Spoilers ahead. If you haven't yet seen the season premiere of The Newsroom, entitled "Boston," and plan to you should do yourself a favor and come back to this later.
Aaron Sorkin's The Newsroom returned to HBO last night for the first of six episodes that will wrap-up the divisive series. Like I did all of last season, each Monday I'll be taking a look at the show from the perspective of a TV news producer, talking about what I liked, what I didn't like, what they got right, what they got wrong and so on. This isn't exactly a "review" in the classic sense because I'm not going to recap the episodes beat-by-beat, but as somebody who spent more than 20 years in the business, a good portion of that working at MSNBC and CNN, I hope I can add a little insight to what's happening within the storyline and what Sorkin's trying to get across about TV journalism.
One of the problems with The Newsroom has always been that it's a tragically uneven show. It has flashes of near-brilliance, where everything comes together, the engine fires on all cylinders and you're reminded of what Sorkin is capable of as a writer and showrunner -- you recall his West Wing heyday. There are almost as many moments, though, when everything goes sideways, the show gets bogged down by its own sense of righteousness and moral certitude and you're reminded of how insufferably pretentious Sorkin can be and how in love he is with the sound of his own voice. The Newsroom was never destined to be the kind of Prestige Television Drama Sorkin -- or HBO -- had hoped for, but in its final days it at least appears that it may have found its footing, enough so that it can stride across the finish line with a little dignity rather than limp there.
The fact that Will McAvoy and the "News Night" team are broken and gun shy after the implosion of the Genoa story -- which made up most of last season's storyline -- makes them at least more relatable and sympathetic. They're not only trying to do good, they're now trying to do it while being hamstrung by the awareness of their own professional mortality. Anyone in any business can understand what it feels like to have to come back from a big mistake, but when you've made a mistake in news that's as seismic as getting a big story completely wrong to the point where it wasn't even a story to begin with, you haven't simply lost credibility with the audience, you've lost the ability to trust yourself and the decisions you make. This is what we see at the beginning of the episode, with the "News Night" team being unwilling to go to air with the Boston Marathon bombing -- ignoring what they're seeing on various cable networks and what's lighting up Twitter -- until it's officially confirmed.
It used to be that this is how all responsible news operations worked: it didn't matter what the other guys did or what the chatter was, all that mattered was what your own independent sources were saying. With the rise in authority of social media buzz and the race to be first on-the-air always a driving factor in coverage, news outlets are much more likely to simply run with what they know and fill in the blanks as they go along. Yeah, it makes for exciting television, but it also leads to big mistakes, like the one CNN made during its Boston Marathon coverage that it quickly had to retract (which The Newsroom made mention of last night, using it as an opportunity for Charlie Skinner to scold the newsroom staff for celebrating a painful screw-up that just as easily could have been made by them). Sorkin's had a bug up his ass about the internet's army of self-declared citizen journalists and detectives, but taking them to task with regard to what happened in Boston doesn't feel like a cheap shot or ham-fisted elitism since it's true that the internet's "investigation" of the bombing led to false accusations. Will and Mac drive this point home, with the help of a flow chart drawn up by Don and Jim, and speaking for Sorkin, they get to be indignant on this because they're completely right.
Not only was this episode really thrilling TV because it's almost unimaginable how much action Sorkin managed to cram into 55 minutes, but the uncomfortable truth Reese shared with Will toward the end -- when all the different storylines, including the fictionalized Snowden thread, converged on the ACN terrace -- is something no one in the business of news likes to think about but everyone knows deep down. The reality is that an outlet's cultural authority to stand on a soapbox and take on big targets is dependent entirely on the ratings. If you're not pulling decent numbers, why should anyone care what you have to say? Likewise, Will's lament over the fact that he and the "News Night" team have done everything "right" and yet the numbers are dismal is something anyone who's ever worked in television news can understand. In spite of what the executives and the highly paid consultants might say, sometimes the eyeballs just aren't there no matter what you do. You can analyze the minute-by-minutes and the trends until you're cross-eyed and you'll never come to terms with the simple truth that people's watching habits can be completely arbitrary.
Overall, it was a pretty damn good episode of the show and one that both gives me hope for the last five episodes and actually makes me a little sad to see the show go away. It may not be perfect by any means, but last night proves that when The Newsroom gets it right, it's still more entertaining than a lot of what's on TV.
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