The final few minutes of The Newsroom’s second season finale appeared to quickly close the book on the show, but Aaron Sorkin’s divisive HBO series is now back with six more episodes to wrap things up in proper fashion. Indeed, the tidying up of storylines at the end of season two almost felt like Sorkin had had enough with the constant criticism (some justified, some not) of the show, which was intended to be his triumphant return to television after winning an Oscar for The Social Network. Instead, Sorkin’s look at the world of cable news was a bit of a mixed bag as it tried to find the blend of humor and importance that worked so well in The West Wing. The show seemed to find a slightly more solid footing in the second season as Sorkin shifted the focus to the characters, backed away from the “news story of the week” structure, and introduced a story arc that played out over the course of the season. There were still some glaring flaws to be sure, but the show overall felt more comfortable in what it wanted to be.
And now season three looks to be even more of an improvement, with great comedy, heightened stakes, and fantastic character interplay permeating throughout the first three episodes.
With a shortened final season, The Newsroom is able to hit the ground running in terms of story. The first episode takes place against the backdrop of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, as Will (Jeff Daniels), Mac (Emily Mortimer), and the team struggle to find the balance between reporting what is known and using unsourced facts (ie. Twitter) in the wake of last season’s Genoa scandal. This provides Sorkin the opportunity to opine on crowd-sourced reporting, though in the case of Reddit’s disastrous “investigation” into the bombing suspects, one can hardly blame his thoughts on the matter here as they relate to the actual ACN team.
The events of the second season’s Genoa story arc loom large in these first three episodes, as ACN’s brush with being very, very wrong has left them vulnerable to a number of outside forces. But it also provides a swell jumping off point to dig into some high stakes drama, as the show foregoes its big time shifts between episodes in lieu of playing out the tension across a shortened calendar.
The third season actually has a couple of main story arcs, but the one that really sets the wheels in motion involves Neal (Dev Patel) receiving stolen high-level government documents from an anonymous source. Yes, Sorkin’s doing Edward Snowden, but he does a fine job of carving out his own story here, and it makes for some really compelling television that provides excellent connective tissue from one episode to the next. The season has that “I need to know what happens next now” feeling at the end of every episode; it’s similar in intensity to the President Bartlet/MS storyline from The West Wing.
In terms of character, there are further tweaks made to the ensemble, some for better and some for worse. Will and Mac are now in a stable relationship as opposed to the back-and-forth nature of the first two seasons, and it’s a welcome change of pace. Their arguments now consist of deciding how many bridesmaids Mac will have at their wedding, and their relationship has really evolved into a sweet partnership instead of an aggressive competition tinged with sexual tension. Moreover, Sorkin appears to have toned down Mac’s character rather significantly, as she’s much more level-headed and measured in relation to some of her more frantic states from episodes past.
Another improvement is the burgeoning relationship between Sloan (Olivia Munn) and Don (Thomas Sadoski). As far as humor goes, they’re the highlight of these first few episodes, and their comedic chemistry is electric as they try to navigate how serious their relationship really is while ducking the Human Resources rep. Munn has almost become the standout in the cast, as she plays Sloan with a dry yet earnest humor that’s incredibly entertaining to watch, especially in relation to the similarly tempered Don. It’s a swell pairing, and it also provides a reprieve from the Don/Maggie/Jim love triangle that essentially imploded in season two.
Maggie (Allison Pill) once again feels like a wholly different character, which is an improvement from her odd Africa storyline of the second season, but the ever-shifting nature further serves to paint the character as unfamiliar. It feels like Sorkin never really got a handle on who this character was, and some of Maggie’s actions in this final season feel like Sorkin directly addressing his critics re: his portrayal of women. Pill’s performance continues to be impressive, however, and while Maggie may not feel like a character we know very well, she at least becomes more grounded and realistic in these last few episodes. It’s hard not to root for her.
If Sloan and Don’s relationship is the highlight of the show at the moment, the relationship between Jim (John Gallagher, Jr.) and Hallie (Grace Gummer) is the low point. Sorkin uses Hallie’s storyline to explore the role of social media in news organizations, as well as internet-centric outlets (ie. Buzzfeed), but her relationship with Jim still feels forced. Their arguments broach interesting topics, but there’s really nothing invested here on behalf of the audience, and Sorkin hints at returning to the Jim/Maggie relationship a little too strongly, thus negating any incentive to become interested in Jim and Hallie as a couple.
Season three offers a slew of fantastic guest stars, though, as Kat Dennings boards the show as Reese’s (Chris Messina) half-sister who begins a hostile takeover gambit for ACN. Dennings absolutely nails the Sorkin dialogue, and while she only appears in one of the three episodes provided (the second, which is far and away the best of the three), her presence looms large. Another guest star highlight is West Wing alum Mary McCormack as an FBI agent friend of Mac’s, as well as The Office actor/former showrunner Paul Lieberstein, who also acts as an executive producer on the show’s third season. And Marcia Gay Harden makes a triumphant return as ACN attorney Rebecca Halliday, who takes part in a glorious series of scenes in the Greg Mottola-directed second episode that feel almost play-like.
For whatever reason, The Newsroom failed to find that consistency of quality that The West Wing had from Episode One and that Sports Night found fairly quickly. Sorkin significantly retooled the show in its second season in response to critics, and there is no doubt further tweaking in this third and final season. It’s a shame the show is ending, though, because based on these first three episodes, the series really found its groove this year. It’s possible that’s due to the shortened season, which heightens the tension as the story is able to take big turns more quickly, but I have to say I enjoyed these first three episodes immensely. If you’ve stuck with the show this long, you’ll likely be happy with the direction that season three takes. As someone who enjoyed but was oftentimes frustrated with the series in its first two seasons, I’m a little surprised to be saying that I now wish it was sticking around a little longer.
The third and final season of The Newsroom premieres on HBO Sunday, November 9th at 9pm ET/PT.