Aaron Sorkin has always had an obsession with showing the obstacles he must face while trying to make good TV — by creating shows centered on people and the obstacles they must face while trying to make good TV.
His three TV-centric shows — Sports Night, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, and The Newsroom (not to be confused with Ken Finkleman’s cult, single-camera comedy The Newsroom, which us TV nerds should talk about more often, by the way) — primarily featured characters striving to make not just the best television broadcast they possibly can, but the best television they possibly can. Unfortunately, a lot of things — ratings-obsessed network suits, corporate overlords, war in the Middle East — get in the way of these noble souls and their mission to entertain/enlighten/change people’s lives.
But really, these shows were/are mostly opportunities for Sorkin to vent his own frustrations with making television under stifling constraints. What made Studio 60 such an awesomely fascinating train wreck to watch was not only that it was really a thinly veiled account of his experiences working on The West Wing — right down to its drug-addict showrunner (played by Matthew Perry) having an on-again/off-again relationship with a god-fearing, Kristin Chenoweth–esque actress (Sarah Paulson). He also made the sketch-show-within-the-show, which allegedly made people laugh heartily and think deeply, a priceless jewel in a medium primarily filled with worthless junk.
In the first two seasons of The Newsroom, Sorkin once again spent precious airtime reminding us of the preciousness of airtime. In Sorkin’s world, the ACN news team is the only news team on the planet that cares about giving people the news straight. Ratings and sponsors be damned — if people want news that’s been stepped-on, take your ass over to the other cable-news networks! But, if you want the real, uncut dope, take a hit of this Will McAvoy, son!
However, if “Boston,” the opener of The Newsroom’s third and final season, is any indication, Sorkin realizes that even in his own world, integrity and virtue don’t mean a thing if no one is watching. As Will learns near the end of the ep, ACN has gone from second to fourth in the ratings. They certainly don’t make things easy on themselves when they begin covering the Boston Marathon bombing. While the other networks hit the ground running with coverage, they’re still lagging behind, making sure they have confirmation on Every Last Fact before transmitting it out into the world.
After last season’s Genoa debacle, you can hardly blame them for wanting to be extra efficient. Then again, this is the same news organization that had the Petraeus scandal practically gift-wrapped for them during last season’s Election Night finale, only to sit on the scoop when Charlie said it wasn’t relevant to Election Night coverage. (It’s still news, though, bow tie!)
But they still have an obligation to do the news thoroughly, not just for them, but for the people — the people who are still watching, that is. “Americans are serious people, and we can reflect that back to them in the worst of times,” Will tells the bullpen during a pep talk/monologue, one of many pep talks/monologues Will is involved with throughout the hour. (My favorite had Will basically serving as a hype man to Charlie, repeating some of Charlie’s words as Charlie chews out the team when they celebrate John King’s inaccurate reporting during CNN’s coverage of the bombing.)
As much as Will believes that Americans are serious, the show still takes a lot of what they have to say with a grain of salt. Will’s producer/bride-to-be MacKenzie continues to look down on social media, which frustrates Jim’s girlfriend Hallie, ACN Digital’s newest addition, who scours Twitter for up-to-date, word-on-the-street news that Mac immediately dismisses.
Citizen journalism gets scolded more than once on “Boston,” particularly in a lengthy sequence where Jim and Don break down the online events that led to Sunil Tripathi being an unofficial suspect/harassment target and King looking like a stooge. (It’s a shame that this is Newsroom’s last season. I would’ve loved to have seen them tackle Ferguson, which many agree might have been covered if people there weren’t covering it first through their Twitter accounts.)
But even as the show thumbs its nose at people who stir up that crackpot stew known as the internet, Sorkin is also aware these crackpots can also possess damning information. Neal finds this out once he gets contacted by an anonymous source, looking to pass along a flash drive of documents that Neal must access via an air-gapped computer. (Here comes Will and his unlimited credit card to the rescue!) Once he gets the computer and the flash drive (from inside a restaurant toilet — Michael Corleone, much?), he gets about 27,000 government documents — half of them classified. Neal asked for more documents to make sure this Deep Throat is on the up-and-up, which Will later tells him is, you know, A MAJOR CRIME!
Neal might possibly have a bad time with all of this. He may end up nutty, frazzled and downright insufferable — like Maggie. Strangely enough, Maggie doesn’t seem to possess any of these character traits — or, at least, not in the season opener. Working out at the gym like a bawse and no longer rocking that hideous Seth Green haircut, the tiger-eyed Maggie becomes Elliot’s field reporter when they hit Boston. Along with getting some credible leads, she gets the chance to step in front of the camera when Elliot consumes walnut-filled chicken salad that swells up his tongue. Covered in Mack’s “go bag” belongings — a black dress, Louboutins, and glasses — she gave a field report so thorough, so professional, so un-Maggie, it impressed Charlie, Mack, and a tongue-tied Jim back at the control room. Even Will, who earlier talked about firing ol’ girl just to put her out of her misery, had an approving, fatherly grin when he went back and forth with her. (The whole thing was so damn wondrous, it also merited a parting crane shot of Maggie and Elliot joyfully embracing after the report was done.)
While that was a minor miracle, the whole gang might need a major one now that Sloan discovers that Atlantis will possibly be taken over by — of all people — Reese’s young, lunkhead half-siblings. As Reese confided to Sloan earlier in the ep, Atlantis is also dipping in numbers, missing earning projections by “a little.” (“Did the Titanic miss New York Harbor by ‘a little,” she dryly quipped after looking at the report.) But thanks to Sloan’s trusty new toy — a $24,000 Bloomberg terminal — and some cryptic rumblings from insiders, she figures out that Reese has more to worry about.
Judging by “Boston,” it seems as though this last season of The Newsroom is shaping up to be its most meta. Before Sloan hit Reese with the bombshell and after Reese and Charlie informed Will of ACN’s ratings, Will told Reese he’s quitting. And as he gives one final pep talk/monologue of the day to his team outside that terrace, it sounds like he's planning to make a graceful exit before he’s shown the door. And isn’t that what Sorkin appears to be doing? Even though HBO practically renewed and canceled season three on the same day, Sorkin seems to be making sure he leaves on his own terms, reminding everyone he’s out for now but not out for good.
THOUGHTS — I’VE HAD A FEW
- As many of us predicted, the Don-Sloan relationship, which took up major chunks of this episode (not that I’m complaining), is all kinds of amusing. Thomas Sadowski and Olivia Munn are the only people in the cast who, unlike the rest, actually act as though their characters could very well be on the autism spectrum. So of course they're going to have an office romance they appear to be very bad at concealing. I also enjoyed how Sloan tried to comfort Don for being dumb, even though he spends most of the ep helping her cut corners in her investigation.
- Apparently Mac and Will now live in a house they’re still fixing up. So long, Will’s snazzy bachelor pad!
- Speaking of that, did Mac say “help a brotha out” during her and Will’s phone convo with Maggie?
- Jenna (a.k.a. Northwestern Girl) appears to have gone from long-suffering intern to long-suffering Will McAvoy assistant, although he gives the girl some long-overdue props when he barks at her to get some him spare suits and she sasses back that none of them will fit because he’s nine feet tall. (“I think she’s starting to get the hang of this place.”)
- “Like a bassoon!” I forgot how good David Harbour can be at playing a lovable, dignified boob when he’s Elliot Hirsch.
- Is it just me, or do you want to see oft-referenced but faceless correspondent Juan Gomez on camera, too?
- I know sport-sanchor-turned-news-anchor-turned-back-to-sports-anchor Keith Olbermann must’ve probably popped in your heads when Will started musing to Charlie about moving to sports. But am I the only one who thought it would be awesome if Will meant that they should go over to CSC, home to Sports Night? Hey, shows are being brought back all the time, so why not Sorkin’s first, acclaimed series? Can’t you see Will, Charlie, and perhaps Mac bumping heads with Dan, Casey, Dana, and the whole Sports Night crew? (Since most of the cast is either wrapping up TV gigs or in between gigs, I don’t see how Sorkin couldn’t get the band back together again for, at least, a limited series — that’ll blow everybody’s freakin’ minds!)
So, what’s the good word, everybody?