Despite twenty episodes of rising ire, “The Newsroom” finally won me over. Sunday’s “Run,” moving briskly from quarreling lovers and spoiled siblings to First Amendment rights and journalistic ethics, is simply terrific, an emblem of what Sorkin’s behind-the-scenes drama might have been all along. Alas, “Run” is the exception, not the rule — next week’s “Main Justice” is a return to Earth — but the episode’s distance from broadcast studios and live stand-ups may suggest the fatal flaw in the series’ narrative design. In “The Newsroom,” balancing the actual past with imaginative fiction, Sorkin lost sight of the fact that “reality” television succeeds when it refuses to stay on script.
Now in its third and final season, “The Newsroom” still can’t help but dance an occasional jig after new media failures: as Atlantis Cable News executive producer MacKenzie McHale (Emily Mortimer) says in response to the Reddit manhunt for the Boston Marathon bombers, “Well done, faceless mob!” The benefit of hindsight, of course, is that it makes this particular brand of moral superiority all too easy, and Sorkin’s hectoring approach to the media’s coverage of real-life events has long neglected the gray area between idealism and cynicism that most of us inhabit. With “Sports Night,” “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip,” and now “The Newsroom” under his belt, no series creator in the history of television has more revered the medium in theory and more despised it in practice than Sorkin.
And so “The Newsroom” levies a swooning, inspirational score and an ardent belief in the type of front-page journalism we tend to describe (erroneously) as “objective” against the supposed methodological heresies of reporting via Facebook, Twitter, Buzzfeed, and Gawker, ever committed to the notion that hard work and high dudgeon will eventually induce consumers out of their listicle-dependent stupor. “I don’t like when the media covers the media,” MacKenzie says in the season premiere, but in fact “The Newsroom” is so wholly devoted to covering the media that it mostly forgets to “cover” the news.
This may explain why “Run,” the episode furthest removed from the confines of ACN, emerges as the most witty, provocative, and self-aware installment of them all: rather than asphyxiate the series in the mythical “liberal consensus” that has always been Sorkin’s lodestar, it tosses the characters to the four winds and tries to figure out where they’ll land. Atlantis president Reese Lansing (Chris Messina) confronts a hostile takeover bid; executive producer Don Kiefer (Thomas Sadoski) stumbles into a brunch-buffet minefield with girlfriend and ACN economics analyst Sloan Sabbith (the fantastic Olivia Munn); and MacKenzie, “News Night” anchor Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels), writer Neal Sampat (Dev Patel), and attorney Rebecca Halliday (Marcia Gay Harden) debate the legal consequences of Neal’s involvement with an anonymous source.
Most bracing is the ethical dilemma that faces up-and-coming associate producer Maggie Jordan (Alison Pill) after she eavesdrops on an EPA administrator’s controversial, off-the-record comments on the train back from Boston. “If I hear one more gossip columnist use democracy as a fig leaf,” the administrator says when she confronts him, “I’m going to eat an IBM Selectric.” Though Maggie backs down, winning the admiration of a nearby ethics professor and a more substantial scoop from the administrator, the sequence is less Sorkinian fable than passionate argument. When it comes to the statements of politicians and government officials, what are we to consider necessary secrecy and what deliberate obfuscation? What are the messy compromises and negotiations we accept to land the big scoop, and what are the consequences for the journalism we produce?
The knock-on effect of Maggie’s forthright competence, including a praiseworthy live report from Boston in the days following the bombings, is a merciful retreat from the icky sexism that has plagued “The Newsroom” — as Allison Willmore pointed out in her review of the second season, for instance, the episode “News Night with Will McAvoy” in fact targeted “exaggerated feminist outrage,” as if to turn Sorkin’s defensiveness on the issue into an hour-long drama. At the behest of show runner Alan Poul and others, however, there’s been a concerted effort to shore up the female characters, and MacKenzie, Sloan, and Maggie — formerly reduced to frequent office meltdowns in the face of stoic men — now shine more brightly, and more consistently, than ever. Even MacKenzie, too often Will’s whipping post, emerges as the gutsy journalist when it turns out that Neal’s anonymous source has illegally provided a cache of 27,000 government documents. She stands with Neal. He stands with the lawyer.
“Run,” then, unlike most everything on “The Newsroom” in seasons past, is brilliant because it so seamlessly blends the theory and practice (of television production, of journalism, of liberalism, of feminism) that Sorkin the ideologue too often separates. That the scene on the train might be synopsized as though it were the beginning of a joke — “A reporter, an EPA administrator, and an ethicist walk into an Amtrak car…” — is high praise for a series that has always taken itself, and its view of the world, so seriously. “Run” is too little, too late to redeem the series as a whole, but it’s evidence that “The Newsroom,” freed from Sorkin’s usual script of hidebound posturing and moral outrage, could have made television’s messy realities sing from the start. “The unguarded moments,” as Maggie tells the administrator, “are where the truth is.”
“The Newsroom” airs Sundays at 9pm on HBO.