My problems with season two of THE NEWSROOM

Before getting to the meat of my argument, I want to stipulate that I am setting aside singular problems, such as taking the daily experiences and traumas of black Africans in places like rural Uganda and making them into stories about white Americans and their hair (“Unintended Consequences”), and endemic flaws, such as the show’s fraught gender dynamics, to focus on the season two meta-story: the ACN team’s pursuit of “Genoa”, a fictional Marine rescue mission that allegedly entailed the use of sarin gas by U.S. forces.

Warning: spoilers ahead.

Last night’s episode, “Red Team III”, brought the Genoa arc to a climax, revealing the purpose behind the season-long framing device of the deposition led by Marcia Gay Harden’s Rebecca Halliday, and showing both the broadcast and the immediate aftermath. In the midst of the fallout, I was struck by two things.

First, Jerry Dantana (Hamish Linklater), despite how pivotal he is to this season’s narrative, is a poorly written cipher of a character.

When introduced, he is clearly meant to come across as sketchy, or, at least, as not being cut from the same cloth as our News Night heroes, but he primarily reads as opportunistic and ambitious, not venal. And up until “One Step Too Many”, personal aggrandizement and professional advancement seemed to be the best explanations for his insistent pursuit and advocacy of running with Genoa. In that episode, however, when faced with resistance and skepticism, he rails against his opposition for liking Obama too much, which makes him sound less like a careerist and more like a Tea Partier caught in the belly of the liberal media beast.

In “Red Team III” he turns to raging against how Americans have conducted themselves in Iraq and Afghanistan, and in the larger War on Terror, listing complaints going back to Bush. He uses this same litany to rationalize his doctoring of the interview footage to Mackenzie. Now, he sounds not like a self-promoting careerist, or angry Tea Partier, but like a character who should have been on the barricades with Occupy (and what happened to that story thread? I guess once Will got a chance to put Shelly in her place there was nothing else to say).

Jerry, ultimately, is written to be little more than a plot device, a character introduced to make the narrative machinery go.

But that leads to my second problem: go where? I am, if anything, more confused now than I was before “Read Team III.” What is Aaron Sorkin trying to say with Genoa?

The debate is framed as “institutional failure” versus individual malfeasance. And, truthfully, given the intersecting lies that functioned to make the story seem credible, the deck seems stacked against the former, no matter how much Will, Charlie, and Mackenzie try to throw themselves on their swords (which, apparently, they are going to keep doing next week).

Is this an interesting debate? Maybe, but not when the main purpose seems to be to affirm the inherent goodness of our protagonists.

So, maybe I’m not so confused after all, but I guess I don’t want to believe that the point of this season’s driving story would be so banal. Then again, couldn’t that be said about The Newsroom as a whole? I think I keep watching because it feels like there should be more to the series than liberal posturing and the celebration of Great and Honorable Men, but whatever that “more” might be remains elusive. With two episodes to go in season two, the Genoa arc encapsulates this empty promise.

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