By Kevin Jagernauth | The Playlist September 17, 2013 at 10:04AM
Before diving in, a bit of a disclaimer and/or explanation is in order. Thanks to TIFF taking me away from the television for a couple of weeks, followed by some bungling couriers and concluding in massive fatigue upon returning from Toronto, "The Newsroom" slipped off the immediate radar. And a show you might have heard of called "Breaking Bad" took priority over the weekend. But with Walter White's latest adventures concluded for now, I finally got a chance to catch up with the last two episodes of "The Newsroom." But instead of doing a blow-by-blow of what happened, I'm going to mostly give my impressions of the season overall, and as you can guess from the headline, how the two-part "Election Night" finale finally found the Aaron Sorkin we've been searching for the previous seven episodes.
While Sorkin has always tipped his hat to lofty playwrights as his main influences—Mamet, Miller, Medoff—it's in "The Newsroom" where his clear love of old school, fast-talking dramas and comedies is evident. "Preston Sturges, Billy Wilder, Howard Hawks, Kaufman and Hart—there was a musicality to the dialogue that all those guys wrote," Sorkin revealed in a conversation with Jeff Daniels in Interview, adding later in that talk: "I like romance with a capital R, and 'The Newsroom' is certainly romantic and idealistic and swashbuckling. These guys are reaching unrealistically high, and it's fun to make them slip on banana peels, but their quest is extremely heroic. I do like romantic comedy, and there's plenty of it in this show, but it's a slightly more old-fashioned kind, where the characters have one foot in today and another in another time, you know?"
And it's within that context of understanding that makes it easier to appreciate just how well the final two episodes of the second season of "The Newsroom" succeed. Because, let's be clear: it's cornball as all hell, shaggy, with quirky subplots and overly earnest. And yes, these are the seeds of complaint we've leveled at the show all season, but somewhat miraculously, the mix of ingredients here works simply because they are finally measured out and balanced in just the right proportions that even though you can see the seams and flaws, it's not enough to distract from getting caught up in the characters and stories that are playing out. Instead of feeling crassly manipulated (Maggie's entire Africa trip) or condescended to, "The Newsroom," as it closes out a very rocky second season, finally saw Sorkin get the formula right and return to the promise that season one put forth.
But he isn't off the hook completely. Everything leading up to this has been patchy at best, though there was a ray of hope with the solid seventh episode, "Red Team III." But, with the 2012 election serving as the backdrop for not just one, but two episodes, both serving as one grand send off for the second season, at the outset it was very easy to worry that the setting would play into Sorkin's worst tendencies. However, the most fascinating element of both parts of "Election Night" is actually how little it's driven by the events of that night. "I consider plot a necessary intrusion on what I really want to do, which is write snappy dialogue. But when I'm writing, the way the words sound is as important to me as what they mean," Sorkin also told Interview, and he must've loved writing this finale.
Because if anything, it's unmoored from any news-driven plot. One main skeleton forms the backbone of "Election Night": Will ACN let Charlie (Sam Waterston), Mackenzie (Emily Mortimer) and Will (Daniels) resign with the threat of a looming lawsuit from Jerry Dantana (Hamish Linklater) that threatens to expose the entire internal history of the "News Night" staff to public record? Or will Leona Lansing (Jane Fonda) refuse to be legally bullied and settle, and instead stand up for her staff? And that's really about it. And with two episodes to spread this out, Sorkin ties up the remaining character arcs with the kind of grace we wish he would utilize more often.
Again, it can be overwrought and sappy, but so were the kind of old timey romantic comedies Sorkin admires, and in that framework, how can you deny Jim's (John Gallagher Jr.) rather great compliment/apology to Lisa (Kelen Coleman), which is sort of what every woman would want to hear from a guy who tossed her aside, or seemed too good for her. And even Don's (Thomas Sadoski) ploy to boost Sloan's (Olivia Munn) self-esteem (driving up the cost of her signed book at an auction by bidding against himself) after a pretty rough season that saw her get exposed literally—in the worst possible way, and suffer a couple other embarrassments—is sitcom contrived, but also delivered with the right pitch and tone that it works. (And bonus points for referencing "Sweet Smell Of Success.") But those are mere appetizers to the full course meal of emotion.
Of course, we're talking about Will and Mackenzie, the forever bickering, obviously in love though hurt by their past duo, who have been doing everything but getting back together. Instead, they've gone out of their way to keep pushing each other away, while throwing barbs where they can, but Will finally decides to stop the vicious cycle, and just marry the damn girl. And he does, proposing to her at ACN with the ring he's kept locked up in his desk all this time. A cynic might wonder if Sorkin, unsure if he'd be getting a renewal for a third season (by the way, he did), went for this finale as a failsafe, but that doesn't matter. The arc of these two playing the foil to each other has run its course, and even better, in Sorkin's pocket is a much better adversary for Will to bounce against.
We're super glad to see Constance Zimmer as former Romney aide Taylor Warren, get an expanded role in the final episodes, sitting on the election night panel with Will, where he instructs her to come at him and make his own personal politics fair game. And where Sorkin usually goes for speechifying, he actually balances out into actual debate. Oh sure, he's still got his biases—and that's what you're going to get watching "The Newsroom"—but here it's tempered, and Zimmer and Daniels going at it is pretty compelling stuff. Here's hoping she sticks around for the third season as a regular guest.
But for all the good stuff in the finale, Sorkin does still get in his own way, with a truly tepid closing montage that keeps the final episode going on far longer than it needs to, powered by a pretty terrible cover of Pete Townshend's "Let My Love Open the Door." It let's us see the Cliff's Notes version of the various little ends get finished off, with Maggie and Lisa talking again, and Neal's (Dev Patel) mission to correct Mackenzie's Wikipedia page (yeah, another thing that was a bit silly) finally completed. But we suppose we'll let Sorkin have his cake and eat it too this time.
For a long time, "The Newsroom" was dubbed as a show you hate to watch, and yes, it often earned that dubious distinction. But the finale at least proved that there is still plenty of potential in the show, if Sorkin and his team of writers can find the magic mix of all the various elements and characters that come into play. There needs to be a trust that going subtler doesn't mean losing the power of a moment, and leaning too far toward partisan speech-making doesn't make for good television. Perhaps despite our better judgment, we'll be there watching season three, crossing our fingers that Sorkin looks at the last few episodes of season two and builds from there. Because even as flawed as those entries could be from time to time, Sorkin still remains one helluva storyteller.
Final two episodes: [B] Season two: [C+]