‘The Newsroom’ Review: Aaron Sorkin Drama Rises to the Occasion

HBO series ramps up the stakes for its final season in what should be an exhilarating conclusion

“The Newsroom” is exactly what we expect from Aaron Sorkin.

It’s a workplace drama that plays fast and loose with the “workplace” part and leans heavily on the “drama.” If you’re hung up on the nuts and bolts of running a cable news channel or you don’t quite give the art form its due, then you’re not going to see the elements of the show that make it a thrilling Sorkin offering.

I’m aware of the amount of annoyance that critics and television journalists have with “The Newsroom” and its portrayal of the “workplace.” This need for realism in drama, in my opinion, is the destruction of the art. At its essence, scripted television is an overly dramatized portrayal of life. Once you start holding it to the criteria of a documentary or TV news report, which are completely different forms of media, then you’ve already missed the point.

A Sorkin drama is one filled with dramatic turns, characters trying to overcome their flaws and storylines that are meant to get us to ask big questions about our ethics and values.

Critics have wanted strong women who hadn’t yet earned the strength and confident men to fall to their knees without experiencing the events that would show the chinks in their armor. And, yes, a Sorkin drama can be emotionally manipulative with his characters’ monologues, the sweeping soundtrack, yet we always know how we’re supposed to feel. Now, that’s engaging drama.

Most of the damning critiques of “The Newsroom” over its first two seasons have these two things in common: A lack of suspension of disbelief and the impatience for character development. Viewing a drama, especially as young as “The Newsroom” is, without those two allowances basically undercuts the very nature of the art form itself.

It was Sorkin’s decision to wrap up the show, according to a Los Angeles Times interview, and possibly not return to TV. I’m not sure how much this cultural inability to let drama unfold had to do with his decision, but it would seem that his success in film, such as “Money Ball” and “The Social Network,” and the impatience of viewers today might make film a better medium for his style of storytelling for now.

If it’s any consolation to the show’s critics, Sorkin apparently hears you. Over the first three episodes of Season 3 that HBO provided to press, the show’s creator is able to poke some fun at himself. In one scene, news producer Maggie Jordan (Alison Pill) is faced with the ethical question of whether to run a story she received through hilariously sneaky ways. She explains how her newsroom colleagues are prone to delivering ethical platitudes via monologues when a bystander points out that Maggie is delivering a monologue herself.

Season 3 finds ACN having to rebuild its reputation after the foibles of handling the Genoa scandal last season. Sorkin doesn’t step back from a challenge. The season begins with the Boston Marathon bombing and forces ACN to carefully tread while other news networks, and crack internet and social media investigators, go forward on several wrong conclusions.

Will (Jeff Daniels), Mac (Emily Mortimer) and Charlie (Sam Waterston) lead the team through a successful run of confident sourcing and avoid the pitfalls that we saw CNN and others experienced while reporting prematurely. But, they’re still part of a competitive field of news channels judged by ratings, which don’t necessarily reward for solid journalism.

Season 3 is full of complications from the bonds formed among the journalists, both platonically and romantically, and holds up to Sorkin’s grand dialogue mixed with pithy, yet telling, exchanges. Both will be tested as Neal Sampat (pitch-perfectly played by Dev Patel) finds himself in a situation that is over his head and threatens the organization. Think Edward Snowden.

Meanwhile, ACN’s parent company must make some difficult decisions of its own that also threaten to change the landscape of the news channel. This gives us some amazing scenes with Jane Fonda‘s Leona Lansing, who isn’t letting the company she helped build from scratch be taken from her without some old-fashioned fundraising and humor. “Two Broke Girls” star Kat Dennings and “The Office’s” B.J. Novak play fantastic game-changing characters in this storyline.

Season 3 begins strongly and is a joy to behold – with heightened stakes. Sorkin may believe that his only TV success was “The West Wing,” but this TV critic isn’t prone to believe that the lifespan of a show defines whether it was successful.

Viewers who actually watch dramas for the drama should savor this season. It pays off for the patience in the growth of its characters and the bonds they formed over the first two seasons. For those predisposed to dislike “The Newsroom,” Sorkin has made some tweaks that may satisfy you. But, it was on his pace not yours. All of that becomes necessary to handle the challenges Sorkin throws their way as the show careens to its conclusion.

“The Newsroom” returns Sunday at 9 p.m. ET on HBO.

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