling plot twists (Will and Mack are having a baby, ugh) and wistful nostalgia to take place.
At first, the wistful nostalgia seemed promising, with a look back at how That Speech from the pilot episode came to be from different perspectives. It’s smart to revisit That Speech, Will’s blistering monologue about why America isn’t the greatest country in the world, because it remains the series’ finest moment. It was provocative. It was dangerous. It was kind of true. It won Jeff Daniels an Emmy.
But alas, it wasn’t just That Speech that was flashbacked, too. It was Maggie’s (Allison Pill) first day at the office. It was Don (Thomas Sadoski) and Sloan’s (Olivia Munn) first over-wordy fight. It was how Charlie recruited Mack (Emily Mortimer) to work at ACN in the first place. It was the kind of origin-story flashback episode most series do mid-run when they’re creatively bankrupt and need a break to refocus because they’re running out of ideas. That this kind of episode was The Newsroom finale was…confusing.
The rest of episode—the scenes taking place in the present—alternated between brilliant and schmaltzy. The best moment came when Jane Fonda’s Leona Lansing got to school petulant new ACN owner Lucas Pruitt (B.J. Novak) on his sexist behavior with a blistering monologue on gender pay inequity and the misogyny of the entitled male. It was, simply, splendid to watch.
There was also a quintessentially Newsroom moment. Neil (Dev Patel) returns from hiding abroad, where he went to protect his source, and just gives it to the doofus web editor who was ruining ACN’s website with pedestrian clickbait content. “You embarrass me,” he tells him. Yes, the web editor who abetted espionage and fled the country to protect his source returned to belittle the young web editor who failed to elevate himself to that impossible level, who simply just wanted to create content that people would read. You know, do his job.
It was pretentious, it was patronizing. It was elitist and smug. And it was fun to watch. Some critics accuse Sorkin of those things, as if it’s not a self-aware decision to write characters that way, or make those statements. They say the show is those things as if they are insults. But watch The Newsroom through a lens where it is expected to be pretentious and patronizing, and knows that it is, and it not just fulfills its mission, it’s highly entertaining.
As for the rest of the finale, everyone’s storylines were tied up in little bows: Mack is the new president of ACN. Jim is her E.P. Maggie is interviewing for a dream job. No one breaks up. Everyone sings a song of happiness together. (They literally do that.) It’s happily ever after—and all a bit much.
"A bit much” will probably be a major part of the legacy of The Newsroom. And there is no doubt, too, that its legacy will be marred by the controversy it stirred, both on and off screen.
Critics will continue to deride the irresponsible way, according to them, that Sorkin writes women, especially after the many, many issues so many had with the arguments laid out in that campus rape episode. The hullaballoo over the female writer who came forward saying that her objections to the episode were ignored will be remembered. The trade-rag fodder over Sorkin’s hiring-and-firing practices in the writer’s room will be remembered. Sorkin’s own, publicly admitted difficulties writing the Newsroom scripts, fatigue with the series, and mea culpa that it wasn’t his best work will, too, most certainly be remembered.
But hopefully the greatness of the series will be memorialized, too. Just as he did when he pulled the curtain back to the high-minded, high-stakes machinations of the Oval Office, Sorkin found a way to make one of the important political and cultural processes of today—how the news is made—accessible and entertaining. And, in doing so, he raised very important questions about what has gone wrong with the priorities of those who make the news, even if his answers on how to fix those priorities weren’t always practical.
There were the performances, too. Olivia Munn was a revelation as Sloan Sabbith. Thomas Sadoski should be the frontrunner to play every smarmy privileged thirty-something from now on. Marcia Gay Harden was the epitome of allure and intellect in her guest turn, and few things on television in recent years were as glorious as Jane Fonda high as a kite preaching why she was going to stand behind her altruistic newsmakers. Then there’s Jeff Daniels, who knew a role of a lifetime when he saw it and dug into it with gusto and finesse.
Olivia Munn has a line in the finale, where she talks about Charlie’s heart attack in the newsroom, which he suffered because he was mad that his staff wasn’t respecting a leader whose vision he despised: “Doesn’t it bother anyone that after living the life that he led, he died fighting for something he didn’t believe in?”
Sorkin may not have won his fight, ostensibly to reform the news. Admittedly, it was a lofty fight. He fought it controversially, and at times in pretty boneheaded ways. But, in the end, I suspect that the news as an institution is a little bruised and bloodied from Sorkin’s jabs. That fight, and The Newsroom, then, must have been worth it.
Ed. Note: This piece was updated to reflect that Mrs. Landingham died while Aaron Sorkin was still writing The West Wing. As many West Wing fans have pointed out, the character of Leo McGarry died after Sorkin had already left the series. There were many funerals on The West Wing. All of them were touching.