Since 2007, TV Club has dissected television episode by episode. Beginning this September, The A.V. Club will also step back to take a wider view in this, our new TV Reviews section. With pre-air reviews of new shows, returning favorites, and noteworthy finales, the TV Reviews section doesn't replace TV Club—as usual, some shows will get the weekly treatment—but it adds a look at a bigger picture.
At the end of “Election Night, Part 1,” the first hour of The Newsroom’s two-part season finale, Jeff Daniels takes his seat behind the anchor desk on the night of the 2012 presidential election. Turning to Constance Zimmer, playing a former Romney staffer-turned-cable pundit, Daniels gives the following instruction: “Take me apart.” It’s a cliffhanger moment, and an ambiguous one. Is Daniels saying this because he knows that being challenged and humbled is the only way to regain the trust of his audience following a phony “special report” about American misdeeds in Afghanistan? Is he acting out his self-loathing, because he feels that he’s let down the public and those close to him, and screwed things up with Emily Mortimer, the producer for whom he still carries a torch? Or is he just looking for a way to juice up an under-prepared network’s live coverage of an unsurprising presidential election?
It’s a moot point, because Zimmer can’t think of anything really bad to say about Daniels. When, late in the evening, she brings up his political allegiances, Daniels tees off on the accusation, using it as an excuse to deliver a stirring speech about what being a Republican—a real, non-crazy Republican—means to him. It basically boils down to believing in the free-market system and strong defense, but not being homophobic or hating Democrats, and recognizing the value of the two-party system. When she realizes what she’s done, Zimmer looks away from Daniels and stares down at her lap; maybe she’s trying not to throw up on the air, though it’s at least as likely that she’s meant to be chastened by the truth of what he’s saying. At the end, he reaches out to her, because he knows that she, too, is one of those elusive beings, a “good” Republican—and that’s why she can’t really follow his instructions.
The Newsroom’s first season weathered a lot of criticisms: for its liberal sanctimony, for its substitution of hindsight for drama, and for Aaron Sorkin’s pretensions toward showing TV journalists how to do their jobs. But even its harshest critics might have gotten a little excited at the prospect of seeing how a writer-creator as smart, talented, and self-conscious as Sorkin would address those complaints in a second season. A few wise cosmetic changes were made: The worshipful glimpses of Edward R. Murrow, Walter Cronkite, and Chet Huntley were removed from the opening credits. The News Night crew was sucked into a big, false story with major ramifications, one modeled on the Operation Tailwind scandal that befell CNN and Time in 1999. However, there’s one telling difference between the two: The Tailwind story was about something that supposedly happened almost 30 years earlier, in Vietnam, during the Nixon presidency.
By inventing a scandal that reportedly took place just four years earlier, Sorkin was able to show that his liberal reporters weren’t partisan hacks. To their credit, they were willing to pursue a scandal that might do damage to a Democratic president. It just so happened that the story wasn’t any good—they had made the mistake of counting on a non-series regular, the glitteringly untrustworthy Hamish Linklater, who nobody seemed to like very much, and who re-edited an interview with a key source to make it say what he wanted it to say. (He also did an exceptionally bad job of re-editing it, but nobody on The Newsroom seems to be blessed with an excess of technical savvy.)
There’s another big difference between News Night’s Afghanistan report and Operation Tailwind: In the case of Operation Tailwind, heads rolled. Here, when Daniels and his boss Sam Waterston attempt to resign, the network CEO (Jane Fonda) and her evil bean counter of a son (Chris Messina) won’t hear of it; they know their employees meant well, and that’s suddenly all that matters, even though Sorkin has to have Fonda declare herself to be high as a kite to make this even semi-plausible, which it isn’t. News Night’s staff is solidly behind sticking with Daniels and Waterston, explaining it’s a matter of honor. When Daniels asks, “Who put all this in your heads?” he’s rocked back on his heels by the answer: “You did!”
These rah-rah moments might count for more if these people were worth caring about, but the characters on The Newsroom barely notice each other—except when they’re making emotional declarations of eternal love. In the very first scene of the season premiere, Alison Pill appears in a ferociously unflattering cut-and-dye job, evidence of a traumatic experience to be detailed later. In the finale, John Gallagher Jr.—who’s meant to be in love with her—listens to two different women (one of whom is an ex) ask if Pill’s hair strikes him as cause for concern. Both times, he’s utterly baffled.
The Newsroom’s depiction of journalism isn’t remotely realistic, but maybe the best solution to the show’s problems would be for it to become less realistic and go for whole-hog melodrama. Season two is never better than when the source of the Afghanistan story comes clean and slaps the shit out of Waterston. Deep down, The Newsroom still believes that the secret to true broadcast journalism involves sticking an authoritative-seeming goober in front of the camera and letting him pop his cork over current events. Sorkin’s worship of TV anchors began innocently enough: Sports Night was a show that grew naturally out of the appeal of Keith Olbermann and Dan Patrick’s SportsCenter rapport. The Newsroom might have been partly inspired by Olbermann’s fling playing a hybrid of Murrow and Howard Beale. Today, Olbermann himself just wants a little late-night niche where he can talk about the ball scores—but Sorkin is still trying to get a TV show out of things that were happening two years ago.
Created by: Aaron Sorkin
Starring: Jeff Daniels, Emily Mortimer, John Gallagher Jr., Alison Pill, Thomas Sadoski, Dev Patel, Olivia Munn, Sam Waterston
Full season available on HBO Go
Format: Hour-long scripted drama