It’s hard to keep track of how you’re supposed to feel about The Newsroom.
Its first season premiere arrived in a deafening din of buzz: screenwriter extraordinaire Aaron Sorkin was returning to television—on HBO, no less!—fresh off an Oscar win for The Social Network. The pilot was the sort of rousing television not seen since, well, the last time Aaron Sorkin was making television with The West Wing. But then the first season bubbled over with an unruly mixture of soap opera and soap boxes, turning the series into one of those shows people love to “hate watch.”
The beginning of Season 2 brought cautious optimism that those elements that weakened the first season had been remedied: the moralizing, the ridiculous romantic side plots, the simultaneous idealization and crucifixion of journalism. The second half of Season 2, with its riveting Genoa side plot, wasn’t just a good stretch on a getting-better show. It was among the best arcs on television this past year. Those few episodes were so good, even, that the original plan for this end-of-season review was for it to be a gleeful announcement that “hatewatch” had become “lovewatch” and that The Newsroom had redeemed itself.
How disappointing it is, then, that the Season 2 finale was such a disaster.
“Election Night, Part II” picked up with ACN in the middle of its election night coverage—spoiler alert: Barack Obama wins, Mitt Romney loses—and anchor Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels), executive producer MacKenzie McHale (Emily Mortimer), and network president Charlie Skinner (Sam Waterston) waiting to hear if their resignations will be accepted. The background here is that ACN had aired a story accusing the military of using chemical weapons to kill foreign civilians—Operation Genoa—that turned out to be false, cooked up by overzealous producer Jerry Dantana (Hamish Linklater), who was so desperate to break a big story that he doctored sources.
Up to that point, the season flashed back and forth between the staff being deposed by the network’s lawyer (Marcia Gay Harden), who was trying to find out if Jerry’s wrongful termination lawsuit against ACN had merit, and the actual Operation Genoa story being put together the year before. If Will, Charlie, and MacKenzie’s resignations are accepted and Dantana’s lawsuit settled, embarrassing documents revealing every incriminating, bumbling detail about ACN and its staff won’t become public record.
A chief criticism of The Newsroom’s first season bemoaned that Sorkin’s trademark grand speechifying, so entertaining in The West Wing and The Social Network, became insulting lecturing on The Newsroom. Characters monologued about how much more high-minded and honorable their ideas of what journalism and politics can and should be are, in turn belittling anyone not virtuous or smart enough to agree. The problem: there was a not-so-thinly veiled assumption that no one agreed, including HBO viewers tuning into the show only to, basically, be called stupid.
Because of the wise creative decision to focus so much of Season 2 on the Genoa story and its fallout, we’ve been mostly spared those lectures. The finale, however, more than compensated for that. The episode’s A storyline was about nobility, principles, and ethics. ACN owner Leona Lansing (Jane Fonda) and her son, Reese (Chris Messina), are left to decide whether to accept the resignation and avoid further embarrassment when the lawsuit becomes public, or stand by Will, Charlie, and Mac, because they’re proud of the work they do. The entire episode was characters waxing poetic about their morals, which is just about as insufferable as it sounds.
(It must be said, however, that Fonda, Harden, and Waterston absolutely nailed these scenes, setting fire to some seriously crackling banter. Fonda’s performance as stoned Leona, first previewed in the “Red Team III” episode, is the delight of the TV season—“I don’t feel silly ... do you want to split a pizza?”—while no one has played exasperated as well as Waterston since Fred Flintstone had animated steam coming from his ears. And the wily sense of humor Harden gave her otherwise standard lawyer character is consistently surprising, in the best way.)
The other pitfall of the Operation Genoa story arc being largely resolved by the time the finale rolled around was that the show was forced to revisit some of its most misguided plots, which is to say every plot having to do with romance. The Jim and Maggie will-they-won’t-they tension was back, as was Maggie’s roommate, Lisa, a character for whom the length of time it would take to explain her relationships to different characters and plots on the show is the exact reason why she should go away forever. Don and Sloan’s will-they-won’t-they tension, which was entirely random to begin with, also resurfaced, and was again entirely random. The Will and Mac romance, so unbelievable that when the two characters are discussing it directly you don’t even remember that the romance even exists, dominated much of the episode.
All three romances figure into the ridiculous final act of the episode, which played out less like a serious HBO drama by Aaron Sorkin and more like a romantic comedy. And not one of those good Sandra Bullock romantic comedies from the ’90s. One of those embarrassing Kate Hudson ones you watch on Sunday afternoons on TBS because the remote’s on the other side of the couch and you can’t reach it. There’s a kiss. There’s a proposal. There’s Jeff Daniels running through the halls of the newsroom like a crazy person screaming for his one true love because he can’t let another second go by without shouting from the rooftops how he feels. It all ends with a montage set to a soft rock version of “Let My Love Open the Door.”
It wasn’t like anything The Newsroom had aired before. And it was really bad.
There were, to be fair, great elements in the episode. Mortimer plays daffy and neurotic brilliantly, making a side plot in which she obsesses over editing her Wikipedia page endearing when it could easily have been distracting. Olivia Munn is a revelation as Sloan Sabbith. Daniels’s blistering speeches, even if patronizing and over the top, are still stirring and expertly delivered. He gets one here taking the Republican Party to task that’s so Sorkin-y it borders on parody, but Daniels sells it.
That the cast is this good and the show exhibited so much promise earlier in the season only makes it that much more painful that the finale was, well, that painful to watch. The show had truly transformed itself into one of TV’s best dramas, setting itself up to fill a crucial vacancy that will soon be left by Breaking Bad and Mad Men. One episode shouldn’t ruin that potential. But it does raise concern.
HBO hasn’t officially announced whether The Newsroom will be back for Season 3, but Daniels said it’s been picked up. We’ll watch, to be sure. Whether it’s “hatewatch” or “lovewatch,” though, at this point is hard to say.