The penultimate episode of The Newsroom, season two, was the first to air after the show was officially renewed. Unfortunate thing: In the humble opinion of this critic/troll, this episode chucked away most of the interesting elements developed during the season, and returned to a dull status quo.
I discussed the episode with Mike Madden, editor-in-chief of the Washington City Paper. He took more detailed notes than I did.
Dave Weigel: I'd like to hear your opinion, obviously, but here is mine: The resolution of the Genoa plot seems to have Tardis'd the show back to season 1, full of characters we don't quite care about and strawman conservative-bashing.
Mike Madden: I thought election night made for an odd set piece to reboot the show around, and only partly because it was an odd set piece for ACN to reboot its public image around. You don't really win that much credibility for reporting election results, do you? It's the most elementary kind of reporting: People voted, here's what the results were. Only early on is there any real news judgement involved; by the end of the night, it's basically just reading agate type onto the air.
So the main plot of last night's episode was sort of boring, and the character-driven bits—with the book auction and the Wikipedia page—were plagued by a lot of the same problems that the show's always had.
DW: Yes, it's when viewers rush to the networks seen as least "biased," but I guess they couldn't say that. Instead it was "don't call Florida wrong, and we'll get our cred back." The book auction plotline was strangely hard to follow, though, you know, kudos to Sorkin for making a female character look silly and irrational again, so men can make fun of that fact. Based purely on what we saw here, who'd watch ACN for election coverage? There was lots of reading current vote totals—no mention of precincts or counties or trends, which is what's actually useful on election night.
MM: At one point their whole map was a blur of "too close to call," and you're right, they appeared to have no analysis at all of what might happen later. I assume the segment where they had the reporter followed by a steadicam walk into the decision desk room was a setup for some Bizarro-world version in the finale of the Megyn Kelly vs. Karl Rove Fox News debate.
DW: I'm confused as to why election night is the big hook at all. It wasn't a very interesting election night!
MM: Right—especially the 2012 election, where there was little actual suspense unless you believed the polls were skewed.
DW: The most memorable aspect, indeed, was Karl Rove making an ass of himself in ways that appear to have damaged his cred with donors. "Unskewing" was a real-world thing that seemed ripe for mockery, and Sorkin didn't go there.
MM: I also can't figure out why the ex-Romney flack has suddenly become an important ACN analyst, especially if all she's there to do is shovel the same talking points she was shoveling for the campaign; that seems to be the opposite of what Sorkin wants us to think cable news should be doing.
DW: Oh, the plot—so, the team wants to quit before the lawsuit tells the entire story of how they failed on "Genoa." Is that right? That's ... honorable?
MM: I'm sort of torn about the Genoa fallout. On one hand, they all do seem to have completely screwed the story up, and you'd like to think people in our business who broadcast an HOUR-LONG SPECIAL REPORT about war crimes that didn't happen would not, in fact, remain gainfully employed for long afterwards.
On the other hand, I'm unable to muster much strong feeling either way about the honorability or lack thereof of their resignations, and while I love watching Jane Fonda try to outshout Sam Waterston, I can't figure out why her character isn't allowing them to resign. Or, frankly, firing them.
Part of the problem for me is that the shark corporate lawyer who's advising the network has suddenly turned into ... another flighty Sorkin woman character. Why was she describing herself as "liquid sex" last night?
DW: Because Sorkin. It makes no sense. The drama, in what was the best story of the series, was always undercut by the fact that the villain was a crazy person brought in this season. It might have been more interesting if one of our heroes had become the culprit.
MM: They're even further muddying the message about accuracy with the dopey subplot about MI-01 in the election results. Am I supposed to be rooting for Jim and Maggie to get away with covering up the fact that they erroneously reported a winner in a House race that wasn't called yet? They're clearly not going to have actually made an error, as the results in reality do go the way they called it, but ... we're also apparently supposed to feel sorry for Don, who committed a sin any hiring manager would probably have been briefed on at some point in calling the crazy person villain of the season a sociopath in a job reference check. And will have to mortgage his apartment to pay his legal bills. (Because, you know, most midlevel journalists in New York City own their own real estate.)
DW: That actually taught me something. You're not supposed to do that?
MM: The general rule as I've always heard it is that you should stick to basic facts and, if you don't have anything good to say about a person, just say you can't give any reference for them. I'm sure any employment lawyers reading this will be happy to correct and refine that point in the comments.
DW: Upon reflection, the most unrealistic aspect of this is that Dantana got to the references stage of the job vetting.
MM: Right—what did he tell Kickstarter about the reason he left ACN? And what's he going to do for Kickstarter? Launch their new fiction section?
DW: "Oh, you're that guy who forged a video to create a story that libeled the U.S. military? Cool. How're you with Flash?"
MM: For me, the most frustrating part of last night's episode specifically—as opposed to the things that always frustrate me about the show, like the impossible ditziness of the women, the deus ex machina news breaks (hey, they could have scooped the world on Petraeus last night!), and the smugness of it all—was that it was the first of two parts about an election that wasn't close and that's nearly a year old.
I guess there's supposed to be some suspense in Will firing Mackenzie, but couldn't that have just spanned two episodes without drawing six hours of coverage into two hours of HBO?
DW: That's what I mean about backsliding. The "my friend I just met gave me a great tip that in reality no journalism outfit got" trope was horrible last season.
It's also the same rhythm as last year—I believe Jane Fonda fired Will in the penultimate episode, then he beat her with evidence of phone-hacking being covered up. I presume Mackenzie will make it out of this one and Will will profess his love again and (cue Coldplay song).
MM: It's funny, though—that stuff only really seems to bother journalists. I was at a wedding last weekend with some friends who all watched the show, and I was the only one who even seemed to notice the "whoa, hey, look at this news!" stuff.
My friends all have real jobs, and so while they did roll their eyes at the banter and some of the hackneyed exposition, they weren't annoyed by the way ACN got their facts. Which makes me wonder if consumers of news think that's how we all do it. As for Mac and Will, the one clue we have to how this plot will play out may be that they just signed the show on for a third season.
DW: Of course. Bunheads is canceled but this survives.
MM: And since they've more or less exhausted the fallout from their breakup, maybe next year they'll be dating. So sure, they may as well have a passionate reunion set to Coldplay.
This season was more interesting because of Genoa, though—you're right about the backsliding, where we're now back to watching people we don't really care about covering events that we know how they played out.
Without some plot whose details are somewhat unknown to viewers, the big flaws just shine through too completely.
DW: How would City Paper handle something like this?
MM: Like Genoa?
DW: Like, a report that Vincent Gray used sarin on Columbia Heights turning out to be false.
MM: I'd like to think we would have found some of the holes in that story well before we published it. But I have no doubt that my publisher would accept my resignation if not.
Actually, though, since I was here when City Paper was being sued by Dan Snyder over this (factually accurate) story he later told the New York Times he didn't read, I did appreciate some of the scenes this season of journalists dealing with lawyers asking them about their work processes after the fact.
DW: My only experience with something like this was arriving at USA Today after the Jack Kelley scandal.*
The top brass had been demoted and reassigned. Some sort of tension like that—Will downgraded out of his pundit role—might be interesting on this show. It's not like he can't still get Sorkiny without the anchor chair.
MM: That's right. Or maybe he can go to another network altogether, like Dan Rather did after leaving CBS.
DW: Good to know that the lawyer plot made real-world sense, though.
MM: The dramatic needs of the show kind of clash with the preachy needs, though.
DW: Mad Men did that, porting everyone to a new firm in the middle of the show.
MM: It would be a more interesting plot development if they did all resign, get fired, and otherwise have to start over. But for reasons I can't quite understand, that wouldn't be The Right Thing To Do. You could imagine Will going up against Sloan on opposite networks, though, sort of like when Peggy and Don were competing on Mad Men. Though I don't know if I'd watch either of them when I could instead be watching ... almost anything else on cable.
DW: The post-Sorkin West Wing did this with Josh and Donna, putting them on rival campaigns.
MM: I guess it's a TV drama cliché, but how long can we watch the same people going through the same workplace conflicts? That's what we have TV for, to escape the drudgery of repetitive workplace conflicts. And to learn that MS is the abbreviation for Mississippi, not MI.
DW: And how does it end?
MM: So here's my prediction for the finale: Barack Obama will be re-elected with 332 electoral votes, though Florida will remain too close to call until sometime after the episode ends. Unless they have a post-Election Day montage that wraps up the rest of November.
Jim will wind up splitting up with Meryl Streep's daughter, in order to pick up again the Maggie/Jim romance plotline, though that may not happen until sometime between Season 2 and Season 3.
Mackenzie may or may not be fired, but Emily Mortimer will be back for the next season no matter what.
And you will continue to have a surplus of journalists who want to rant about this show week in and week out, even though it gets decent ratings among the rest of the world.
DW: I refuse to comment on that until I get a chance to consult my sexy lawyer.
*Correction, Sept. 9, 2013: This post originally misspelled Jack Kelley's last name.