On paper, the idea was a good one: Aaron Sorkin would use his trademark fast-talking television style to tackle current events with his The Newsroom, an HBO series that boasted a stellar cast and an insider’s peek at, yes, an actual newsroom. Now in its third (and, thankfully, last) season, The Newsroom’s forward-thinking premise has proven to be staggeringly backwards, literally turning a show about the power and the immediacy of breaking news into a graveyard for old stories.
The very nature of The Newsroom places it in the unenviable position of being salacious and exploitative without offering anything new to the conversation – simply because the conversations the show is so desperate to participate in are already over by the time new episodes air. Because of the nature of episodic television – especially cable television – “current” events that frame up the plot of any given episode are automatically dated, because the episodes just don’t air until many months later. No matter how searing and searching a Newsroom episode may be (and, yes, it’s been quite some time since the series was either thing), it will never be part of the cultural conversation. It’s too late, which is why you shouldn’t watch The Newsroom. At least, well, not right now.
It’s no secret that the series’ third season hasn’t been welcomed with open arms. The reasons are obvious: it’s just not that good. The season’s overarching story – centered on a source that the news team refuses to reveal to the FBI, complete with tons of fallout for all sides – hasn’t helped frame things up, it’s only forced them to drag on for interminable amounts of time. Characters haven’t evolved, and relationship-centric storylines are repeatedly recycled (though Don and Sloan’s pairing has provided a welcome respite). Journalistic ethics and professional manners, while seemingly important to the various members of the newsroom, are tossed out wholesale whenever it suits the story at hand. There is a lot of yelling. Someone’s dead dad showed up. The digital frontier has been made the enemy. We’re meant to believe that these people admire, value, and respect each other, but finding a character to root for is nearly impossible.
This week’s episode, the penultimate of the series, serves as a prime example of all those issues, with the addition of a B-storyline that was both accidentally timely and extremely offensive (a look at on-campus rape that essentially boiled down to a professional journalist advising a rape victim to shut up about the violence she endured, which is gross and shocking in its own ways, and deserves its own conversation), along with another one of those instantly dated main storylines that added nothing to a conversation that is already over a year old.
The main storyline of “Oh Shenandoah” saw Jim (John Gallagher Jr.) and Maggie (Alison Pill) flying off to Moscow to catch Edward Snowden, hell-bent on grabbing seats on yet another plane, this one bound for Havana, which they (and everyone else) believes that Snowden will be on. You remember this, right? It happened nearly a year and a half ago. It’s not that The Newsroom chose to portray an actual event for its embarrassingly dated episode, it’s that their spin on the story added zero new dimension or understanding. It didn’t even provide fresh perspective on the whole experience. We know this story – that Maggie and Jim, or whoever from whichever other outlet – scrambled to get on a flight to Cuba that Snowden was rumored to be on, only to find that Snowden wasn’t there, effectively shipping themselves away from the week’s biggest story.
This is exactly what happened to Maggie and Jim. This is exactly what happened in real life. So why are we watching this eighteen months later?
By taking on real stories, The Newsroom painted itself into one hell of a corner. Dramatizing true-life tales is nothing new – not by a goddamn long shot – but doing it both too late and too early renders the final result ineffective and flaccid. It’s too late to participate in a “new” story. It’s too early to look back on it with wise reflection. It’s like watching a rerun of your local news, nearly two years later. There’s recognition: “yes, I remember this thing that happened!” But there’s also apathy: “yes, I remember this thing that happened, but what is new here? Nothing? Oh, cool, bye.” It’s worthless. Combined with the show’s inability to entertain and excite on even personal levels, there’s little left to recommend about the series now.
Which is why we propose that if you feel the need to watch the final season of The Newsroom, you wait until it can at least serve to remind you of certain details of large news stories you may have forgotten. Eighteen months isn’t enough. Is five years enough? Ten? Twenty? It’s certainly better than watching reruns of cable news? Or, wait, is it?