At several times during my tenure writing episodic TV criticism, I have made an argument for a season finale working better as the finale to some alternate season of television rather than the one I just watched. On its face, the argument doesn’t make a lot of sense, but what I’m talking about is the way you can think you’re watching one story, and then when it comes time for the ending—for the point where the story reveals itself to its utmost—it turns out the people making the show thought they were telling you another story all along. Sometimes, it’s just a problem of execution over the season—as in the first season of Glee, which attempted an awkward reboot to the pilot in its finale. Sometimes, it’s a problem of execution in the finale—as in the latest season of Girls, which concluded with an episode apparently meant to be more ambiguous than it played. In both cases, I liked the finale while wondering what, exactly, it was trying to say about the season as a whole. With The Newsroom’s second season, the finale is such a dull thud that it has me wondering if those episodes I praised a few weeks ago even happened.
“Election Night, Part II” goes all in on the show’s least interesting element: the romantic relationships among the regular cast. In the process of doing this, Genoa is largely swept under the rug as everybody agrees it was all Jerry’s fault and decides to party after an election night well done. It’s, frankly, preposterous, the kind of thing that works on a scene-by-scene basis just barely but falls apart when you try to think about the whole. There are good moments here and there, but the majority of the thing strains to bring catharsis to a bunch of storylines that haven’t been remotely near the foreground of this season’s storytelling. (Outside of last week’s episode, when has the relationship between Mac and Will been important to the story of the season?) It feels almost like a series finale more than it does a season finale, but it tries to function as both that and a season finale, and the mix is never quite right.
It’s here I should say that maybe this is a series finale. Though Jeff Daniels tweeted recently that the show had been officially picked up for a third season, there’s been nothing from HBO since the Television Critics Association summer press tour, when the network suggested it was all just a matter of working another season into Aaron Sorkin’s busy schedule. A TV critic friend suggested to me it’s possible Sorkin just wants to wipe his hands of this project and head off to all of the films he’s supposed to be writing and/or directing. And there are some indications of this here. Though Sorkin gives good romantic gestures, it’s rare for him to get characters together in his work unless he can read the writing on the wall, and in this episode, he has two of the show’s potential couples hook up. He even does the old series finale trick of showing how the show will go on without the old guard, though he stops short of sending Charlie, Mac, and Will off into the sunset. It’s like the episode is warring between being an ending and being the ending, and it never overcomes that central struggle.
It’s also filled with some of the worst, most condescending scenes Sorkin has written. The scene where Lisa worries she was never smart enough for Jim and he tries to tell her that she’s just great because she’s just so authentic, man, is clearly meant to be Jim doing the right thing and the good thing, but he just comes across as a complete douchebag. I could sort of buy the arguments made by fans of the show that Will is supposed to be more of an asshole than most critics of the series are willing to give him credit for if it weren’t for Jim. Jim is always sold as the good guy, the closest thing the show has to a romantic hero, but he’s always doing stuff like this, stuff where he steps into the middle of a crowded party and mansplains a woman to herself. He also improves the Maggie and Lisa relationship, giving Maggie someone to talk to about what happened in Africa, which would be cool if the fallout between the two characters had had any bearing on what happened onscreen this season whatsoever. Yes, sometimes people need a little push to extend forgiveness to each other. But why, on The Newsroom, is it always women who need that push from men?
There were little moments I liked here. I liked Don’s response to Sloan kissing him. I actually liked Will’s proposal to Mac, despite finding the weird thrusting of that storyline to the forefront mostly inexplicable. I liked the closing shot of Maggie clicking on the yellow news alert to see what it was. I liked the crew deciding not to pursue the Petraeus story in favor of reporting that Brody said something that largely agreed with Todd Akin, because that was what would be of importance to voters (even if I find the show’s insistence that the most important news is that which is important to voters sort of bizarre). There were enough nice little moments in the midst of everything that I might have been more charitable toward this episode if I knew that another new one was airing next week.
But another new episode isn’t airing next week. This might be the last time we ever see The Newsroom, and even if it’s not, we’ll still likely have to wait until next summer to wash the taste of this one out of our mouths. For every little moment I liked, there were three or four that just didn’t work, particularly attempts at running gags that fell short, like how Sloan was never able to say what she wanted to on the election night broadcast. And the episode couldn’t even fall back on a larger, overarching story that held everything together like it has several times this season. Jim’s too-early call of Michigan 1 seemed like it might be the thing to hold this together, but that mostly receded as the hour went on. So did the idea of Reese deciding to accept everyone’s resignations. (The longer the episode went on, the more obvious it became that Reese would agree with his mother, as well as that the crew would decided it didn’t want to resign.) I don’t turn to a Sorkin show for wild, unpredictable drama, but he’s usually pretty good at providing any drama whatsoever. “Election Night, Part II” mostly didn’t bother.
This is too bad, because season two of The Newsroom was a definite step up over season one. Shuffling the interpersonal storylines to the back-burner and letting them inform everything that was going on gave them more weight, and it also made things like the Genoa storyline crackle in little moments when viewers could read their own knowledge of the characters’ relationships into what was happening onscreen. Subtext has rarely been Sorkin’s strength—indeed, he’s made his inability to write with lots of it into an unexpected highlight of his writing—but he found a way to work with it in this season. Season two was so close to being an overall good season of television—indeed, outside of the Africa episode, I liked lots and lots of stuff in the first seven—that it made the program’s ultimate failures in the last couple of episodes all the more disappointing.
Season grade: B-
- The big cliffhanger of last week’s episode, with Will firing Mac and then asking Taylor to take him apart on air, doesn’t really amount to much of anything. The latter, in particular, just results in a few scenes of Taylor poking at Will a bit before they share a high five in a musical montage.
- I did like the scene where Will had Elliott sit in the big chair, with Don producing. And I would absolutely watch a Sloan Sabbith hour, so maybe that should happen if season three rolls around.
- Spoiler alert: Obama still won the 2012 presidential election. The House was retained by the Republicans, while Democrats maintained control of the Senate.
- I always think supposedly expensive engagement rings look kind of chintzy on TV, but, then, I know absolutely nothing about jewelry, so I shouldn’t be talking about this in the first place.
- “Except for the things we got wrong, we got everything right” is a really great line, and I expect Sorkin to recycle it in his John Edwards movie somehow.
- Aaron Sorkin vs. Technology: Actually, he was willing to give technology a few wins tonight. Twitter ends up being the place several election night stories arise from, and Hallie’s blog ends up helping Mac get her Wikipedia page changed. But it takes old-fashioned shoe leather reporting for Sloan to figure out Don bought her book.
- And that’s all for this season and this summer. We’ll see you next season, if there is a next season, and next summer, if there is a next summer (I know things). I can’t wait for a full year of news events occurring with everybody on Twitter joking about how the characters on this show will report on them! See you then.