The Newsroom Exits With a Funeral for Old Media
The series finale spent a lot of time flashing back to the show's first episode, a reminder of its deep flaws both past and present.
I actually enjoyed the final minute of the final episode of The Newsroom, which, to the agony and delight of think-piece writers everywhere, has now departed television forever. I don't mean that in a glib sense: The last 60 seconds, silently charting the minute cuing up to another normal broadcast of News Night With Will McAvoy, were wonderfully executed by writer Aaron Sorkin and director Alan Poul. It was cheesy, but in the good, restrained sort of way Sorkin used to excel at—a bunch of flawed professionals, united by their belief in the power of a job well done, getting ready to give it another shot.
Too bad the rest of the episode succumbed to all of the pitfalls viewers have come to expect from The Newsroom, although the finale was not as head-splittingly aggravating as the previous two weeks had been. As the ensemble gathered to mourn their departed Charlie Skinner, the beloved old bow-tie wearing, whiskey swilling news dog, the number of monologues on evil click-baiting New Media were kept short. Sorkin was here to bury Old Media, and to praise it (him?) in a series of flashbacks too dramatically inert to infuriate.
This is, no kidding, the fourth episode of television Aaron Sorkin has written titled "What Kind of Day Has It Been." This is apparently a phrase borrowed from Robert Whitehead, the producer of the original stage production of A Few Good Men. Sorkin used it to title the first season finales of Sports Night and The West Wing, the series finale of Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, and now the sendoff of The Newsroom. It's mostly just a cute motif, and I will admit, an excellent title for a finale of any sort. But it's certainly indicative that Sorkin remains up to his old tricks even as the TV world changes around him. I noted this in my review of The Newsroom's third season premiere, and while I do not retain the positivity I had then, I do think Sorkin was genuinely trying to wrestle with the limits of idealism in these final six episodes.
But oh, what a ham-fisted approach he ended up taking. At one point in this episode, our hero Will McAvoy picks up an acoustic guitar at Charlie's wake and starts jamming with a young boy plucking the upright bass, singing Bobby Bare's country standard "That's How I Got To Memphis," for reasons I could barely begin to fathom. In the middle of the number, ACN staffer Jim joined in with another guitar. I appreciate that John Gallagher Jr. is a Tony winner with a lovely singing voice, but this is a show about people who produce cable news. Put the guitars down. Especially you, Will—you're about to have a child, for Pete's sake. There's embarrassing dad behavior, and then there's that.
Yes, that's right, remember when Will got married two episodes ago? Thanks to a prison-induced time-jump, we now have confirmed news that he's impregnated his new bride Mac, giving Sorkin the chance to trot out another of his ever-more grating routines—the grown man who is completely baffled by the very concept of a female reproductive system. Will greets the news of Mac's pregnancy by basically asking if she needs to be hospitalized at once. He seems to think OB/GYNs are rare, mystical sorcerers who wander the earth tending to broken female spirits, or something. Sorkin has had fun with this gag before—the man who suddenly becomes ridiculously protective and fierce when he learns a woman is pregnant—but it's gotten mighty old.
The most exhausted trick in Sorkin's magic TV script bag, though, is the flashback. There's not a show of his that hasn't skipped back in time to give some context as to where its characters came from and why they are the way they are. One of the finest moments in The West Wing was the two-part premiere of its second season, "In the Shadow of Two Gunmen," which flashed back to the beginnings of the Bartlet campaign as Josh Lyman lay bleeding out on an operating table. Studio 60 did a far clumsier job, trying to sell us on Matthew Perry being eight years younger by jamming a baseball cap on his head (it was also about 9/11 and … look, let's just forget Studio 60 ever happened, okay?)
Bizarrely, this iteration of "What Kind of Day Has It Been" took us back to what was hardly The Newsroom's finest hour: its pilot episode. Remember the pilot of The Newsroom? It saw a bland cable news host (McAvoy) attract attention for a profane, condescending speech blasted at a college student who asks him what makes our country so great. It's not so great, Will bemoaned, it's actually pretty bad, no matter how many butterflies might be in your head, little girl. The rest of the episode saw Will objecting that a competent producer (Mac) had been hired to spruce up his stagnant show because he had been in a relationship with her that ended in her infidelity. Literally half of that episode is about Will trying to get out of his contract. It's a bad episode of television.
Nonetheless, Sorkin digs deep to give us everyone's motivations for coming to work that day, and most of all, Charlie's grand, beautiful machinations to create a news team that actually cared about news as a public service and not an engine for ratings. We see him talking Will out of his middle-of-the-road stupor, hiring a despondent, drunk Mac who's spending her days at the Brooklyn Bowl, and so on and so forth. There's stuff that's too pointless to even try to pick apart: Why is Sloan reiterating the causes of the 2008 financial crisis to us? Why is Neal tearing apart some sad bloggers for using ACN's website to snark on "overrated films"? How many axes could Sorkin possibly still have to grind?
The biggest problem of all the flashing back was that I simply don't care enough about these characters to want everything brought full circle with a rehashing of their not-finest hours a mere three years ago. The underlying message of "What Kind of Day Has It Been" was not a mean-spirited one—Charlie's mission to save ACN's news coverage was perfectly noble-minded. And I'm sure Aaron Sorkin thought he was going into The Newsroom with the best of intentions. But he came out of it with a preachy, gloppy mess that more often than not forgot that the core purpose of TV is to entertain. For that you need characters who exist to do more than deliver a cogently argued point.