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.

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