Why The Newsroom Was Always Doomed to Fail

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Photo: HBO

The Newsroom returns on Sunday for its third and final season. I've watched the first three episodes, and they are perfectly fine examples of the show: Sometimes the banter is bright and flirtatious, but oftentimes the show's overwhelming sense of self-importance makes it feel like you're drowning in a lecture from your friend's dad. He's a smart guy, for sure, but it's just ... uuuugh, I just came over to say hi to my friend from high school, not have you tell me why American public education has failed your current undergraduates and how you've had to dumb down your seminar bit by bit over the last 15 years, and do I remember George W. Bush and what you have to keep in mind when we talk about the pharmaceutical industry and the Royals came so close this year and your sister got married — second marriage for both — and oh, yeah, Keith Olbermann, do you like him, and sometimes the Times isn't how you remember it, and finally, they don't make things in America anymore. Anyway, wow, so good to see you.

Sometimes The Newsroom is like that. But even at its very best, it's incredibly difficult to care about the show or its characters in any true way because there is no virtue in cable news. Your greatest passion is a cable news show? Okay, have a nice life, and good luck in your future endeavors.

I admire Melissa Harris Perry tremendously, and hold dear the conviction that Rachel Maddow and I would be good friends if we ever met. But if I could flip a switch that got rid of all cable news — across the political spectrum — I would. (No one dies in this scenario; everyone finds other gainful employment and leads safe and happy lives.) I cannot possibly be alone in this. There must be Bill O'Reilly fans out there who'd give up their Papa Bear viewing for the opportunity to silence MSNBC forever. The only thing I would miss about CNN is The Daily Show making fun of it. Cable news is a net negative for society, and watching allegedly intelligent people praise its cultural value rings false. The Newsroom claims the desire to be an excellent cable news show is quixotic. That's generous. When I watch Sports Night, I think, Yeah, making a snappy Sports Center–y show sounds fun and engaging. The West Wing grants the wish of having only incredibly smart, dedicated, noble people running the government. Even with Studio 60, surely we can understand the childhood dream of some day being on SNL. But on The Newsroom, a passion for cable news seems so grotesquely misguided. It vacillates from not believable to unappealing. Characters don't need to be likable, but they do need to be credible, and hearing dopey Jim compare Will to Edward R. Murrow doesn't feel true at all.

We're told repeatedly that Will MacAvoy was a prosecutor — hence his adversarial style, etc. I would way rather watch him in a courtroom! Aaron Sorkin loves lawyer scenes anyway, so this isn't a stretch. Sloane is an economics expert who also teaches a college class? I would prefer to watch her teach, thanks. Or work at the Fed. Or take down Wall Street from the inside. Or anything other than go on TV and tell people what stocks to buy. Don's a smarmy smartass — he could succeed in many industries. Maggie should build herself a cocoon and vow not to emerge until she can operate in the world as an actual grown human. Mackenzie can go work for Jill Abramson's new project, even if one of the requirements is the ability to send email.

I would love to love The Newsroom. This new season finds a lot of fun in Sloane and Don's relationship, and Sorkin's ongoing love of camaraderie is endearing in these fractured times. I like teamwork! I like devotion! But even if you stripped away the smugness or somehow invented sexual chemistry between Emily Mortimer and Jeff Daniels or made the literal old news seem compelling, there would still be this emptiness in the idea that cable news is something to root for. I want everyone to turn his or her attention away from ostensible newsgathering and towards dismantling the entire organization they work for. Then give me a sanctimonious monologue about that, please.