Arts & Culture

All’s Well That Ends

As The Newsroom enters its final season (again), Ken Finkleman
faces his last temptation: being nice.

Just a few hours before shooting the final scenes of The Newsroom, Ken Finkleman had yet to pin down how it would all turn out. On a dreary grey morning, he plunked himself down beside a pillar on the tenth floor of cbc Toronto with a copy of a script balancing on his lap and started running possibilities for the show’s final line past one of his cast members, Karen Hines. The words were to be spoken, as many of The Newsroom’s best are, by anchor-mimbo Jim Walcott.

“How about ‘Good night and God help us?’ It’s not unlike him to sort of—”

“No, it’s not unlike him. It’s not unlike him.”

“Good night and God help us—”

“He never listens to—”

“Yeah, maybe we can do better than that.”

“Jesus? Jesus save us? Allah? Mohammed?”

Hines giggled at her own joke, either at the idea of Jim finding religion or the thought that Finkleman, the writer, director, and star of the show, might offer salvation to his cast of charlatans, pushovers, and dim bulbs. It was a rare moment of levity in an otherwise downbeat day for the writer/actors who make up most of the cast.

The Newsroom’s exit from television comedy will not garner a Seinfeld-esque buzz in Canada. It has been too dark, erratic, and uncompromising for that, and it has played Lazarus too many times. The show will, however, have to address the same question everyone asked of Seinfeld on its way out the door: how does a show that pointedly refuses sentimentality reach a satisfying conclusion?

Darkly comical shows on North American television usually reveal a soft, mushy core at the last—witness Edith’s near-death in the last episode of All in the Family or Al’s fatherly concern when Kelly got engaged to a jerk on Married. . . with Children’s finale. The Larry Sanders Show, the series with which The Newsroom is most often compared, ended its run with Larry looking back misty-eyed at an empty set as “Will You Love Me Tomorrow?” played in the background. And the clip show that ran before Seinfeld’s finale featured a “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)” montage so cloying it would have embarrassed Céline Dion.

Seinfeld’s finale was the exception, staying mostly true to its dark side in the end. The cleverest moment of the show came just as the characters were about to die in a plane crash, when Elaine began confessing to Jerry that she loved him only seconds before the plane righted itself. The near-moment, which would have completely undercut the show’s ironic sensibility, led instead to an emergency landing in a small town, criminal charges for Bad Samaritanism, and a courtroom trial that landed everyone in prison.

Seinfeld’s finale left a small window open for the redemption of its characters, though, even as it mocked the idea that we always end up with our heart’s desire. The show’s writers, who had for years crafted a gleeful, nearly consequence-free amorality for their characters, let viewers decide for themselves if harsh justice would set them on the straight and narrow. Did Jerry’s prison stand-up curtain call mean that things would go on much as before? Or would Jerry and Elaine make an offer on a house in Long Island? Would George take up yoga and Kramer begin an mba at nyu?

In the moral universe of The Newsroom, the characters continually face and then promptly ignore such justice. At the end of many of the show’s best episodes, the consequences of bad behaviour by Finkleman’s character, news director George Findlay, are splayed out onscreen in the form of a death, a blackmailing, or a lawsuit. By the next episode, George is his usual ego-driven self again, his self-absorption raising a question Seinfeld asked forcefully only at the end: why do we persist in our petty behaviour when the consequences can be so dire for us and everyone else? The Newsroom’s answer has always been that George acts as he does because being a jerk allows him to address the base concerns that rule his existence. He acquires power and money by running sensationalistic, ratings-grabbing stories, and his power and money keep him in bmws and women. No consequence is ever strong enough to break this cycle. For George to become a moral soul in the end would be escapism of the worst kind. In an interview, Finkleman growled at the thought of redeeming his alter ego, saying, “Never redemption. I don’t. Like. The idea.” Redemption would let George off the hook—a Hollywood ending. And as anyone who has followed the Winnipeg-born Finkleman’s career knows, he is not much for Hollywood anymore.

For the uninitiated, the anti-Hollywood tone of The Newsroom arose partly out of Finkleman’s experiences in Los Angeles in the 1980s and early ’90s. There, he wrote or directed a few unsuccessful sitcom pilots and lightweight movies, including Grease 2 and Airplane II. In his own words, he was a mid-level hack, a B-list screenwriter who made a very good living stamping out artless product. He returned permanently to Canada and created the prescient reality-show satire Married Life in 1995, and then The Newsroom in 1996, which ran on cbc and later on pbs in the United States. The Newsroom garnered an avalanche of critical acclaim in Canada, and a Vanity Fair profile proclaimed Finkleman “the funniest man you’ve never heard of.”

Having unleashed the auteur within, Finkleman used the creative capital that the first thirteen episodes of The Newsroom afforded him to make several challenging serials, notably Foolish Heart and the all-over-the-map drama Foreign Objects. The Newsroom returned in 2002 in the form of a little-watched TV movie, Escape from the Newsroom, and then again last spring with a second thirteen-episode season. The third season (scheduled to begin on February 14) is only six episodes long, and although producer Jan Peter Meyboom notes wryly that this is the fifth time they have said goodbye to the show, Finkleman claims (not for the first time) that it is the end of the line.

The Newsroom leaves a gaping hole in a “Can-com” landscape dominated by such gentle, rural-based shows as Corner Gas and The Red Green Show. True to the city-country divide, the programs could not be more different. The Newsroom styles itself as urbane and meaningful, its humour more inclined to a smirk track than a laugh track. The baseness of the show’s characters has kept it from being elitist, despite its pretensions, but its satire has often been too dark and its pacing too dialogue-dependent for the average viewer to warm to. The Newsroom is also the rare TV show that would benefit from Cliffs Notes. It is sometimes maddeningly absurdist and allusive, never more so than in Finkleman’s three-part homage to Fellini’s art-house masterpiece, 8 1/2, in season one. These highbrow aspirations helped The Newsroom become the choice of critics and film-school graduates more than teenagers and proud hosers. The second season illustrated this critic-versus-Canuck trend perfectly, earning such accolades as Gemini and International Emmy nominations in 2004, while losing half of the 800,000-odd viewers of its lead-in show, Rick Mercer’s Monday Report.

The critics have a point, though. Even as mainstream viewers rallied around Red Green and Trailer Park Boys, The Newsroom carved out a distinctly Canadian niche for itself in the pantheon of “very bad man” comedies. Finkleman took the faux-documentary look and craven office environment of The Larry Sanders Show—without altering it enough to be truly original in the opinion of some—and upped the stakes by setting his show in the Canadian news media instead of American show business. The shift allowed The Newsroom to offer a distanced, satirical take on media phenomena like the story-whoring parents of abducted children and the “If it bleeds, it leads” conventions of TV news. The Newsroom’s relevance and venom made Larry Sanders seem like Newsroom Lite, and in many ways the show’s success foreshadowed the current North American buzz surrounding satires like The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and bbc’s The Office. When the show first aired, critics had hailed Finkleman not merely as a prodigal son, but a prodigal saviour of Canadian comedy. Writing in The Globe and Mail in 1996, Michael Valpy predicted “a future where throngs of anxious cbc viewers will gather to await word from a corporation spokesman on whether Mr. Finkleman feels he has another half-dozen episodes inside him.” That may not have happened, but perhaps it should have.

If The Newsroom did its part to reinvigorate television comedy in Canada, it has done equal wonders for Finkleman himself. While Grease 2 will remain forever on display in the “awful sequels” section of Hollywood’s drivel emporium, The Newsroom burnished its creator with a genuine artistic reputation and passed something of lasting value on to Canadian culture. Shortly after Finkleman bounced his ideas for the show’s last words off Karen Hines, she joked that although the finale might not be redemptive of the characters, it was certainly redemptive of Ken Finkleman. New cast member Shaughnessy Bishop-Stall added that the last episode is “almost a redemption of any cynicism in the show, insofar as Ken is baring his spirit finally.” Those who know The Newsroom, though, know Finkleman has spent far too long rebelling against his former self to offer up a Hollywood ending now, hasn’t he?

As shooting got underway for the final scenes, the core of the cast gathered in front of the camera—all except Finkleman, who oversaw them from outside the room. Seated in a director’s chair next to his tow-headed son, Abe, who plays a younger George in the finale, he pointed to a monitor and explained that in a rack focus, something hard in an image turns soft, and vice versa. It was a quintessentially sentimental moment. With his arm around his son, happily crafting his show’s demise, Finkleman looked almost fulfilled. And indeed, The Newsroom’s finale addresses with newfound sympathy why it is that we persist in our petty behaviour: it is not just that we are base creatures, but that we are too limited and afraid to pursue that which is deepest in our hearts. As with Seinfeld though, there is no savouring the sweetness. George has fiddled for too long as the world smouldered to slip blithely off the hook now, and he understands himself, as Umberto Eco once wrote, only when there is no longer anything to understand. When the camera reveals one last, lonely view of George, Finkleman makes it clear that in his universe there is never redemption in the end—only return, perhaps, and renewal.

Jeremy Keehn is an editor at Harper’s Magazine, and a former senior editor at The Walrus.