Sunday, November 30, 2014

The Newsroom Reviews: "Run" and "Main Justice" - Ups and Downs

Will and company face down "Main Justice"
Editor's Note: Due to various work and family obligations, I haven't had time to finish reviews after the last two episodes, so I'm posting them now.  Each review was written, however, without any knowledge of future episodes.


A common complaint about The Newsroom for its first two seasons was that the show had no stakes.  As a series about brilliant people doing their jobs well and, more importantly, constantly second-guessing the established media, The Newsroom was a show in which characters couldn’t really do anything wrong.  Or, at least, when they did something wrong, the audience knew it was going to be fixed before too long.  There was no problem that was insurmountable for our intrepid heroes and so, as a result, there was no drama.

Season three, especially “Run,” has changed that quite a bit, for the better.  It’s no accident that the best episode of The Newsroom in a long time succeeded in large part by eschewing the Monday Morning Quarterback nature of the show and focusing on fictional stories (the takeover of AWM and Neal’s source in particular).  It’s not that these plotlines are necessarily better or more engaging, but they could fail.  The Lansings could lose the company.  Neal could go to jail, at least for contempt if not for espionage.  The network, fresh off the Genoa scandal, could lose even more credibility in the face of an FBI raid and investigation.  The Newsroom finally figured out that its best drama does not come from the news, but from the people who make the news. 

What has made this season so fascinating thus far is that Sorkin seems finally to be exploring the idea of whether it’s actually worth it for a news organization to be right all the time.  With the exception of the Genoa scandal, which was entirely the result of outsiders conning our core team, ACN has been in the right on pretty much every single story.  After all, that’s the point of the show: to show the news media how they should have done things.  And, even here, ACN is in the right.  They’re doing the news right, even if the cameras are more valuable than the network, as Reese’s step-sister Blair argues (a dubious claim, but we’ll roll with it).  They’re exposing government corruption, just like a good news organization does and it could result in jail time for Neal and the potential shuttering of the network.  And, as we saw last week, even when they’re covering breaking news better than the networks, they still can’t get the ratings.

We’re left, then, with a single question: Will ACN fail?  Despite its high-minded aspirations and largely flawless execution (again, Genoa excepted), will “being right” be enough?  I honestly don’t know.  And that’s what has me really liking the first two episodes of The Newsroom’s final season.  While it’s still fun to watch Jane Fonda prance around a board room chewing scenery and lighting up a slightly cowed but still confident Kat Dennings, the truth is, at this point she’s all bark and no bite.  She doesn’t have four billion dollars and without her own Savannah Capital to come to the rescue, she will lose the company. 

There’s also the team’s quest to expose a government coverup in the fictional Equatorial Kundu.  This storyline gave me my only reservations of the episode, because it seemed to me that the FBI raiding ACN and confiscating its hard drives is an incredibly bad PR move, no matter the stakes and no matter the legal protections.  It just feels to me that there’s no way for the FBI to defend its actions even if they are working entirely in the public’s interest.  The First Amendment provides journalists a great deal of leeway and, even if they can prove that Neal induced a DOD employee to commit treason, the government will have a hard time proving that covering up a potentially illegal operation is worthy of dismantling an international news organization.

“Run” still provides a great deal of drama from Neal’s source, largely because of the structure of the season.  Because this is definitively the final season of The Newsroom and because it is only six episodes, sending Neal on the run makes sense.  There’s a legitimate short-term danger and, to be honest, thinking long-term is not this show’s strength.  But with only four episodes left, eschewing the long-term is probably a good idea, so I’m all for emphasizing short-term problems. 

“Run” really managed to hit all the high points for The Newsroom, mostly by leaving the real world and embracing fiction.  It made me believe something I haven’t for nearly the entire run of the series: ACN might not win.

A couple of spare thoughts –

I’m a little surprised Maggie’s interrogation of Paul Lieberstein’s EPA agent Richard Westbrook went as long as it did.  Is “random midlevel government employee slamming President Obama really a story, or is it just going to get a guy fired for no reason?  At least something interesting appears to have come out of it.

“Then how about the sex?!” – Nothing like the “inappropriate statement made suddenly in front of a group of people” that Seth Meyers parodied so well just a week before.

“So when I say that ‘I am literally going to set fire to this building with you in it before I hand over the keys to it’ you don’t know if I’m speaking figuratively or literally.”

"Main Justice"

After last week’s strong episode, I remarked that part of what has made this season succeed (aside from eschewing the real life aspects of the show and embracing fiction) is the fact that, with only six episodes ordered for this final season, there is no time for screwing around.  Whatever story Sorkin wants to tell has to be laid out and developed quickly without any stalling in order to be completed in six episodes.  Unfortunately, as “Main Justice”* showed, even a condensed season can’t eliminate my nemesis: the table-setting episode.

* I know Main Justice is probably a real building where real justice things happen, but every time somebody said that name, I couldn’t help but snigger at the thought of “Maine Justice.”

It’s not that this episode was bad, necessarily; it’s just that it was all setup and no payoff.  The show needs to put Will in danger instead of Neal, so we get an extended farcical meeting in which Will gets to show how smart and calculating he is only to have the triumph undercut at the end when he discovers he’s not nearly as important as he thought he was.  The show needs somebody to rescue ACN from the twins, but that person can’t be an unadulterated hero, so we get BJ Novak as a Jeff Bezos-esque tech billionaire who thinks the future of news is an ultra-personal medium with channels devoted to, among other things, Danny Glover stalkers.

Again, these scenes aren’t bad; the FBI interview scene, in particular, with Will going toe-to-toe with Brian Howe’s assistant Attorney General, had every Sorkinism I tend to love.  But the whole thing felt a little pointless knowing that this was all just the appetizer waiting for the main course still to come.  It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that the best scene in the episode comes from Paul Lieberstein’s EPA official absolutely refusing to concede any hope in our climate situation.  I’m not sure what the point of it all was, since I don’t really know what Westbrook gets out of playing the “doom and gloom” kook on cable news, but it was fun to watch all the same. 

The table-setting episode is a time-honored television tradition.  Hell, The Walking Dead has had a pair of them in the last two weeks, as the characters all come together and arm up for their inevitable season-ending assault on the hospital.  Where The Walking Dead differs from the The Newsroom, however, is that the motivation and endgame is perfectly clear in the former while I’m not still not entirely certain what is driving the characters in the latter.  Clearly they want to run the Kundu story but, at this point, it’s not really a story, it’s a collection of documents with only a single source who can testify to their veracity.  Similarly, the FBI can’t really think they can keep this story from coming out if it’s actually true.  At this point, it’s just both sides firing their bluffs at each other and hoping the other folds. 

Coming off such a strong second outing of the season, I was hoping for a little more from the episode that takes us to the midpoint.  Instead, we got a piece-moving episode designed to put everybody in danger and make clear that the worst case scenario is possible.  With only three episodes left, expect the fallout to come quickly.

A couple of spare thoughts –

What, exactly, did the FBI think was going to happen when they raided the newsroom of a major cable network?  I’m surprised it took Charlie as long as he did to pull out the cameras and threaten to broadcast the bureau’s shenanigans to the entire world.

Chris Chalk singing “Anything Goes” as he walks into the raid-in-progress had me in stitches.

“You think it’s possible I’m not as big of a TV star as I thought?”

Tyler Williams is a professional librarian and an amateur television critic.  You can reach him at TyTalksTV AT gmail DOT com or on Twitter @TyTalksTV.

Monday, November 10, 2014

The Newsroom Season Premiere Review: "Boston" - Give the People What They Want

"Why are you clapping?...He got knocked down. We didn’t get taller."

About a year and a half ago, right before The Newsroom debuted its second season, I called it “The Best Bad Show on Television.”  By that, I meant that the show is capable of the kind of soaring lyricism that few outside of Aaron Sorkin are capable of writing, but at the same time, it suffers from the worst of Sorkin’s impulses, including a bad habit of moralizing, a fear of modern technology, and a chronic inability to write female characters.  When The Newsroom is great – usually when it’s showing competency porn (brilliant people doing their jobs very well) – it is absolutely thrilling to watch.  When it is bad – when Sorkin is lazily second-guessing the media or painting social media as history’s greatest monster – it is absolutely infuriating to watch.  With last night’s third season premiere, “Boston,” The Newsroom returns for a truncated final season just as it ever was: The Best Bad Show on Television.

“Boston” opens with a thrilling sequence of competency porn as the employees at ACN rally to cover the Boston Marathon bombing.  The biggest issue at hand is whether or not to go on the air with no real news or information: No idea if it was an explosion or a fire, a terrorist act or an accident.  The decision to wait is undercut by the humor of Sheppard Smith’s face immediately coming on the screen as Fox News breaks into their regular coverage, but Sorkin goes relatively easy on the other networks by rather subtly using the episode to explore the question of what the news media’s job is.

ACN is obviously trigger-shy, as they’re still trying to come back from the Genoa debacle.  But there’s a legitimate concern presented about whether it’s more important to get the news right or to get the news on.  In the end, ACN does everything right.  They wait until there’s news to report.  They don’t run false stories (unlike CNN’s John King who gets duped by a police investigation into a leak).  They don’t pull a New York Post and finger the wrong men.  They get the story right…and still finish fourth in the ratings, presumably because they weren’t on from the beginning.  By failing to go on the air first, even with nothing to actually report, Will believes they lost the audience for the rest of the story. 

It’s a really interesting quandary that The Newsroom doesn’t entirely resolve.  We the people have decided that what we want from our cable news is something, even if that something is really nothing.  We want to feel like we’re part of the investigation even if there’s really nothing to investigate.  Look at CNN’s coverage of the Malaysia Airlines disaster.  The network covered Flight 370 for weeks, long after it became obvious that every possible angle had been covered and that no real news was coming out.  But the strategy worked.  Ratings were through the roof for the two weeks the network ran wall-to-wall Flight 370 coverage.  But a month later, once the story had settled, CNN’s ratings fell by almost half.  We the people want that 24/7 coverage even when it’s a whole lot of nothing.  Can ACN, in its endeavor to be a news agency rather than a tabloid, bring the audience back while giving them what they need instead of what they want?  I don’t know, and neither do Charlie or Will it seems. 

Sorkin’s take on “good news” versus “bad news” was surprisingly subtle, especially given how unsubtle his treatment of Reddit and Twitter was.  It must have been joyous when he realized he could combine his moralizing with his fear of technology by going after Reddit’s citizen law enforcement in the hours and days immediately following the bombing.  It’s an easy target because the truth is that Reddit was wrong, just as the New York Post was wrong the day before, and their level of wrongness required law enforcement officials to divulge information sooner than they would have liked.*  But the show demonstrates such a tactless approach to Twitter and Buzzfeed and the like that it’s hard to take it seriously, especially considering that it’s not a problem unique to Reddit and Buzzfeed, as we saw in this very episode with CNN’s false report.

* The show goes relatively light on the Post, for some odd reason, treating its “Bag Men” headline more as a joke than an actual problem, which seems genuinely odd given that it was the Post, and not Reddit that was in possession of an email from the Department of Homeland Security stating that the “bag men” were “not of interest.”  The Post was later sued for the headline and settled out of court.  Sorkin has gone after the media before for reporting too soon (just look at the Gabrielle Giffords story from last season’s premiere) so it’s a little odd that he focuses on Reddit and Twitter and largely gives the Post a pass.

As I said at the beginning, The Newsroom is as it ever was: equal parts amazing and infuriating.  When Will rallies the troops at the end and delivers an epic closing line (“We’re not in the middle of the third act.  We just got to the end of the first”) even I wanted to jump off the couch and shout.  But then I have to listen to Sorkin completely misunderstand Twitter (and subtly glide over the fact that it was an NBC reporter who was part of the chain that popularized the theory) and I want to start throwing things at my television.  If you loved The Newsroom before, you’ll probably love it now.  And if you hated The Newsroom before, this episode will do nothing to change your mind.  “The Best Bad Show on Television” is back, just as it always was.

A couple of spare thoughts –

There are two long-term story arcs introduced in this episode, but there’s not really enough information to discuss them at any length just yet.  If anything, I’m slightly more intrigued by Neal’s conspiracy in Equatorial Kundu, if only because I’m curious how it will compare to last year’s fake story which, while intriguing, ultimately fizzled because of its choice of villains.  The hostile takeover of AWM only really interests me if it finds a way to bring Jane Fonda back for some more scenery chewing.

I thought Sloan was a little slow to catch on to the connection between Savannah Capital and AWM but, then again, I’m a television viewer trained to know that when you introduce Chekov’s private equity firm in the first act, it must go off in the third.

Due to increased professional obligations and a general lack of interest, I haven’t been doing any weekly reviews for a while, but The Newsroom gives me enough things to find interest in, and, obviously, plenty of things to say, and it’s only a six episode season, so I’ll likely review them all, though they probably won’t post until Monday afternoon or evening.

Tyler Williams is a professional librarian and an amateur television critic.  You can reach him at TyTalksTV AT gmail DOT com or on Twitter @TyTalksTV.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Bones, Castle, and the Art of the Cliffhanger, Part II

Sure, Booth is in jail, but not for long.

Last spring I began writing a piece about how infuriating last May’s Castle cliffhanger was and how much better Bones’s cliffhanger had been.  For various reasons that post didn’t get finished, but the new season is well under way and both shows have resolved their respective cliffhangers in ways that have changed my views, so I’d like to revisit the subject and discuss where each show succeeded and failed in piquing the audience’s interest.

About a year ago I tore Under the Dome apart for utterly failing in its attempt to craft a thrilling season-ending cliffhanger, the primary problem of which was its utter lack of resolution.  When the show came back nine months later, it only exacerbated the problem by wrapping up every hanging question within the first five minutes without an ounce of it affecting anything in the future.  In fact, the only character to die in the second season premiere was Angie, who was not in any danger at the conclusion of the previous season. 

Castle had a similar misfire with its season-ending cliffhanger in May, when Rick, on his way to get married, has his car apparently run off the road and set on fire with him in it.  Mind you, we don’t actually see this happen, we just see his fiancĂ©e Kate running up to a car already engulfed in flames. 

This cliffhanger fails for two reasons.  The first is that it is entirely dependent on dramatic irony.  Castle isn’t dead and the audience knows this.  The show is called “Castle” for Christ’s sake.  The only drama available is derived, not from our reaction to his “death,” but from Kate’s, and we don’t get much.  This isn’t to say that dramatic irony can never be used effectively but, in this particular case, it’s a well the show has gone to before, when Kate was shot in the season three finale.

The other problem is that the episode provides no resolution to the primary story.  For 55 minutes, the show is leading up to a wedding, trying desperately to solve all of the problems that arise.  Then, the end comes and there’s no wedding and no emotional resolution at all.  Sure, the characters solve the maguffin, which involves rescuing Kate’s ex-boyfriend/husband so they can have their marriage annulled, but that wasn’t a real story, it was just a collection of tropes – specifically, the “Oops, I forgot I was married” and the “New old flame” tropes.  Because the plots on Castle are generally so trite, we rely on the characters’ relationships to keep us invested and here we were deprived of any great character moments.

Like Under the Dome, Castle capped its season by dropping the curtain before the end of the act.  Even worse, it left the audience with no real mystery as to where the story is going.  We know Castle isn’t dead.  We know he’ll come back at some point in the near future.  Maybe we’ll have a couple of episodes where Kate thinks he’s dead.  But I can pretty much guarantee that at some point in 2014, we will see Castle and Beckett wed.  So this cliffhanger is just delaying the inevitable because television writers seem to have an intense aversion to writing for happy couples.  We see it all the time.  I even wrote about it in the context of both Bones and Castle at the beginning of last season.  For whatever reason, the writers for Castle are unwilling to let Rick and Kate be a normal, happy couple.  And the more they use plot contrivances to create drama, as opposed to using character development, the less interesting the primary relationship becomes.

Let’s compare, then, the lackluster Castle cliffhanger to that from Bones’s May finale.  In “The Recluse in the Recliner,” Booth and Brennan investigate the murder of a conspiracy theorist, which ultimately ties into a conspiracy to destroy Booth’s career and blackmail high-ranking governmental officials.  The season ends with Booth killing three mercenaries sent to kill him, only to be framed for their deaths when they are revealed to be FBI agents (or at least fake FBI agents). 

This cliffhanger is extremely effective because, while the episode still provides closure (the main case solved reasonably conclusively), it leaves open a number of questions including why Booth was targeted, who is behind the conspiracy, and what will happen to Booth.  None of these questions has obvious, immediate answers and, more importantly, the audience is left wondering what will happening next, as opposed to just not knowing why it happened. 

Bones could have gone anywhere with this cliffhanger.  They could have picked up right where they left off.  They could have had a time-jump, with Booth having spent time in jail or on trial (the show has previously used small time-jumps to pretty good effect).  Or they could have gone another direction entirely.  Good cliffhangers leave open many options, and that’s what “The Recluse in the Recliner” did.

What both Castle and Bones seem to have forgotten with their new seasons is that cliffhangers also need resolutions.  And by that I don’t mean they need to resolve their plots.  Cliffhangers need to have a meaningful impact on the characters.  Unfortunately, neither show figured out how to do that.  Instead, both decided to turn their cliffhangers into season-long mystery arcs.  Bones probably had the more egregious sin, as the “Booth in prison” arc is basically wrapped up in fifteen minutes when Brennan blackmails a judge with evidence from their previous investigation.  That’s it.  All charges are dropped.  Booth immediately gets his job back, even in spite of the fact that he did still kill three people.  What should have been an interesting dramatic story arc about how Booth can survive prison or how his relationship with Brennan is strained by separation was instead cut short before the third commercial break.  Instead, the show went for a shocking death and a long-running conspiracy storyline in an attempt to make up for any real emotional consequence from the cliffhanger.

Castle, meanwhile, still hasn’t really resolved its cliffhanger.  Sure, Rick is back, as we all knew he would be.  But he has no memory of where he was and apparently that’s how he wants it.   I don’t really care about the conspiracy storyline, though I suppose with the investigation into the death of Kate’s mother largely over, some long-term arc has to take its place.  Far more infuriating, though, is how the show yada-yada’d the most emotionally engaging aspect of the cliffhanger: Kate’s reaction.  Obviously, the lack of a body in Castle’s car changes the stakes, but that puts the show, and Kate, immediately into investigation mode, turning what could have been a great emotional story arc into a rather trite plot arc that, as with Bones, is basically resolved within the first episode.  The season is now several episodes in and things are completely back to normal, with no real lasting consequences for any of the characters and a wedding on the near horizon yet again.

The best television cliffhangers, hell even the decent ones, stick with us as much for their payoffs as for their setups.  Think of Buffy killing Angel and leaving town in the second season finale of Buffy the Vampire Slayer or just straight up dying in the fifth season finale.  Those cliffhangers were powerful not because they had shock value, but because they had emotional stakes and they stick with us because the show followed up on those stakes.  Angel didn’t return from the dead immediately and, when he did, things didn’t immediately go back to normal.  And the show spent the better part of a season (for good or for ill) dealing with the fallout from Buffy dying and being brought back to life.

The Buffy cliffhangers may be abnormal because they rely more on character and emotional arcs than “shock value,” but even the best “shocking” cliffhangers leave the audience asking not “What just happened?” but “What’s going to happen next”?  Think of Lost’s “We have to go back, Kate,” or Battlestar Galactica’s “On behalf of the people of the Twelve Colonies, I surrender,” or the gunshot at the end of Breaking Bads third season.  These cliffhangers are effective for their shock value because they all signal extreme paradigm shifts.  Some people got off the island.  The Cylons won.  Walt and Jesse essentially declared war on Gus.  All of these cliffhangers indicated, with no uncertainty, that when the show returned, nothing would be the same.

If the best cliffhangers, then, require either the characters or the story to change dramatically, maybe satisfying cliffhangers are simply impossible in traditional procedurals, whose entire raison d’etre is based on stability.  Procedurals make their bones (no pun intended) on presenting the same people week in and week out doing the same things week in and week out.  Changes are minor.  Relationships will begin and end but are often kept in the background unless, of course, it’s the two main characters whose “will they/won’t they” tension is the emotional engine of the show.  It’s easy to threaten to kill a character or put somebody in jail when you don’t have to follow through on the threat.  But the trick only works so often, and after enough fakeouts, the audience is going to stop falling for it.

Maybe it’s time to stop expecting satisfying cliffhangers (especially in resolution) from procedural dramas.  Without the possibility of real change, any threats made in a season finale are going to be entirely empty.  And maybe it’s time for procedurals to abandon the idea of season-ending cliffhangers.  After all, if you can’t do something right, maybe it’s best to just not do it at all.

Tyler Williams is a professional librarian and an amateur television critic.  You can reach him at TyTalksTV AT gmail DOT com or on Twitter @TyTalksTV.