[Review] - The Newsroom Season 2 Finale, Episode 9 "Election Night, Part II"

Courtesy of HBO
There is a scene in the fourth season of West Wing. It isn't boisterous, ranting, or grandiose; it's low key and humbled. It's one of my favourites, and you can see it here. It's taken from the episode Arctic Radar, just as Rob Lowe's Sam had left the series and Will Bailey had joined the cast. Will finds Toby in the mess hall, struggling with the inaugural address, and Toby confesses that he's been suffering from writer's block. It's a speech that every writer can sympathise with, and it's one of the character's more humanising moments. But it's more than that. It's Sorkin, voicing a kind of mea culpa. To that point, he had written or co-written 73 episodes of The West Wing. The show and it's creator had won awards, received acclaim and had lofty expectations thrust upon them by the public, by the network and by himself. And it was taking a toll.

He had recently been arrested for possession of cocaine and other controlled substances, representing a lapse in a half decade long sobriety. The writing in the first half of season 4 lacked the same power and punch as the three preceding years. By the end of the year, Sorkin would leave the show, and wouldn't return to television for another four years. This moment with Toby was his admission that things - that he - wasn't what he once was. That he was having a rough time of it, that he was aware of it, and that, in the words of Will McAvoy a decade later, "the first step in solving any problem is recognising that there is one." Each of Sorkin's shows has had an author avatar: with Sport Night it was (probably) Dan, with West Wing it was Toby, with Studio 60 it was Matt, and in Newsroom it is Will. Will, who is the smartest guy in the room, gifted in his field, and prone to wild swings of emotion when it comes to his "invisible friends." The sort of person who takes the things people say about them on the internet too personally. The sort of person who will try too hard to impress people he will never meet rather then satisfy his own wanting to do what he knows he should.

Hit the jump for the review, which contains spoilers that think Elizabeth Windsor is doing a fine job.

Over the weekend, because I had the time, and because I wanted to, I marathoned through both seasons of Newsroom, concluding with the finale, Election Night Part 2. And these 19 episodes, just under 18 hours of television, hold together as a single story pretty well. When watched in quick succession, the time skips works even worse as a plot device than on a weekly basis, but the character arcs are much more clearly defined. Especially Will's decent into unimpressiveness this season. And that brings me back to my introductory point. Toby was the author avatar in West Wing, full of former glory and bluster, and with great success to fill him with wonderful intent. And then it began to wane. Fast forward to season one of Newsroom. Sorkin's previous effort, Studio 60, was met with hollow platitudes and ultimately indifference. Sorkin was... I don't want to say humbled, because I doubt he was. But he was wounded. So, when he got another chance, a better forum to pronounce many of the same ideas, in Newsroom, he took it. And as the mouth piece, he created a loud, well informed but poorly understood, combative alpha personality. All charges laid against Sorkin himself over the years. Someone looking to change the discourse. Someone looking to elevate the discussion, to make (in universe) the news, and (in reality) television a little less cynical, a little more optimistic and not willing to talk down to the audience.

What he got was even more derision. His ideas were met with ire. His mission to civilise torn and shredded, his characters called malformed and his style challenged. He was called a plagiarist (not for the first time, and oddly, from himself). He was called everything but a misogynist. He was definitely called a liberal, in that special way that referring to a person's political affiliations can be rendered a biting insult. So, season two comes along, and much has changed. The politics is toned down. The grand experiment in plot framing is cast nearly to the wayside. And Will is a shade of his former self. No longer is he the emotional volcano, the Don Quixote charging at windmills. He's an introspective man who is looking upon his works, the grief it has caused him, and it hollows him. Hollows him, and his work, and leaves the audience (in both universes) to wonder what happened that left him so passionless.

I'm not a Sorkin apologist, though I don't feel that being one should be a vilified role. I'm a fan. I have immense respect for Sorkin, because he does something that I also enjoy doing, but at a level that I can never hope to match. I feel the same way an amateur athlete looks at a professional, and who accepts that no matter how much they practise, no matter how much they train, these others are simply better then us. They exist on another level entirely. Several levels. So, I respect and envy him his ability. Because he writes like no one else. There are those that are better, and those that are different, and many that are worse. Considering the way things are going, I feel that with no specific training in screenwriting, I could probably get a job on the Dexter writing staff tomorrow. But in my life, I and the vast majority of writers out there will never be able to craft a trance of dialogue like Sorkin can. To build a fable, to craft a metaphor then collapse the sentence in the middle of it to the benefit of the scene. To structure the wit and back and forth between characters that makes you so very much wish that people talked like that in real life.

Yes, the politics, when overt and without place and purpose, can be annoying (this very issue is what really sinks Studio 60). Characters can lack definition, and tend towards Mary Sue-ishness. And despite most of his works sharing the format and tropes of a romantic comedy, actually writing the romance is not his strong suit. No one is perfect. By by gods, his stuff is fun to watch though. Season two of Newsroom wasn't perfect, but neither was season one. And neither is 99% of the rest of television. Not every show can be Breaking Bad. And Sorkin isn't trying to make the greatest show in history, to his credit he pretty much already did that. He's just trying to make good TV. So, season two holds up against the rest of the landscape (and I should say that given the state of television, Newsroom already falls into the upper 10% of what is currently on offer anyway). As a whole, the Genoa story doesn't make for the strongest arc, and I would argue that like season one, the individual episodes are better then the whole they create. And within those episodes, there is stuff that works well, and stuff that just doesn't.

Which brings us, finally, to the finale. This isn't the strongest episode, and those final 8 minutes are pure unedited schmooze. Unfettered emotional manipulation at it's finest. I wouldn't have went that way, but I don't have a TV deal at HBO, whose future was uncertain (HBO still hasn't given any official word on a season three beyond, "We are excited about proceeding to a Season 3 and are continuing our conversations with Aaron about schedules"), and wanted to give the show a conclusion if it ended up being the end. And it did that, in fairy book style. Without a trace of cynicism or "terminal irony," which from Charlie's description is pretty much the definition of a Hipster.

But there is good here. Lots of it. Happily, Sorkin avoided the trap of getting Jim and Maggie together, and might have finally realised that they aren't the couple the forced sexual tension of the first season expected them to be. That role organically came to Don and Sloan, and all credit for to Sorkin for letting that play out in its own time, and never forcing it. Characters have a way of controlling their own lives once they are given the chance, and that's what he did. And while I preferred the Will who was certain of himself in season one, to the tepid version we got for most of this year, maybe by calming down and mellowing out some, he's found a more even keel. Look at the season one finale, with Will's episode long rant against ultra conservatism that culminates in him calling the Tea Party the American Taliban. It's passionate, sure, but full of vitriol, animosity and childish name calling that any debater will tell you gets you nowhere. That sort of behaviour shuts down your opponent and they won't bother listening to your argument. Now, look at the scene in this episode, where Constance Zimmer (who, by the way, deserves to be added to the main cast if the show gets a third season, if only to add an antagonist to the newsroom, to give Sloan an actual female friend, and to continue to be impressive) asks Will about his Republicanism. And he very calmly, and succinctly explains his problems with the modern party. It is clear, concise, and makes sense. It states the good, it states the bad, and makes his case. That's debate. Not yelling at people, but helping them to understand your view point. If that sort of mentality can make it's way into a third season, then I think we'd be in for something special.

But that's not for me to decide. That's for Sorkin. So, the only thing I'm looking for from him, in a third season, if for him to pick a horse, bet on it, and see what happens. If he wants to experiment with formatting, write characters that are loud and abrasive and don't care if they alienate others, go ahead. If he wants to write more focused stories that deal with character reaction rather then world events, do that. You want to try something else entirely, it's all you. Just do it though. Don't wish wash back and forth. This season, Will's father's death should have been explored in more detail. Instead, Genoa got in the way, as it got in the way of a lot. Last season, characters were stubbornly routed in their roles with little room for development because there was always some big story just around the corner about to break. Don't worry about appeasing the pyjama people, stupid people like me that use a technological marvel like an internet connection to make others think we have an opinion. Don't worry about that, because guess what? Even the folks that hate you the most are still watching, if only to reaffirm why they hate you. So ignore all the invisible people on the other side of the screen, and write about what you goddamn want to write about!

Let Bartlet be Bartlet.
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About MR. Clark

Adopting the descriptor of "successfully unpublished author", MR. Clark began writing things on the internet in 2012, which he believed to be an entirely reputable and civilized place to find and deliver information. He regrets much.


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