|"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.