Jeff Daniels, Olivia Munn

The problem with The Newsroom is that Will McAvoy is Don Draper.

In theory, that shouldn’t be a problem. Mad Men is one of the best shows of its time, perhaps of all time, and is anchored by a protagonist who is arrogant and selfish, a man who gives self-important speeches and is infuriatingly good at what he does. A man equal to his own self-regard. Yet the reason we root for Don, or at the very least, are invested in where his journey takes him, is because he is on a journey. This is not a Breaking Bad situation where you watch with bated breath, wondering if there’s a way that your hero will come out on top. We know what happens to Don Draper in the end. Don Draper will lose. He will age, and he will lose his primacy. He will no longer be the man whose speeches command attention. He will be usurped by a younger, brighter, hungrier generation. The times are changing, and he, unable to change with them. This is the brilliance of Mad Men. It asks you to root for a loathsome character, to extend empathy to him, because you know that someday he will get what he deserves.

The problem with Will McAvoy is that through the first two seasons of The Newsroom he’s been a character that’s impossible to feel empathy for. Part of the blame goes to Aaron Sorkin and the writing staff for crafting such an impossibly pompous, bloated blowhard to deliver high-minded monologues on the state of America with all the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, even as the events unfold in real time but the rest of the blame goes to the actual state of America. For as much as Don Draper serves as a perfect representative of white male culture in the ‘60s, Will McAvoy serves as a perfect representative of the aging baby boomer. The problem with such a representation is that aged white male baby boomers aren’t some historical heavy, they’re the current heavy. When Will McAvoy harrumphs and bloviates, we aren’t picturing a relic from an era we didn’t experience, we’re seeing a gross replication of the men who still maintain a stranglehold on the Congress, the generation who still has a monopoly on the overarching trajectory of the country. When McAvoy cuts down a woman for watching reality TV or mansplains journalism to her, it’s not a stretch to picture him going on to explain what rape really is and how cat-calling is a compliment. So the reason The Newsroom hasn’t worked to this point is that, well, Will McAvoy is a monster.

The good news, then, is that the season three premiere, “Boston” seems to be taking tentative steps towards rectifying the problem the show never knew it had. Set in the days during and following the 2013 bombings of the Boston Marathon, ACN is five months removed from election night 2012 and the events of the season two finale. Mac and Will are busy planning their ludicrously over-the-top wedding, Maggie has moved on to punishing her body for her demons, as opposed to her hair, the resident couples are all doing couple things, Neal is still on his own show altogether, and Charlie is still drunk. But as status quo as everything appears, the strain of the Genoa fiasco still lingers and it’s from this doubt we finally see the first cracks in Will’s foundation. While the newsroom dithers over whether or not to go live with news of the bombings before they have any confirmed information, Will attempts to rally the troops with a patented inspirational speech only to stutter and falter and completely lose his train of thought, shades of a doddering old man past his prime.

This is a character I can root for. One who is shaken and uncertain and presents himself like a man who is no longer indomitable. Throughout the episode there seems to be a sense that this is a kindler, gentler Will McAvoy, by which I mean a broken and largely defeated Will McAvoy. Sure, he’ll still holler with Charlie about completely asinine things, and his pride is wounded by faltering ratings, but this is a changed man. A tired man. He’s a man who’s ready to give it all up and get married, not because he’s so lovestruck but because he just seems exhausted by the whole damn thing.

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Sadly, as mentioned before, most of the other characters on the show have not experienced such off-season growth. Maggie is no more confident than before her traumatic time in Africa, yet remains staidly competent when put on the spot. Mac is still largely a cipher, whose strongest opinions seem to be on what Will eats for breakfast and how many acquaintances he’ll need to strong-arm into being groomsmen to accompany her nine bridesmaids. Hallie is still stranded marking time with Jim in yet another Not Maggie relationship, only now she works at ACN and joins Neal in the rarified air of the “maybe technology could be a tool of reporting the news” club. Neal is still getting into wacky, hacker scrapes that will likely be the downfall of the entire operation. And as irritating as all of this stasis is, it’s also weirdly compelling. These people are trapped in amber working in a place that they believe in but that has no forward trajectory or vision for the future. Right now, ACN is scrambling to just get by and has no patience or energy left over for innovation. What better representation of that state of mind than to have every person who works there locked into a holding pattern until something physically forces them to do something different?

This is how we find The Newsroom as it begins the slow descent into the endgame. The characters are simultaneously as bright and ridiculously bland as ever, bursting with potential and destined to waste it. The network they inhabit, ACN, doomed to either failure or buyout or both, but either way, the end. And through this plotting that underlines the underperformance of the series itself and the lengths with which it is largely unappreciated by the audience at large, does The Newsroom finally find something akin to a compelling story to tell. Maybe this has been the story it’s been telling all along, the story of what happens when the most brilliant television show of all time is unappreciated by the masses and ultimately fails due to little fault of its own and maybe the reality The Newsroom is best equipped to fictionalize is its own.

Stray observations:

  • Hello and welcome to the final six Newsroom reviews ever. You’ll notice I’m neither Scott Tobias or Myles McNutt, Todd VanDerWerff or David Sims. In their stead, I am merely Libby Hill and I hope to follow in their snarky critical (dude) footsteps appropriately.
  • As far as appropriation of current events goes, the show does pretty well with revisiting the bombings. It was unsurprisingly moving to rehash the events, and I appreciated the relatively light touch Sorkin and company took in directly dealing with the source material. Also, there was no Coldplay so, bonus, I guess.
  • Though I didn’t manage to mention it above, I remain madly in love with Sloan Sabbith and Olivia Munn’s performance therein. The only person with any damn sense on this show and the only one who’s able to pull-off the social awkwardness standard in three-quarters of Sorkin’s characters and not make it wholly abhorrent. Why wasn’t this show about her?
  • Will wants to give up and do sports. THIS IS YOUR CHANCE, AARON. Josh Charles is free from The Good Wife, Peter Krause is in the waning days of Parenthood, and who the hell knows what Felicity Huffman is up to these days? (Is she dead? I don’t think she’s dead.) Just bring back Sports Night and give us the faux Olbermann we want, not the faux Olbermann no one needed.
  • I don’t watch The Mindy Project for any number of reasons (namely, it’s terrible), so I’m grateful that I get to see Chris Messina on my TV semi-regularly now. I may not be as high on him as some but he really is a largely underappreciated actor.

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