Early in the third and final season of “The Newsroom” (Sunday at 9 p.m., HBO), TV news producer Maggie (Alison Pill) finds herself explaining to a stranger how her job works… and explaining… and explaining… and explaining some more.
“You're giving a monologue,” he tells her.
“Everyone does where I work,” Maggie admits.
It's a very meta exchange in a show that's become increasingly self-aware the longer it's been on – and the more it's become clear that “The Newsroom” wouldn't be Aaron Sorkin's triumphant return to television, but a divisive career footnote.
Several times in the new season (I've seen three of the final six episodes), Jeff Daniels' anchorman Will McAvoy begins delivering what he and we assume will be a trademark inspiring Sorkin monologue, only to lose the thread partway through and wonder aloud what he thought the point of it was. Sorkin, whose screenwriting career is thriving at the moment, waited several months after the end of season 2 – which played like a series finale in the way it wrapped up so many of the major character arcs – to agree to this abbreviated final season. It may have been largely a scheduling issue, but it's not hard to imagine him feeling as ambivalent about the decision to continue as Will, Mac (Emily Mortimer), Charlie (Sam Waterston) and other characters do at various points about their ability to make a difference with the way they tell the news.
Show-within-a-show “News Night” is under siege in the new season, with ratings still suffering in the aftermath of last season's botched report on a non-existent military scandal, the show's parent company threatened by a hostile takeover, and producer Neal (Dev Patel) caught up in a leaked documents scandal. At times, there's urgency, and the pleasant, familiar crackle of Sorkin's dialogue – particularly on those all-too-brief occasions when Jane Fonda's around to deliver it – but at many others, the show and its characters seem to be going through the motions. Like Will with his failed speeches, they know what inspiring thing they mean to be doing, but they don't know how to actually do it.
The season opens with an episode about the Boston Marathon bombing, and past criticisms of the show appear to have made Sorkin gunshy about using it as a platform to argue with the current state of cable news. There are a few media failings brought up, but they tend to be minor sins like anchors telling reporters to “stay safe.” Even the failed Reddit attempt to identify the bombers – a fat, juicy target if ever there was one for a writer who's always had a hangup about the Internet – is dispensed with in quick, perfunctory fashion.
With season 2, Sorkin appeared to recognize that the initial design of the show was flawed, and that having fictional characters not only comment on real events, but interact with them, didn't have enough dramatic weight. Hence, the Genoa false report scandal, which started off promisingly before ultimately copping out and laying all the blame for it on two minor characters the audience had no investment in. The leaked documents story – involving Equatorial Kundu, a fictional country Sorkin occasionally used on “The West Wing” – is another attempt to create stakes through a fictional story that has some echoes of real ones from our recent history. But the Genoa resolution, and the fact that this season is so brief, doesn't fill me with optimism for where this is going.
(That story also indulges Sorkin's fondness for repeated exposition, where we see something happen, then see one character explain what happened to another, then get that second character explaining it again to a third, fourth and fifth observer, ad nauseum. You will hear the phrase “air-gapped computer” so many times in the new season that you will begin to wonder if it's a very weird form of product placement, or just an easy way to fill the extra time in the hour, since HBO doesn't have the commercial breaks Sorkin had to deal with on NBC and ABC.)
By this third season, “The Newsroom” is a show that's smoothed itself out, for good and for bad. The lows aren't nearly as low – Maggie, long the show's worst example of Sorkin's difficulties in writing for women, is so competent and confident this year that guys like Jim (John Gallagher Jr.) and Don (Thomas Sadoski) feel like doofuses around her – but nor are the highs especially high.
There are some entertaining guest characters – “The Office” alum Paul Lieberstein, brought in to help run the final season, has an amusing guest role as a depressed EPA official (and later brings in B.J. Novak as a businessman interested in buying “News Night”), Kat Dennings gets to remind the audience what she can do away from “2 Broke Girls” with a role as half-sister to Chris Messina's Reese, and Marcia Gay Harden returns as smooth “News Night” attorney Rebecca Halliday – but also more clumsy romantic comedy business between Don and Sloan (Olivia Munn). The impending nuptials between Will and Mac are mercifully treated as a background running gag, but Mac seems to have been left behind in the process. She's still in a position of authority at “News Night,” but whatever distinguishing character traits she had when she was fighting with Will and others have largely vanished.
“The Newsroom” was created with the best of intentions, just like the revamped “News Night” Mac dreamed up. Sorkin returns to the medium where he had so much success – and to a subject matter better-suited for his skillset than the faux-“SNL” of “Studio 60” – and gets to critique the genuinely dire state of both our news media and our toxic political system. It was too obvious a match of author, subject and network to fail, yet somehow it did. (Though the Emmy on Jeff Daniels' mantel might argue otherwise.) Season 2 brought to a close so much of what Sorkin was trying to do with these characters and say with the show that he easily could have left well enough alone and devoted all of his time to writing movies about mavericks in the field of sports and/or technology. No one would have blamed him for throwing in the towel.
Instead, he came back one last time, maybe to keep working with these people, maybe because he felt he had more story to tell, or maybe because he felt like HBO was offering him one more chance to get it right.
In another meta scene, Will fixates on the notion of his show's recent struggles resembling the traditional three-act structure of modern drama. This being the third season of the show – and the characters having been through their introductions and major conflicts – Will seems well-aware that they're entering their third and final act. He seems to be building to a big emotional flourish, but then – as happens to him a lot this season – he winds up going in an unexpected direction and suggests they're not beginning their third act. Rather, “We just got to the end of the first!”
It's an odd statement, especially given how little time “The Newsroom” has left when he makes it.Given the beating the series has taken in the press and from some longtime Sorkin fans, you can't necessarily blame him for trying to sweep aside the previous seasons as a very elaborate set-up for the story he really wanted to tell. But six hours isn't a lot of time to properly tell that story, and the first three don't suggest a grand conclusion is in the offing, even if Sorkin has once again dusted off his favorite finale title by calling the series' final hour “What Kind of Day Has It Been.”
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com