The Newsroom Is Getting Faker, Thank Goodness

The final season's main storyline isn't actually ripped from the headlines, which means a rare opportunity for real suspense on the HBO show.


It's probably a good thing that The Newsroom is closing up shop for good after six episodes this year, because as I watched "Run" I quickly realized why I was enjoying it so much. Nothing in the episode was focused on the reporting of real-world news that happened 18 months ago, and none of the action was directly about the hustle and bustle of producing a cable television show. Since those tropes have been the driving engines of The Newsroom for two faltering seasons now, it's hard to know if this show had any hope staying good as a long-term serial about making the news. But now that it's blowing everything up at News Night and its parent company, it has become ridiculously watchable.

Season Two's central storyline was about Operation Genoa, a supposed U.S. war atrocity involving the use of sarin gas in Pakistan that never actually happened. Unlike most of The Newsroom's story points, Genoa wasn't ripped straight from the headlines and thus served as a far more compelling plotline because we didn't know how things were going to end up. Season Three is doing the same sort of thing, and "Run" was centered on the blowback from Neal (Dev Patel) committing inadvertent espionage by soliciting leaked documents from a whistleblower in military intelligence. Much like Genoa, this storyline is certainly drawing inspiration from various real-world events, but since it's been specifically invented for the show, we don't know what's going to happen next. So my heart was actually beating a little quicker when Neal fled the office to avoid the FBI. Funny how that happens.

"Run" explored various ethical quandaries reporters might stumble into over the course of a career. Some of the storylines were decidedly less exciting and perhaps a little too inside-baseball. As a former reporter, I enjoyed the semantic debate that played out as Maggie (Alison Pill) overheard some off-the-record chatter from an Environmental Protection Agency higher-up (Paul Lieberstein) on a train back to New York. Maggie crouched in an Amtrak seat to record the EPA guy despairing about Obama to another reporter, and since he never went off the record with her, journalistically she's allowed to use whatever quotes she wants.

But, as Maggie quickly figured, that kind of rule-bending is not usually a good way to endear yourself to sources long-term. Lieberstein (a former showrunner on The Office who also played Toby on The Office and is writing for The Newsroom this season) was a perfect hangdog choice, protesting that of course he can't say such negative things about his president on the record, while allowing that he's pretty much restricted from saying anything negative at all. My problem with the storyline: Maggie's decision to burn the quotes and apologize for her little espionage was presented as some shining example of her good morals that magically gets her a better story (an upcoming EPA report with grim findings regarding climate change). She refuses to leverage the quotes to get anything else, and gets it anyway—there's no room for any moral blemish on anyone's part, a hokey outcome that is typical for The Newsroom.

Don (Thomas Sakoski) and Sloan (Olivia Munn) have always been much more fun to watch than anyone else, but got relegated to a cute side-story about Don buying stock in Chipotle on Sloan's advice, which she worries amounts to insider trading. This is set dressing for a discussion on the status of their relationship, probably the only romantic union on The Newsroom that I have always supported wholeheartedly. Maggie's chemistry with Jim (John Gallagher Jr.) was as hot as a wet napkin, and Will (Jeff Daniels) and Mac (Emily Mortimer) are the latest weak Aaron Sorkin effort at revitalizing the screwball comedy, which he probably should have stopped attempting after Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. But the cold-blooded, more mercenary Sloan and Don (together you call 'em Slon) make for a fantastically cute Type-A pair. Theirs is the only romance I demand be intact at the end of these six episodes.

Everyone else can get shipped off to prison for all I care. That's The Newsroom's other core problem: It's tough to want to be invested in most of these characters, since they're either bloviating gasbags or one-dimensional Mary Sue hero journalists. I would have long thrown Neal into the second category. We barely know anything (or care about) about his personal life, and he's long stood in for any storyline that's about newsmaking for a younger generation: blogging, Twitter, Occupy Wall Street, etc.

But Neal's finally becoming more interesting with this espionage plotline. Sorkin is leveraging his doe-eyed journalistic integrity in the right way. Neal has uncovered a story about the CIA using propaganda to topple a government in an African country (it’s fictional), which left dozens of civilians dead. He wants the news published, even if it means his head, and he goes around his superiors to get official government comment on it, which brings the FBI down on ACN. Neal's recklessness is supposed to come off as stirring, but whether or not Sorkin wants us to debate the topic, I found myself wondering if this was worth all the fuss—being charged with espionage, of course, could land Neal in prison for decades, all to expose an story that seems important but still mysterious.

I do think Sorkin wants us to debate this, or at least puzzle over the American government's stance on "leaks," because he has cast Mary McCormack as the lead FBI investigator on the case. McCormack was great on the later non-Sorkin seasons of The West Wing and clearly caught his eye enough to land her this role, as the person firmly telling us that this leaker is "one of the bad guys." She says it with such authority that even my firm convictions about the importance of keeping a journalist's sources secret wavered. Best of all: I don't know what's going to happen next. Good thinking, Newsroom.