Midway through its six-episode arc, The Newsroom’s final season appears to be well on its way to setting a high-water mark for the series, but that’s hardly high praise. Even at its least problematic, and considering that this particular viewer has more patience for unadulterated Sorkinese than is probably warranted, this quasi-factual series has thus far largely lacked for the joyous spontaneity of its creator’s best work, and not for a lack of trying. The Newsroom frequently plays less like television and more like a radio play that happens to be illustrated, with a palpable strain evident in every word and punctuation mark. Most of those words are uttered by the employees of an industry where information and monologues are the norm, and written by someone who, for better or worse, seems to enjoy hearing himself talk.
The show’s dramatic thrust is largely dependent on the experiences of the fictitious ACN news channel as it reports on such real-world events as the BP oil spill, the death of Osama bin Laden, and, this season, the Boston marathon bombing and the Edward Snowden NSA leaks, and it provides regular opportunities for grand ethical pronouncements liable to make Jimmy Stewart’s Mr. Smith turn red. In typical Sorkin fashion, amid these sweeping gestures are snapshots of casual human frailty (misplaced words, awkward coincidences, the occasional pratfall), usually played for laughs, yet rarely delivered with the necessary comic precision. The frequency of these misfires is wearying, and while Sorkin’s similarly pitched first TV effort, Sports Night, often wore the same exuberant imperfections on its sleeve, it was more sharply written, and used said imperfections as indicators of its characters’ individual, sometimes overlapping search for meaning. It also had less time to wear out its welcome. At 50-plus minutes an episode, The Newsroom brings to mind Jeffrey Jones’s words from Amadeus: too many notes.
Those warts are still present to varying degrees in the third season, but the series has also finally found its rhythm. “Main Justice” is the first episode in the show’s history with anything in the way of visual intrigue, playing with color, composition, and editing in ways unprecedented for a series that, until now, has been content to settle for competently pedestrian visuals: the pitter-patter of the dialogue is extended to the editing schemes, and a sequence in an ominous room brings to mind, of all things, the establishing shot of Anton Ego’s coffin-like lair in Ratatouille. What stands out more than the recent history being revisited in the main plotlines is the implied commentary on a world in which the volume of information frequently exceeds our ability to process it accordingly, while the scales between ethics and profits continue to tip perilously toward the latter. A telling sequence sees Jim Harper (John Gallagher Jr.) unsuccessfully encourage his girlfriend, Hallie (Grace Gummer), to turn down a job with a news website where she’ll receive bonuses for pageviews, inadvertently insulting her integrity as a journalist in the process. This scene would be a small marvel if it didn’t conclude with another one of Sorkin’s failed and unnecessary punchlines.
It appears the series will end much like it began: looking backward. A subplot involving the sale and potential liquidation of ACN explicitly echoes the series finale of Sports Night, while The Newsroom’s own upcoming finale recycles the name of Sports Night’s season-one capper: “What Kind of Day Has It Been?” Such redundancies reinforce an overwhelming impression that The Newsroom has never been entirely sure about its intentions, failing to carve out a unique identity. While a certain haphazard uncertainty may be a fitting quality for a series about our own fractured political and media landscape, and where the actions of good people are paralyzed by the need for content production, Sorkin’s own sputtering pen suggests that such imprecision was not his aim.