When it debuted in 2012, The Newsroom came with a lot of promise. Show creator Aaron Sorkin had just won an Oscar for writing The Social Network, and the series was airing on HBO, ostensibly giving Sorkin the kind of creative latitude he might need to create a worthy follow-up to The West Wing and Sports Night. Instead, after two faltering seasons that prompted more critical jeers than anything else, The Newsroom is limping to its series finale, starting a six-episode run this Sunday. Sorkin has insisted that the truncated season is due to his own busy schedule, and he's undoubtedly a busy man. But it seems likely that HBO originally ordered this show thinking it could be a long-term anchor for its scripted lineup. That didn't happen.
The problem, most critics think, was Sorkin's hubris. He took a hectoring approach to writing about recent events, having his idealistic news team report news stories from a year ago as they should have been reported. What was supposed to be a romanticized celebration of journalism done right came across like a sneering lecture delivered at lesser media organizations. Sorkin wisely tempered that in the second season by having the fictional ACN News Night team report on an American war crimes story that turned out to be fraudulent. But even then, everyone's motives were very noble, except for one new character who shouldered all of the blame.
What's fascinating about the first episode of the third season, airing this Sunday at 9 p.m., is that Sorkin seems to be grappling with his own failures in trying to wring drama from high-minded idealism. The season premiere takes place around the bombing of the 2013 Boston Marathon, and portrays ACN as gun-shy in reporting on unconfirmed details about the blast as they come in over the Internet, putting the network behind its competitors. It’s this sort of dynamic, we’re told, that’s contributing to the channel’s declining ratings.
Late in the episode, ACN honcho Reese Lansing (Chris Messina) tells our hero Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels) that he needs to be successful to be able to do what he wants. "I want you to do the news well," he says. “But your power comes from your ratings. You're not going to be able to do the stories you want, you're not going to be able to say what you want, and frankly you're not going to be able to stay on the air, because my mother and I can only protect you from the board if you're making money."
Is Sorkin in an introspective mood here? While he remains a highly in-demand writer, he hasn't created a successful TV show since The West Wing in 1999. His big follow-up Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip wasn't particularly well-reviewed (or very good), but NBC canceled it because few people watched it. HBO cares less about ratings and more about prestige, but from either perspective The Newsroom doesn't deliver. Its viewership numbers are fine but unspectacular for a big drama on the network, and aside from a surprising Emmy win for Daniels last year, the show has gotten very little traction with awards-giving organizations.
So Sorkin hasn't created the new West Wing that people wanted. But what's encouraging about this third season is that, whether Sorkin is talking about himself or not, he's at the very least wrestling with the high cost of idealism. He hasn't done this, at least not in a serious way, since the early, truly excellent seasons of The West Wing. There, idealized liberal lion President Jed Bartlet (Martin Sheen) and his loyal staff had all kinds of change they wanted to enact—stricter gun control, cheaper higher education, campaign-finance reform. They ended up accomplishing more incremental progress, or they got ground down to infuriating compromise. Sorkin made any substantial victory feel salient and real.
Eventually, The West Wing lost this thread of semi-realism (in the later non-Sorkin seasons Bartlet fixes Social Security and brings about peace in the Middle East), and Sorkin never really got it back. Studio 60 always felt like it was congratulating its comedian heroes for being brave enough to tell jokes about the religious right on a sketch show. The Newsroom basically forgets to give its character any flaws other than remarkable levels of arrogance. What’s more, that arrogance is justified by them always being right: Even the storyline about faked reporting emphasized how difficult it would be to trick the ACN news staff, and how devastated they were despite being basically blameless in the whole affair.
But this year, they're finally staring failure in the face, even if that failure is partly brought about by their own stirring idealism. That's a promising step away from hubris. The Newsroom is not a particularly well-executed television show, but if you find it charming, it's because you can accept all the grandstanding lectures and everyone's impracticably romantic ideals about journalism. I'm happy to see Sorkin at least exploring the consequences of those ideals.
The other major plot thread of the season focuses on a secret leak of government documents to ACN staffer Neal Sampat (Dev Patel), and his accidentally breaking the law by soliciting more files from the source. It's a clever, if obvious, parallel to run alongside the thread of News Night's ratings irrelevance. What is the material cost of Neal's desire to expose the truth? How far should the ACN team go in defending him? Of course, it's not impossible that the plots of this mini-season will turn out too rosily for our heroes, as they always have before. And it's a little laughable that it took Sorkin three years to explore the business downsides of Will's "mission to civilize" the American cable-news viewer. But some progress is better than none.