It’s been plenty busy in the semi-alternate universe of “The Newsroom” this season, between a real presidential election and a fake national scandal. Still, in some respects, there’s less going on in Aaron Sorkin’s HBO drama compared to the last year’s debut outing, and that’s not a bad thing.
The show is less preachy and self-righteous, even if we’ve seen more self-flagellation (smugness-emanating cable news show host Will McAvoy offered a near-apology to a Occupy Wall Street organizer he eviscerated on-air). There’s been less shrillness (fewer – but no end to – eruptions from producer MacKenzie McHale). There’s been somewhat less romantic absurdity (no embarrassing personal emails sent network-wide, though the specter of a reporter turning over an exclusive interview with Mitt Romney to a competitor/potential romantic partner proved enough to turn the stomach).
Meanwhile, there’s been a modest uptick in compelling, if borderline overwrought storylines (producer Maggie’s connection to a tragedy in Africa, the season-long unfolding of a news story gone terribly wrong). Sunday’s season finale offers the potential for a verdict on whether less adding up to more for “The Newsroom” is enough.
“Newsroom” math, like the show, can be maddening, clouded by more variables than the average – or even above-average – TV drama. The latest batch of episodes mark an improvement over the flawed first season. But just because we haven’t rolled our eyes quite as much doesn't mean we like everything we see.
If that sounds overly critical and picky, it's only because Sorkin’s TV track record of success (“The West Wing”), interesting failures (“Sports Night”) and misfires (“Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip”) creates not expectations as much as hope for a quality show. But more than hope lures us back to "The Newsroom" week after week: Strong moments scattered throughout help keep us watching – no more so than the recent episode that told us plenty about Will’s troubled relationship with his father without ever seeing the character. Still, the show’s rare subtle turn came during a real-time episode packed with even more than the usual mania and occasional silliness.
Another saving grace is generally fine acting from the likes of Jeff Daniels, Emily Mortimer, Sam Waterson, Olivia Munn and others able to use Sorkin’s rapid-fire dialogue style not to show how smart the characters are, but to reveal insecurity, vulnerability and uncertainty.
Uncertainty looms for the season finale amid the fallout from the story accusing the U.S. military of killing Pakistani civilians with sarin gas – a report that crumbled after the revelation of an interview digitally manipulated by a rogue producer.
The stakes, personal and journalistic, are always high in Sorkin’s “Newsroom,” a show that keeps us hoping for more, even as less makes it better. There likely will be more to come – HBO reportedly renewed “The Newsroom” for a third season. In meantime, check out a preview of Sunday’s finale below:
Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992. Follow him on Twitter.