While bellyaching about The Newsroom has become the popular sport in the past few months, harping on another of HBO's shows, True Blood, is a longstanding game stretching back over years. Yes, both The Newsroom and True Blood can be especially frustrating shows, though for very different reasons. The Newsroom is pompous and pretentious and not very good to women, while True Blood is simply ridiculous, a sloppy, slobbery mess of scattered plot lines and characters. And yet! And yet we keep watching. Episode after episode, or season after season, in True Blood's case. Why? Well, because of season finale episodes like the one that aired last night. Just when we think we're done with the show, they go and reel us back in at the last minute. The jerks.
This season of True Blood was, by and large, utter nonsense. It wasn't a single-season arc like many seasons past, with a specific villain that needed defeating, it was more an elaborate setup for a bigger next season. Sure we had resolution in the matter of Russel Edgington — unceremoniously offed by Eric last night. And I guess there's some sort of peace with the werewolves now that Alcide killed that V-addled guy. (But do we we really care about the werewolves? Near as I can tell they're just a bunch of hobos who live in the woods and drink and yell. They don't seem to have any political power or anything. So what's all the fuss about?) The bigger plot lines, though, were still lingering and completely unanswered by the time the credits rolled. We've now got Bill Compton transformed into some sort of a born-again ancient blood demon, which ought to finally make his character interesting. And there's the entirely unresolved and only partially explained matter of Sookie losing her faerie powers and the old monster vampire who "owns" her or whatever. Any time this season spent on those stories was simply prologue for whatever happens next season. Which should leave me feeling frustrated. But, sigh, it doesn't. Mostly I can't wait.
The trouble is, last night's episode was too fun. It was chock full of slap-happy moments of gleeful insanity. Pam and baby vamp Tara making out, prompting Jessica to yelp "I knew it!" Sam turning into a fly and buzzing inside that one vampire lady's mouth only to change back to human form while inside her, exploding out of her in a gory splash. (Cool as her death may have been, we are sas that that character had to die.) And then there was all that weird, wacky, completely over-the-top stuff with the birth of the half-faerie quadruplets at Merlotte's. What was mostly a turgid, tedious religion-tinged season suddenly became a comic delight last night. Sure there were a million nonsensical plots happening at once and basically no character consistency from one minute to the next, but at least it was done with humor and pep and all that. This is the problem of True Blood, the problem that keeps us watching it. It's by all measures a bad show — unfocused, misguided about what the audience cares about, inconsistent and slipshod — and yet it does an occasional set piece so well that the whole enterprise, all the dumb useless stuff included, becomes worth watching. Will we likely not enjoy most of next season? Yes. But will there also likely be a few satisfying/surprising outcomes to various ridiculous storylines that make it all worthwhile? Yeah, there probably will be. And that possibility is enough to keep us, or me at least, dimly invested. I know I shouldn't like True Blood, that it tries wayyy too hard to be a wicked little guilty pleasure, but there I am anyway, cackling at bursts of viscera and rooting quietly for Jason to wise up and reunite with Jessica. I was bound and determined to write some kiss-off letter to True Blood at the end of this season, but instead here I am saying see you next year.
It's inevitable that I'll be tuning back into The Newsroom next season too. Partly out of curiosity to see if the show's revamped writing staff makes any noticeable difference, but also because last night's finale so capably closed the season. Was the show still overreaching and lecturey and self-serious? Yes, of course, it doesn't seem likely that that tone will change much. But last night the show at least sort of acknowledged those qualities in itself? Will McAvoy was all distressed because of a nasty New York magazine profile that called him arrogant and Quixotic and whatever else, and the thing is? Will agreed with it! Aha! Clarity! Introspection! Finally. OK, sure, by the end of the episode he had decided to shake that off, to be a "Greater Fool" once more and do his overly principled (or not "overly" exactly, but certainly arrogantly) news show the way he wants to do it. So by the close we were sort of back where we started, but maybe some emotional progress was made, at least? A bit of humbling, perhaps?
And there was an exciting sequence set to "Baba O'Riley" (yes that overused old song) of the team reinvigorated and dedicated, zipping around the newsroom with rediscovered purpose, that, despite its corniness, still struck some chord in the part of my brain that likes montages set to wistfully can-do rock music. I mean that's a hard montage to resist, especially when it's as glossy as The Newsroom makes it. I also liked, frankly, Will's big American Taliban speech even if his points were, like every single point on this show, just rehashes of righteous liberal internet comments from two years ago. Sure the ideas aren't new or terribly revolutionary, but I dunno, I've softened on the demand that this show expose some new truth every week or stop trying at all. Maybe having center-liberal positions parroted back to you in rousing, actorly fashion is fine entertainment on its own. Yeah, maybe The Newsroom *is* just entertainment after all?
Troublingly, Aaron Sorkin is still doing bad work with his women, making them shrill, harried messes that often need men to calm them down with sarcastic smirks or shining armor reassurances. The women on this show are still a problem, as an entirety, and yet on the individual level, they all had little victories last night. I know it was cheesy as all get-out, but watching Maggie shriek at that Sex and the City tour bus only to have a surprise romantic moment with Jim was super satisfying, as ultimately frustrating as that storyline might have been last night. (They didn't get together. Because... Because who knows.) And Emily Mortimer got to exercise some deft comic timing in a hospital room scene that, yes, had her bug-eyed and crazy, but at least she was being funny, too. Jane Fonda got some good bits in during a scene in which her character was smacked down over phone hacking allegations, and even Olivia Munn, yes the dreaded Olivia Munn, had some nice moments last night, particularly one scene with Thomas Sadowski in which she kinda sorta confessed a crush. Last night's episode didn't really do anything to fix the show's woman problem, but as a standalone entity the episode was, in terms of the women and everything else, mostly inoffensive and certainly soapily compelling.
I don't think I'm letting The Newsroom off the critical hook just yet, it's just A) it's tiring to be mad at this show all the time, and B) last night's episode positioned it pretty well for a next season. The show's bedrock theme of integrity and honesty in the news was honed and nuanced and sharpened, at least a bit, and the characters got a lot of their initial establishing traits out of their systems, hopefully a little anyway, meaning we can start next season with a little less mania and a bit more shading, perhaps. Who knows what recent history we'll be dealing with next year -- though the election will, one assumes, be a major focus -- but whatever it is, let's hope Sorkin and the other writers, but mainly Sorkin, continue on the trend of last night's more balanced, less puffed-up episode rather than going back to the style of the season's earlier installments. It's maybe a slight difference, between just enough silly grandiosity and far too much, but last night that line was found and crossed over into the good(-ish) side of things. This just in: The Newsroom has potential, even if it's hard to see most of the time.