'The Newsroom' Season 2 Finale Review: An Unsatisfying Ending To An Overly Idealistic Season
The Newsroom completed its second season with “Election Night,” a two-part finale in which Mac and Will got engaged and ACN decided to fight the Genoa lawsuit.
“Election Night” takes place on the night of the presidential election of 2012, and the atmosphere is tense. Already knowing the outcome of the evening is no help to the average viewer as the tension comes not just from the uncertainty facing the country during the election but also the uncertainty and upheaval at ACN.
The News Night staffers wonder how to best serve the needs of their viewing audience in the face of indeterminate backlash from their reporting of what turned out to be a completely fabricated story (Genoa). Their concern is bizarre for several reasons; among them being the weird assumption they seem to have that their viewing audience has always placed total and complete trust in them. “We don’t have the trust of the public anymore!” wailed a hysterical Charlie (Sam Waterston) in the previous episode. It’s a poignant moment, for sure- the raw frustration, the panic, the sadness the staff feels when they realize how severely they’ve misled the public. Even though the focus has shifted to place the mission to win back the trust of the audience at the forefront of the show, it still doesn’t feel believable.
We’ve been watching The Newsroom for two seasons now, and we’ve been watching people work hard at delivering interesting and engaging content while grappling with journalistic ethics (well there are also those totally minor subplots known as their personal lives), but for some reason this is the threshold where things just start to feel ridiculous. A simple Google search turns up exactly why: a Gallup poll from June declared that only 23% of those polled had a substantial amount of trust in television news.
But suspension of disbelief is just part of watching television, right? Okay then, we proceed… but that nagging sense of the show’s inflated self-importance never goes away.
Consistent with the rest of this season, “Election Night Part I” is scattered and difficult to follow, with no discernible advancement in the any of the long-term plots that have been introduced over the course of the season, while a couple of other, smaller plots pop up all over the place. Jerry (Hamish Linklater), the producer who filled in for Jim (John Gallagher Jr.) while he was away and was single-handedly responsible for the Genoa story, is suing ACN. It’s good to know that this show isn’t entirely disconnected from reality, considering the real world is so ludicrous that Jerry’s case would definitely make it to court.
While the ACN heads are considering whether to resign over the scandal, the News Night team accidentally calls Michigan instead of Mississippi, and even though their call is pretty much right, that doesn’t change the fact that the hard data doesn’t back it up yet. After Genoa, the pressure is on and Charlie has made it quite clear that anyone who falters during this election coverage is going to be fired, which keeps everyone on his or her toes. Maggie (Alison Pill) and Jim try to solve the Michigan crisis quietly by slowly and unofficially retracting the call simply by taking it out of the rotation on TV.
There is, however, an interesting segment featuring a tacit swapping of news stories between Jim, Maggie and Jim’s girlfriend, Hallie (Grace Gummer). Together, they agreeing to hold back one story to cover another, potentially bigger, story. This blackmarket dealing for news stories acts as a reminder of a consistent, and very interesting, theme this season: who are the gatekeepers? Viewers consume news that is carefully chosen by human beings (aka writers and producers). Some stories are aired, some are not, and the circumstances of the choices can be as trivial and fleeting as a brief Skype conversation. It was a very well done and well placed bit in an otherwise scattered and aggravating episode.
Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels) was in top form, though. When telling Mac (Emily Mortimer) that he’s appointed himself as the supervisor of workplace morale (God help us all) in the wake of the devastating crumbling of the Genoa story, the ensuing lawsuits and the rumors of resignations, he makes a crack that perfectly summarizes the giddy sensation felt by every politics junkie in America on election night: “it’s like an orgy in a spa with college basketball games on and Christian Louboutins hanging from the trees!”
Part 2 of the finale contained a fantastic Will McAvoy rants that consisted of a blistering criticism of the modern Republican party. McAvoy pulls no punches when he bluntly breaks down how the Republican Party of 2012 is comprised mainly of self-aggrandizing and hateful maniacs. He harkens back on the Republican Party of yore, its old principles that the party has since left behind, or worse, distorted so badly they’re no longer recognizable (McAvoy over-romanticizes things a little bit, but it’s to be expected on a show that rehashes fairly recent news stories and portrays them in a way that no news outlet did at all). It’s wonderfully written and even more brilliantly delivered by Jeff Daniels, who is able to relay the monologue in a way that keeps what is basically a soapbox lecture from actually sounding like one.
Jane Fonda as Leona Lansing, ACN’s owner, is much-needed comedy relief as she talks to Charlie about serious legal matters while stoned and thinking about pizza. Though her character has gotten tiresome in the past, her repartee with Charlie is second to none and absolutely delightful.
As the finale went on, it becomes quite clear that it was a huge mistake to place less emphasis on the Genoa storyline or even tie it up more or less definitively a few episodes earlier. The Genoa storyline was the glue that kept the show mostly coherent (but still not very). It provided The Newsroom with an interesting look at journalistic ethics, professional desperation and one more cautionary tale to add to the old idiom “if it’s too good to be true, it probably is.” Without it, the various subplots are floating freely, leaving the viewer to grasp at them as they fade in and out.
Looking back, I think the rest of the season would have been more interesting if The Newsroom had chosen to focus more on Maggie’s experience in Africa and her reaction to it. Cutting and dying her hair herself is, as Jim’s girlfriend points out, “alarming” and definitely a sign that she was not doing as well as she seemed. But for Jim to only really attempt to talk to her about it in the very last episode of the season is disheartening. Maggie has always been a little one-dimensional, and that one dimension is usually annoying. In this season, it was possible for her to grow a little more, as several other characters did, and instead it just never happened. We are left empty-handed, with simply “she was traumatized in Africa and now she’s a little more assertive than she was in the first season. Oh and did we mention she cut her own hair off?”
But, it’s not just Maggie. This lack of emotional follow through is pretty consistent with most of the characters in this show. They are what make the show worth watching: even if you love or hate them, there’s no denying that individually, most of these characters are very well done and definitely what keep me coming back for more. Characters that were once hateful are now awesome (Don (Thomas Sadoski)). Characters that were once charming are now unbelievably annoying (Jim). So what made Sorkin pick some characters for development and leave others behind? Who knows, but I’m pretty sure that we’ll never get an answer.
To conclude: “Election Night” was sloppy. It was rushed. It was random. It was distracting. It was incoherent. There’s no official confirmation from HBO that The Newsroom will be returning for a third season and, keeping that in mind, the episode seems like a jigsaw puzzle thoughtlessly put together by a man who wasn’t sure about the future of his show and thought it’d be a good idea to give the audience something… just in case.