Tolerating "The Newsroom," Week Nine: The Sweet, Merciful End

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
Sept. 16 2013 9:19 AM

Tolerating "The Newsroom," Week Nine: The Sweet, Merciful End

Well, that was god-awful. For nine weeks, with only one Labor Day respite, I watched HBO's The Newsroom (virtually) alongside a jury of my peers. Most weeks were grim; week seven, the resolution of the "Genoa" plotline, made us wonder whether this show was in danger of turning into something worth watching. Then came "Election Night" parts one and two, which reversed all the progress made this season as easily as a dream sequence on Dallas.

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

My co-sufferers this week: Ben Freed, who until recently was the editor of DCist, and Cari Gervin, a reporter for Metro Pulse in Knoxville.

Advertisement

Ben Freed: Anyway, that was horrible.

Cari Gervin: I can't say that on any Election Night I've ever worked I've had time to do anything besides, you know, report the news. But I guess that would be even more tedious. But I didn't hate it as much as I thought I would.

Dave Weigel: Why, was it horrible, Ben?

BF: Besides the fact that they didn't mine Dan Benishek's campaign for more pathos?

DW: Besides that, gripping as it was.

BF: The rapid pairing off of characters. The over-analysis of Maggie's hair. Again with the hair! Has any TV character's hairdo been subjected to this much scrutiny?

DW: Possibly Kramer? But I'm with you; given that this was supposed to be a reaction to something that happened nine months ago in the timeline, that made no sense.

CG: By the end of the episode, I was feeling very resentful that only the female characters were struggling with massive amounts of guilt over things that weren't even their fault.

BF: Most of all, though, it was full of very ham-handed resolutions. For a season that was supposedly full of all this high drama, everything wound up in a nice little bow. Or ring. And Sorkin might be unmatched in his ability to ruin the moment with his musical selections. But he's been doing that for years.

DW:  I understand that the song choice was a callback. First episode ended with The Who; this episode ends with Pete Townshend. Alas, it's a cover of Pete Townshend that has replaced all of the important DNA with DNA scrapings from Nickelback.

BF: Enough to make a person feel sorry for Pete Townshend's solo career.

CG: It kind of blew my mind discovering that all of this was happening two MONTHS after the Genoa story aired. No news organization would have not fired (or forced a resignation of) someone high-level very very quickly after that. Look at Vivian Schiller. And that was so minor, comparatively.

DW: Yes. I want to wallow a bit in how this reversed all the momentum of the season. What was the actual consequence for the complete botching of a story?

BF: Looks like there will be no consequences. At least not for any of the regular characters. The biggest penalty was that we had to watch Jane Fonda pretend to be high. Most of this season didn't so much infuriate me as it bored me. When it started, I was kind of ramped up to hate on it like I did last year, but the Genoa thing played rather dully, I thought. And unless there's another fake story packed away for Season 3, this finale feels like it just hit a big reset button to go back to the high sanctimony of Season 1. That, and more nonsense with Jim and Maggie.

CG: It also felt very false that an entire staff was willing to resign on principle. Especially in this journalism climate.

DW: This reminds me: I just fret about how predictable the Sorkin "character talks and talks and then another character interrupts with a plot point" scene  is. We had, what, seven of those? Including a wedding proposal scene?

BF: And Sloane's book, and Maggie and Lisa becoming friends again (because of the haircut, natch), and Charlie crashing into Lisa... oh, and I guess that race in Michigan worked itself out.

CG: It seems like the DC bureau (sans the reporter who made up stuff) is run more professionally than the New York one. But it's so typical of Sorkin to make the anchor a snide female gunning for McAvoy's seat. I really wonder what has happened to Sorkin over the past decade. I thought Dana on "Sports Night" and CJ on "West WIng" were pretty well-written female characters, as far there are ever well-written female characters on television. But the Newsroom is beyond the pale. Everyone is ditzy and clumsy and says dumb things (even though they're secretly smart) and can't even cut their own hair without being accused of being a mental patient. I've cut my own hair before. So have a lot of women I know. It wasn't a sign of anything, just being annoyed with our hair.

DW: That didn't seem like the biggest issue with the show, even. What would you say was even accomplished/learned in the finale?

CG: Champagne flutes have too high a center of gravity? Marcia Gay Harden has great breasts? No, seriously, I don't know that the characters learned anything or grew or what-have-you. MacKenzie asks Will, "Are you sure you aren't just a massive bag of douche?", which seems like possibly the truest thing ever said about him. But then 30 minutes later she agrees to marry him. That's the thing I don't like about this show -- the characters are so unbelievable. More unbelievable than smoking cigars in a production room filled with very expensive equipment that could be damaged by smoke.

DW: Did you like anything about the episode?

BF: Possibly the scenes with Marcia Gay Harden and Don. I'm totally falling for Sorkin's traps here, but those two actors just seem to have the rhythm down. And if there's a character I can tolerate the most, it might be Don. In an alternate universe, maybe there's a version of The Newsroom where they just crank out broadcasts and don't drag an entire 200-person news division through two people's messy personal history.

DW: Why him? He's an okay character who's been teed up an  adorable girlfriend (because said girlfriend potential has, unrealistically, been made undateable to other people.

BF: He's an OK character out of a fairly tepid selection. And he was first established as a guy perceived to be a jerkass ratings whore. But his character might be the most developed from the pilot, since he hasn't really been that. Also, if Sorkin is going to pair off all his characters, Don-Sloane is far less unenjoyable than Mac and Will or Jim and Maggie.

DW: Sarcasm meets sarcastic total lack of confidence -- yes, some banter potential there.

BF: Well, every time I have to watch those Jim and Maggie scenes, I feel like I'd rather be watching that one episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation where Wesley Crusher gets a girlfriend.

CG: Don has really grown on me. He seems like the most honest character (except for the spending a $1,000 on book faux-signed by Sloan part). But his deadpan is kind of amusing. And I adore Chris Messina.

DW: But the presence of Chris Messina underscores the weakness of the show. He's present in several other shows, where he's much less hatable.

CG: Agree. And the whole Rockette subplot made zero sense. I can only assume Sorkin was once spurned by a Rockette. Jane Fonda is equally wasted.

BF: I should say, though, that they really should settle on a system of state abbreviations. If they kept harping on how Mississippi is abbreviated as Miss., they should have abbreviated Michigan as Mich., not MI. The mixing of AP state abbreviations and postal codes might have been the greatest journalistic sin committed by The Newsroom tonight.

DW: What else stuck out like that?

BF: Maybe the kind of startling amount of loyalty Jane Fonda showed to the characters who wanted to quit. I never cooked a story and I did get fired. But if Sorkin wants to keep his characters together on one happy ship when the next season starts, that's the way to do it. It's pretty unimaginative writing, I think, but effective if you don't want to rattle things that much.

DW: Well, that's depressing. Any additional thoughts?

BF: I'm looking forward to the Season 3 episode in which they cover the reactions to tonight's episode of Breaking Bad. What real-world events are going to be the worst in The Newsroom next year? Syria, Obamacare repeal vote? Gay marriage SCOTUS deicion? And the inevitable four-minute scene in which they all discuss the finer points of twerking.

CG: I think portrayals like this are good part of the reason so many people hate journalists. Everyone's either biased or dumb or makes careless errors, and no one seems to actually care about their viewers, other than ratings. Which I don't think is true, at least with the journalists I know (some of whom work for CNN, for that matter). We care about scoops, but we also really care about getting things right. And we want our readers/viewers to respect us, even if sometimes they don't like us. I don't feel like any of the ACN staff feels that way. And if Sorkin turns MacKenzie into a bridezilla next season, I give up on him for all time.

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter.