By Josh Axelrod
“The Newsroom” officially ended its three-season run on Sunday. It hit just about every series finale note it should have. Mac was pregnant, Don and Sloan were happy, Jim and Maggie were in love, Neal was back in the U.S., and Charlie was recognized as the larger-than-life figure he always was before B.J. Novak…sorry, Lucas Pruitt pushed him over the edge. The show even ended with Will staring into the camera and beginning his newscast with a “Good evening,” just to remind us that ACN’s cameras won’t stop rolling just because HBO’s did.
There really isn’t much to say about the finale itself. It wasn’t nearly as bad as “True Blood” or “How I Met Your Mother” (don’t get me started on HIMYM). It didn’t reach the levels of awesome achieved by, say, “The Office” or “Chuck.” Jeff Daniels and John Gallagher got to show off their musical chops, that was kind of cool. But really, the series finale served less as an ending and more of a reminder of all the things to both love and question about “The Newsroom.” And just to be clear, my love for “The Newsroom” is strong and well-documented.
I think “The Newsroom” is, well now was, a show that got saddled with an unfair reputation. Its true star wasn’t Daniels, but writer Aaron Sorkin and his Emmy/Oscar-winning pedigree. Unfortunately, he chose to begin his return to TV with one of the most obnoxious soliloquies ever. Will McAvoy’s “America is not the greatest country in the world anymore” speech is now infamous for being as long-winded as it was cynical, even if there were some good points hidden behind the smug:
Its first season never recovered from that initial perception, that it was a show that preached at you. It didn’t help that characters were severely underwritten and never really resonated until late into the season. Maggie Jordan and MacKenzie McHale set feminism back about 50 years by being terrible in their personal and professional lives. At the very least, by the end of Season 1, the entire ACN staff liked and respected Will.
The beginning of Season 2 was rocky. Don and Sloan were being awkward after Sloan’s “You’re a good guy” speech where she admitted she liked him. Jim wanted to get away from Maggie so badly that he hopped on a GOP campaign bus. Will started to date a gossip columnist, which was totally going to end well (Spoiler alert: It didn’t). Same old disappointing “Newsroom.”
Then a switch flipped. Jerry Dantana showed up and Operation Genoa provided a compelling season-long conflict grounded in questions of morality and journalistic ethics. It all fell apart so beautifully and tragically that even though the brunt of the blame was on Mac, you couldn’t blame her for any decision she made along the way. Leona Lansing (Jane Fonda, a goddess) became a welcome champion of ACN and her son Reese (Chris “Diamond Dan” Messina) became less annoying.
Don provided the world with the best post-kiss line ever: “What I have can’t be taught.” Will popped the question to Mac and everyone rejoiced. But most importantly, Maggie went to Africa and came back a real character who could actually perform the tasks required of her job and maintain a sex life that didn’t involve Jim (who, by the way, found Hallie Shay, an underrated character who Aaron Sorkin ruined with Twitter and sex columns).
“The Newsroom” began Season 3 with a lot of hope, and it maintained Season 2 levels of entertainment throughout its way too brief six-episode run. The big storyline involved Neal having to run away to Venezuela after accidentally committing espionage and Will going to jail because he wouldn’t reveal Neal’s source. For the first time in the show’s history, journalistic integrity was basically the answer for every question the show raised.
Why wouldn’t Will give up Neal’s source? Journalistic integrity. Why wouldn’t Maggie use the EPA guy’s quotes that she overheard? Journalistic integrity. What led to the saddest moment in “Newsroom” history, aka Charlie Skinner’s heart attack? His unwillingness to compromise his journalistic integrity for ratings and clicks.
Why did Sloan blast Neal’s douchey replacement webmaster for not caring about truth in his invasive stalking app? Journalistic integrity. Why did Mac do everything in her power to run Lilly Hart’s story? Journalistic integrity. Why did Hallie write an article about her sex life with Jim? Well okay, that was just Aaron Sorkin’s blatant sexism.
That criticism never went away with “The Newsroom,” and Sorkin didn’t help his case by talking. He made Hallie as incompetent as Season 1 Mac. Speaking of Mac, it turned out the two biggest moments in her career were purely because she was a woman. Charlie recruited her for the ACN job purely because of her relationship with Will, and she was named president of ACN to make Lucas Pruitt look less like a raging sexist (“Living art,” really?). That was disappointing.
When Maggie decided to interview for a job in D.C. and do long distance with Jim, it was treated like the moment Maggie had been building toward for three seasons. Maggie made a major life decision by herself? OMG!!!!!!
The most controversial storyline was, of course, Don trying to convince a rape victim not to do an interview with her rapist by basically shaming her and her website for sexual assault victims. It was problematic on a lot of levels, and Don was clearly a Sorkin mouthpiece here. But frankly, and this may be an unpopular opinion, I think this storyline was a triumph for Sorkin. It sparked a conversation and was really more about the lengths Don would go to in order to maintain his…wait for it…journalistic integrity than about the issue itself.
And then we came to the finale. It exemplified “The Newsroom’s” defining trait: entertaining frustration. It might’ve been a much better episode if if it had just cut out Jim and Maggie entirely, but I suppose an “I love you” from Jim while he walked away from Maggie was the best we could’ve hoped for there. And, for that matter, we should’ve at least gotten an “I love you” from Don and Sloan. At least they now have Charlie’s tie and no longer believe they contributed to his death, even though they clearly did.
But the finale got the heart of the show right. Will and Mac are going to be parents, and Will spent all episode acting like a father. That jam session with Charlie’s grandson was a great reminder that Will had been a father figure to his entire staff since Mac arrived at ACN. It brought their relationship and Will’s relationship to his office full circle in a brilliant way.
And it turned out Charlie was the key to it all. He was on a mission to save journalism and, between drinks, he set the wheels in motion for doing just that with ACN. He convinced Mac to join ACN. She got Jenna Johnson to the front of the question line at Northwestern. Mac got Jim to join her at ACN. Mac taking over Don’s job pushed him closer to Sloan. And when all was said and done, the staff of “News Night with Will McAvoy” was a big, happy, incestuous family.
That was really the point of “The Newsroom” as I saw it. It wasn’t Aaron Sorkin’s grand criticisms on the state of the media, politics and every other debatable issue under the sun. It was about a group of misfits coming together for a common goal under a fearless, loyal leader (first Charlie, then Will) and learning that they might actually all like each other after all.
That message was sometimes shrouded by overly snappy dialogue, unfortunate sexism and Sorkin’s general arrogance. It’s a perception that stuck with the show throughout its entire run, and I considered its validity on more than one occasion. But I won’t remember “The Newsroom” for those things.
I’ll remember it for that one time Sloan made it to the rage phase. I’ll remember it for forcing my college friends to stop whatever they were doing to gather around a TV on a Sunday night for the possibility Don and Sloan might kiss (I’ll never forget the collective squeal when that happened). But most of all, I’ll remember it as the inexplicably fun show that I hate-watched before realizing I genuinely liked it. And that’s the biggest headline of all.