Writers are almost always examined via subjective analysis of not only their content, but also what exists because of it and outside of it. Some have their personal lives put under the microscope when critics tackle their films (Woody Allen, perhaps more than any other writer), but most establish a backlog of work that either bolsters their new projects or hamstrings them. An early success could lend credence to later movies, or it could eventually sink them as times change and opinions alter.
When Aaron Sorkin’s Facebook origin story “The Social Network” was released in 2010, claims of sexism followed him from a four-years-gone TV show (“The West Wing”) and a one-and-done season of “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip.” It didn’t matter his long-running NBC drama was an Emmys juggernaut or even that David Fincher’s version of the Mark Zuckerberg story took on the singular perspective of its subject, who happens to be a self-serving, spiteful college boy. Accusations were still tossed around that the film wasn’t fair to its female characters, claiming the few who were represented were either ballbusters (the young Rooney Mara character, who breaks up with Zuckerberg to open the film) or psychos (Eduardo Saverin’s pyromaniac girlfriend).
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Aaron Sorkin won an Oscar for this screenplay, just like he won six Emmys for “The West Wing” and countless other trophies throughout his career. By traditional standards of artistic merit, he’s regarded as the kind of professional he so often depicts in his works: wildly successful and impossibly brilliant. Whether or not he thinks of himself as Josiah Bartlett or Will McAvoy is both impossible to prove and irrelevant to the discussion. Presumptions are only fallible outside context, and even honest, objective material doesn’t belong in an artistic analysis if it’s excluded from the program under review. All of this leads to one central question: “If you didn’t know Aaron Sorkin had been accused of being a blowhard and a sexist, would you consider ‘The Newsroom’ to have those same faults?”
If posed to Season 3 viewers, answering in the affirmative would be a difficult task. The shortest of the series, the new season of “The Newsroom” is streamlined to its purpose. Many of the personal elements — criticized as “soapy” by some, while being hailed as humanizing by fans — are relegated to C and D stories, to make way for the big issues Sorkin wants to tackle in his last round with the ACN news team.
More importantly than perceptional influences, these choice issues are compelling and make the first three episodes a slow build to thrilling entertainment. The season premiere focuses on the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing and also establishes what appears to be the season’s main arc: a Glenn Greenwald/Edward Snowden parallel where Neal Sampat (“Slumdog Millionaire’s” Dev Patel) is contacted by an anonymous source looking to release thousands of classified government documents. If a man on the run from the government, the pending sale of a corporate news division, global warming scares and the ever-dwindling time remaining in an abbreviated six-episode final season aren’t enough to keep you on the edge of your seat, frankly, you’re simply incapable of engaging with meaningful drama.
But that is said from an idealist’s perspective. When “The Newsroom” began, Aaron Sorkin asked his viewers to do one thing: buy in. Leave cynicism at the door and join the crusade his characters were hellbent on pursuing. Accusations of naiveté and self-indulgence would be rendered moot to anyone who went along with these requests, while anyone demanding something else from a show so clearly on a mission to civilize would be left on the outside looking in, throwing stones at a very fragile house.
Yet what makes the third season fascinating in a way we shouldn’t even be noticing is that the house is cracking. While the storytelling remains top tier, Sorkin simply can’t resist appeasing his critics in one scene while rebuffing them in the next, thus inviting the cynics to keep tossing rocks. In the first episode, “Boston,” there’s a glorious moment where Mac (Emily Mortimer) explains to Will (Jeff Daniels) a parable from Euripides. “In the first act of a story, you chase the heroes up a tree. In the second act, you throw rocks at them, and in the third act, they get themselves down.” After a phone call interrupts them, Mac attempts to explain it again before Will cuts her off, saying, “I completely understood the story the first time.”
The scene works beautifully because a) it establishes a structure to be subverted soon after, and it b) pokes fun at Sorkin’s tendency to be redundant and overbearing with his metaphors. Alone, it’s a marvelous meta moment for fans and critics alike, but when combined with the other, similar elements of Season 3 — along with classic Sorkin scenes where characters rail against the Internet (albeit rightly so in the case of Reddit and Twitter users misidentifying Boston bomber suspects) — it becomes cloying.
The most noticeable traces of Sorkin’s conciliation show up in the characters themselves. Mac, for instance, has always been a lightning rod for controversy, as has Alison Pill’s Maggie, an up-and-coming producer and squandered love interest for Jim (John Gallagher Jr.). Mac’s role has been reigned in for Season 3, and her eccentricities — so often faulted by those looking for faults — passed on to a character with enough of his own. Suddenly Will is the one screaming in the newsroom, incapable of coherent speech but more than ready to make himself humorously mockable. Maggie, meanwhile, is a hardened go-getter without an ounce of the innocence that made her so relatable in the first few seasons. For anyone listening for it, you could almost hear Sorkin daring critics to find faults with these women, even if they had taken them to task in seasons past.
Of course, there is an alternative way to approach the show. The character of Maggie might just be adjusting to life post-Africa. Will’s twisted tongue may be the result of being rattled from the Genoa scandal. Mac may finally be toughening up as a hard-nosed EP because she’s settled into her role at ACN (and Will is no longer fucking with her head). Yes, Sorkin has still made Season 3 about more than what’s in the script, even though, without the meta moments, his words are more than enough. Because they are more than enough, and more importantly, they’re really all that matters in the end — his beautiful dialogue is read with apt verve and passion from a wholly committed team of actors. For as hypocritical as the following statement reads in a review attempting to break down both viewer experiences, watching “The Newsroom” without bias is not only the ideal way to see it, but the only way to watch while adhering to the lofty ideals set forth by the show.
“The Newsroom” has always tried to change people’s minds, as Sorkin has repeatedly challenged conventional wisdom while asking viewers to hold themselves and others to a higher standard. It’s not an order, but a request, and one many have bought into over the years. It’s a shame cynical viewers will only see its last act as trying to civilize itself.