Sunday, March 8, 2015

HBO Enters That Irksome Spot Between Brilliant And Bastardly With The Perfect Third Season Of The Newsoom!

The Good: Engaging plot development, Great acting, Good character development
The Bad: SHORT!
The Basics: In its final season, The Newsroom is short, focused, original, and perfect, which is wonderful and frustrating!

Unlike a lot of networks, HBO has the tendency not to kill shows before their time - Carnivale (reviewed here!), notwithstanding – so when it does cancel a series, it is usually because it has gone long past its prime and is no longer drawing an audience. When HBO announced that the third season of The Newsroom would be its last and it would only be getting six episodes for the season, fans like me wondered what the hell was wrong with HBO. After all, The Newsroomwas one of the network’s smartest shows and there did not seem to be any deficit of excitement for Aaron Sorkin’s latest series. Coming off the disastrous plot for the Atlantis Cable News team in the second season (reviewed here!), there seemed like plenty of interesting potential directions for the third season (and beyond) to go in.

The result of Sorkin only having six episodes to wrap up The Newsroom with is that Aaron Sorkin created one of his best seasons of television yet. The fear for Sorkin fans with some of the elements that set-up the third season – the potential buy-out of ACN smacked of the conclusion to Sports Night (reviewed here!) – was that Sorkin would once again reuse some of his previously created character arcs, plot devices and (especially) witty lines. Fortunately, for a series that was always in danger of being derivative, Sorkin and his team pulled it out with six episodes that create a tight, powerful, meaningful season of television that allows The Newsroom to go out on a high note and end before it succumbed to Sorkin’s lack of creativity.

Picking up in the wake of ACN’s expose of a fictitious story, NewsNight With Will McAvoy struggles for credibility among its cable news competitors and its dwindling audience. When the bombing of the Boston Marathon occurs, Will McAvoy and MacKenzie McHale are incredibly cautious about their sources with reporting the story – so much so that they end up discrediting a number of other reports that use false leads. While the rest of the ACN team is championing good reporting while social media gives law enforcement bad leads in the Boston Marathon case, Neal finds himself in possession of tens of thousands of documents of classified intelligence materials. Neal is handed a story about how U.S. operatives planted stories in foreign newspapers and one of those stories led to a riot in which thirty-eight people (including three Americans) were killed.

Almost immediately, Will and MacKenzie realize that Neal has committed a serious felony (encouraging his source to commit espionage) and when the Justice Department descends upon ACN, Will has Neal flee the country. As the Justice Department interrogates Will (Neal told him his source), Sloan realizes that ACN is the subject of an impending hostile takeover. Attempting to avoid a buyout by a ruthless billionaire who wants to make ACN into a network serviced by “citizen journalists” and social media, Charlie and Sloan find themselves completely at his mercy. When Lucas Pruit buys ACN and retools it, the team tries to keep things together without Will McAvoy’s leadership. Jailed for contempt for refusing to reveal Neal’s source, Will struggles to maintain his sanity while imprisoned and Mac, Don and Jim fight with Charlie to maintain the network’s integrity.

At its worst The Newsroom was always in danger of retreading where Sports Night had gone fifteen years prior. Fortunately, while the set-up for the final season of The Newsroom was identical to the final arc of Sports Night, the third season of The Newsroom takes the series in a different direction. Instead of being a savior for the beloved show, Lucas Pruit becomes an antagonist who menaces everything the protagonists for the series have built. The difference makes all the difference: it allows The Newsroom to go out on a completely different note than Sports Night and it allows Aaron Sorkin to finish the show with a sense of originality that his prior two works have lacked.

The third season of The Newsroom is notable, as well, for telling some stories that are not actual news story, sucking it out of the real world and into the fictional world of The West Wing (reviewed here!). That makes it problematic as it blends fictional television universes (Equatorial Kundu, which is at the heart of the story that captivates Neal and Will, is a construct of The West Wing) and the real world (Edward Snowden is on monitors in Charlie’s office and the Boston Marathon bombing coverage is relayed in a fashion identical to reality). While this might seem like a real conundrum only for fans of Sorkin’s works (how to reconcile a world where after Bartlet and Santos, Bush and Obama came to power), it guts the authority of The Newsroom for fans of this show alone as well. After all, The Newsroom has been very rooted in speaking truth to power as we know it in the U.S. right now. A show that called out the Tea Party and explored genocide in Africa that then cannot come up with a real story to use to tell the whole journalist integrity/espionage story seems troubling.

Regardless, The Newsroom Season Three manages to be entirely engaging and even pull out some real surprises. “Oh Shenandoah,” especially, is unlike anything else on any other Aaron Sorkin production. The result is a pleasantly surprising season of television that is almost impossible not to binge watch into a single sitting!

For those unfamiliar with it by this point, The Newsroom is dominated by distinctive characters. In the third and final season, the essential characters are:

Will McAvoy – The lead anchor of ACN’s flagship program, NewsNight, he is engaged to MacKenzie. Their marriage plans soon go awry when McAvoy buys Neal the computer he needs to get his informant to trust him. McAvoy stands by his ethical standards to fight the government cover-up in Kundu, going to jail rather than naming Neal’s source. His time in prison for protecting his source is a transformative one for him,

MacKenzie McHale – Executive Producer of NewsNight, she loves Will and works to protect his legacy while he is in prison. She realizes very early on how much trouble Neal and Will are in, thanks in part to a friend in the intelligence community with whom she confides. While trying to fend off the hostile takeover of Atlantis Cable News, she actually meets their source face to face. Her wedding plans are very suddenly altered, which leads her to make an important, abrupt, decision,

Jim Harper –After getting his girlfriend a job at ACN, he is shocked when she makes an ill-timed Tweet and he is forced to take her to Charlie to be fired. They have a falling out over the type of job she gets afterward, where he worries that she might be wooed by ACN’s enemies, and that sets him and Maggie up for a relationship. He gets little done as Producer at ACN, though he and Maggie attempt to get an interview with Edward Snowden as he leaves Russia,

Maggie Jordan – Having recovered from the incident in Africa, she returns to a more traditional look and refocuses on her health and professional development. She overhears a potentially big story from an EPA source while on a train and she decides not to take the salacious story in exchange for reporting the more substantive one. She starts dating another man she met on the train and they have tension based on Maggie’s attraction to Jim,

Don Keefer – He starts dating Sloan, though the two struggle to hide that fact from a member of Human Resources. He is given the unenviable task of vetting a young woman with a problematic website for the new ACN, which leads him to his ultimate conflict with Charlie,

Sloan Sabbith – Giddy over her new terminal that seems to give her inside financial information, she is the one who figures out that Reese and his mother are about to lose ACN. She starts dating Don and fails his tests when he realizes that she is very much like him in relationships,

Neal Sampat – He is eager to get respect and legitimacy from his coworkers and, in the process, eagerly gives the ACN encryption key to a source who requests it. To prove to himself and the others that the source is legitimate, he informs the source how to transfer the classified documents from the U.S. internal sites to him. After inadvertently inciting espionage, he goes on the run while the rest of the team fights for his rights and freedoms back in New York,

and Charlie Skinner – The president of ACN, he goes toe to toe with Lansing’s other children, who will inherit and buy enough of the company’s stock to completely own the company. Fearful of the direction they might take it, he tries to suck up to them and then tries to find a buyer who has as much integrity as Reese and his mother. Under Pruit’s ownership of ACN, he is truly miserable and finds himself fighting against his own goals and agendas.

In its third season, everyone on The Newsroom know their parts and how to play them expertly. This is a flawlessly-delivered season of television and the few guest stars for the season, like Kat Dennings and B.J. Novak, figure out how to play perfectly within the seasoned cast who know their characters backwards and forwards. Jeff Daniels uses the last few moments of the show to infuse Will McAvoy with his own interest and talent (singing) and he is such a professional that he makes it seem organically like a trait of McAvoy instead of Daniels. That is a talent that few actors possess!

All of that adds up to an engaging season that packs a lot into six episodes and makes one figure that HBO is brilliant and figured out how to get something new out of Aaron Sorkin . . . even as it infuriates viewers with how the show is already done!

For other works from the 2014 – 2015 television season, please check out my reviews of:
House Of Cards - Season 2
Doctor Who - Season 8
True Blood - Season 7
”Now Is Not The End” - Agent Carter
”Aftershocks” - Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D.


For other television reviews, please check out my Television Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2015 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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