“The Newsroom” closed out its first season this past Sunday the way it began, with an episode — “The Greater Fool” — that brought back series premiere director Greg Mottola and showed off the precise mix of fiery idealism, incontestible santimoniousness and maddening writing of female characters that have come to define Aaron Sorkin’s HBO drama. “The Greater Fool” was an episode that showcased what Sorkin does best — tout idealism (come, let us tilt at windmills!) and slam the bad guys (take that, Tea Party!) — while also demonstrating how frankly juvenile many of the personal dramas have become.
“The Newsroom” has taken a lot of flack from critics and other journalists over its 10-episode run — to the degree that some have felt the need to point out that people don’t have to watch the show, and others have noted it’s just such a great series to hate-watch. I fall somewhere in the middle of the watch/hate-watch spectrum, liking the cast and having found the newsroom process segments and sanctimonious increasingly irresistible (really, TV needs more angry liberals) while getting all the more exasperated with the love quadrangles and flat attempts at a screwball comedy vibe. But it’s a show I’ve stuck with and have wanted to stick with, and one that’s slated to return for a second season. Here’s a wish list of things I’d love to see happen when the show’s back next summer.
Engage real cable news problems. The fact that “The Newsroom” shows how its fictional team covers (impeccably, since they have the basis of hindsight) actual breaking news from 2010-2011 can give the show a certain smugness — of course this is how to do it right. But if the show is aiming at real events and real politicians, why not dig more into other real show and journalists? One of the smartest, most cutting moments in the series was when Don (Thomas Sadoski) outlined for the team how Nancy Grace uses visual and edits to insinuate guilt and blame on “The Blackout Part I: Tragedy Porn.” There’s so much to legitimately critique in current cable news, the actual delving into the nitty-gritty of irresponsible journalism is something the show could do more of, instead of setting up and then knocking down easy, made-up targets like “TMI.” Will (Jeff Daniels) has yelled at college kids and presidential aides — can’t he yell at a Fox News commentator who’ll abusively try to cut him off?
Enough with the love quadrangle. Unresolved sexual tension makes the TV world go round, but the Maggie (Alison Pill)-Jim (John Gallagher, Jr.)-Don-Lisa (Kelen Coleman) mess is just that, and one that, in this week’s finale, threatened to also drag in Sloan (Olivia Munn). Flirtations and pining are all well and good, but not when they make your characters look like children who can’t form words. “The Greater Fool” ended with Maggie moving in with Don despite both essentially admitting to others that they weren’t in love — Maggie even Inadvertently confessed her feelings to Jim, but then decided not to be with him because… the guy who’d never seemed that into her was finally willing to commit? It became impossible to invest in who Maggie would end up with because she didn’t seem to know what she wanted herself and was torturing everyone around her with her indecision.
These characters need friends. “The Newsroom” is an ensemble show, but between the all-consuming nature of the characters’ work and their lack of personal lives, that ensemble can seem crazily, unheathily isolated. MacKenzie (Emily Mortimer) had her boyfriend, with whom she quickly broke up, Neal (Dev Patel) has his girlfriend, Will has his string of dates, and tend to be the outside presences in a series that’s about work and hanging out with your work friends after work. MacKenzie even confesses to Sloan that she had no friends and hopes Sloan will become one, while Sloan’s idea of a wild weekend is to head off to a think tank conference. The only major representative of a life outside of the office is Lisa, and Maggie’s treatment of her is terrible — she sets her up with her own crush, then resents her for dating him, tries to bolster their relationship and then takes an ax to it by telling her that it was Maggie Jim came to see the night that Lisa got back together with him. Hints of lives outside the newsroom would let some fresh air into the series and in the least introduce possible new love interests to save everyone else from falling for either Maggie, Don or Jim.
Stop trying to make the women “adorable.” Sunday’s finale found Maggie getting drenched, Carrie Bradshaw-style, by a passing bus that happened to be part of a “Sex and the City” tour. Maggie’s resulting rant about how real NYC women wear flats and don’t have a ridiculous disposable income and on and on lost all of its “you go girl” cred given that “The Newsroom” certainly doesn’t write its women any better. The “real” girls of the show, particularly Maggie and Mac, are meant to be extremely qualified and talented in their field, but still accidentally send emails about how they cheated on their ex-boyfriends to their entire parent corporation, knock into things all the time and screw up key pre-interviews by failing to disclose that they once hooked up with the person on the other line. These details that are clearly supposed to be endearing quirks — Mac has to count on her fingers, Maggie bonks Jim with the door multiple times, Mac hits the recently hospitalized Will with a magazine — add up to seriously condescending portraits. Sloan gets spared a lot of this because she’s supposed to be a socially awkward nerd, which is why she’s the best female character the show has.
Things should go wrong more often. At its heart, “The Newsroom” is more traditional, populist and interested in crowd-pleasing than most of HBO’s recent output, so its need to reach for the rousing ending is understandable. But the show’s often been stronger when things haven’t gone right, when Will realized he overstepped and was an asshole in his interview with Rick Santorum’s aide, or when for the sake of viewership the team had to cover Casey Anthony and Anthony Weiner despite not believing either to be legitimately important news. There’s a reason that television news has changed, and the forces that have shaped it are considerable and not easily dismissed by someone snapping that it’s their job to worry about the content, not the ratings. More mistakes need to be made — especially by Will — because it’s interesting and it’s human to see the characters deal with and overcome them. There’s no need for these people to always be right — they exist in the real world, where “right” isn’t always so clear cut or easy.