Surprise, The Newsroom Has Gotten Better!

Photo: HBO

The Newsroom can be crazy-making. It struggles to tell stories under the suffocating pressure of its own hubris, and several of its central characters oscillate between incompetent and deplorable. The show’s overwhelming misogyny, off-putting romances, and overindulgence in its characters’ own righteousness have often made for deeply unpleasant viewing. But this second season has been getting a little bit better week to week, and this past Sunday’s episode, “Red Team III,” was actually … good. It was good! It was good in a way Newsroom hadn’t really been before. I feel like Wall-E finding a tiny green plant amid all the noxious garbage. There is hope.

Thanks to this season’s flashbacks and flash-forwards, we knew from the get-go that News Night’s story about sarin gas and Operation Genoa would turn out to be false. Then it became a matter of how a fake story got on the air, not that a fake story did. Aaron Sorkin went back and rewrote the first two episodes of this season in hopes of setting that up as best he could, and it mostly — not completely, but mostly — worked. Everyone screwed up: Mac asked leading questions and failed to notice that her source had no actual information. Charlie trusted a source he shouldn’t have. Maggie didn’t raise a stink about being kicked out of the room where an interview was being conducted. No one realized one of the sources was suffering from a traumatic brain injury. And then, in a massive breach of ethics and integrity, season villain Jerry Dantana straight-up lied. Voilà: the anatomy of a fuck-up. (The exact mechanics of the fuck-up didn’t work perfectly, unfortunately; the confluence of coincidence and evil was too great.)

There’s a version of The Newsroom where those pieces fit together better, where they’re more character-driven and reveal things about people. But even with those shortcomings, this story arc worked. The best stories on this show are the stories that involve everyone — the ones in which it’s clear why everyone would care about the same thing. Other than for gossip purposes, would anyone else really care about the Jim-Maggie relationship? Is it really important to everyone that Neal’s girlfriend’s dad died on 9/11? No. Newsroom is not great with B story, and we need look only to this season’s Mitt Romney–bus story line to remind ourselves. The Genoa plot corrects for this: Of course everyone cares about this report! Of course everyone, even people who don’t work on News Night, would be involved! Of course they would all want a piece of this massive exposé! And of course they would all feel a deep personal affinity for it because they’d each been asked to keep it a secret for so long.

This arc also gave the audience much-needed new angles on some of these characters. Rather than pit people against each other — we’ve seen Mac and Will go head-to-head, Maggie and the unnecessary Lisa, Don and Jim — the Genoa plotline put everyone on the same team, thus changing the character dynamics for the better. Jim and Don were allies instead of dum-dums. We got to see Charlie make a hard decision, instead of having him be ACN’s version of Marjory the Trash Heap on Fraggle Rock. (No disrespect to Marjory, but Charlie otherwise just sits there and offers sage but strange one-on-one advice to his faithful flock.) Most important, we got to see the characters change their minds. The drama of this arc comes from everyone really trying his or her best, and discovering that their best is not enough. We see each character bridge the chasm between what they thought was going to happen and what actually happened, and it’s a big moment for them and for Newsroom itself, which has had a hard time figuring out how to let these characters fail. Mac realizing she asked leading questions is a much richer story than Mac not knowing how to use e-mail.

These Genoa episodes remind me of two other Sorkin story lines, wherein one character’s ethical breach has far-reaching consequences for everyone. (I feel silly even mentioning this since both episodes aired more than ten years ago, but, uh, Sports Night and West Wing “spoilers” from here on out.) First on Sports Night, my favorite Sorkin move ever: “You’re wearing my shirt, Gordon.” In that story line, sports anchor Casey slept with the power-hungry Sally and accidentally left his dress shirt at her house. Later, Casey realizes the sleaze hole Gordon, who is engaged to Casey’s one true love, Dana, is wearing said shirt — meaning Gordon has cheated on Dana, and has cheated with the most hurtful possible person. It’s a huge, huge moment, and one that pays dividends for the rest of the season. Dana doesn’t find out for another six episodes, and even though Gordon is the only one who’s done something wrong-wrong, Casey and Sally get caught in the guilt penumbra, and Dan and Natalie find themselves in the lousy positions of knowing things they’re not supposed to know.

At the very end of his tenure on The West Wing, Sorkin again played with this idea of one person’s lie having massive consequences when everything lines up just so. Season four’s “Life on Mars” opens with Vice-President John Hoynes resigning. What, what, what? We then spend the episode finding out that Hoynes had an affair (boo) with a socialite (extra boo) and leaked classified information to her — information that made its way into her trashy memoir (boo again). Newbie in-house lawyer Joe miraculously figures this all out, and as he circles various names on a page for CJ, everything falls into stupid, adulterous place. Hoynes resigns in shame, leaving the Bartlet administration with no vice-president when, two episodes later, Bartlet temporarily steps down because his youngest daughter has been kidnapped. Thus the keys to the kingdom are handed over to a scary Republican, demonstrating the depths of Bartlet’s patriotism. Dominoes, you guys. You knock one over and a whole bunch of them wind up falling down.

“Red Team III” didn’t quite have the big aha moment like “Sally” and “Life on Mars,” but it did poke at the same idea: How does something bad, like cheating on your partner or fabricating footage, become something really bad, like resigning from office or retracting a story? What’s the cost of having trusted the wrong person, be it your fiancé, your mentor, or your employee? Loyalty is the most important virtue in the Sorkin-verse, which makes betrayal even more grave. Even though Jerry was never a real News Night person, he did the worst possible thing — and no, I don’t mean altering the footage. I mean letting down his fellow ACN employees, the most disgraceful action of all. Last season, when Leona and Reese were phone-tapping people and screwing Will over (or … whatever), it was hard to care. Boo hoo, I am Will McAvoy. I am grouchy and I wear very soft-looking sweaters. The Genoa arc’s major achievement is that the failure really felt like a failure. Neal’s guilt was palpable. When Mac cried, I felt sad for her. When Sloan suddenly realized how far off track they’d gotten, there was a genuine moment of empathy. It took seventeen episodes, but there it was: An emotional connection to the characters of The Newsroom.

With two episodes left in the season, Newsroom doesn’t quite have time to right all its wrongs. But it’s a weird miracle to suddenly be caring about these people (well, some of them at least), and to — dare I think it? — be thinking about a season three.

Surprise, The Newsroom Has Gotten Better!