It’s hard not to assume that by titling the season one finale of “The Newsroom” “The Greater Fool,” Aaron Sorkin is trying to tell us something about Aaron Sorkin. In the most orthodox sense, the phrase refers to an investing strategy in which a speculator buys a parcel of stocks or bonds despite what he or she considers to be a bad value, in the hopes that it can be re-sold to a naïve third-party for a profit. That buyer is pejoratively referred to as the “greater fool.” For Sorkin, of course, it’s a metaphor liberally deployed throughout this first season. So who are “The Newsroom’s” “greater fools?”
Greater Fool #1: Will McAvoy & MacKenzie McHale
Will’s (Jeff Daniels) mounting anxiety comes to a head this week when he finds himself in the hospital having accidentally overdosed on anti-depressants and booze. The magazine article finally comes out, and it’s an assault on Will and the whole staff of “News Night.” It paints Will as a self-righteous idealist, a blowhard, and worst of all, an optimist. “News Night 2.0” has transformed Will into a greater fool of sorts. When the year began, he was a smart, shrewd “investor” who knew that fluffy stories and blustery commentary would translate to ratings. But in the McHale (Emily Mortimer) era, he decided to “buy in” and start tackling substantive, less viewer-friendly news. It’s a bad investment, but he bought in anyway.
In the Greater Fool paradigm, Mac is perhaps best described as the initial buyer. She makes it her mission to enlist Will in her campaign to revolutionize cable news. She knows it’s a losing battle in terms of ratings and job security, but she wants it anyway and she can’t fight it alone. This week we learned that she’s been trying to convince Will to get on board since the pilot, when he spotted her holding up those handwritten signs in the bleachers at Northwestern University. She wanted to change the news for the better so badly that Will got swept up and wanted to get in on the big new idea. It’s a classic greater fool dynamic.
Greater Fool #2: Maggie & Jim
True love, it’s often been said, makes fools of us all. It certainly does for Maggie and Jim (Alison Pill and John Gallagher, Jr.), who have been locked in a “will they or wont’ they” dynamic since day one. Every time one of them is ready to give it a go and profess their love, they get run over with an inelegant deus ex machina and end up retreating to their “just friends” stance. The finale was really just another iteration of this dance, but the “Greater Fool” casts it in a different light. They’re both tempted to make the dangerous step of following their hearts, yet resist because they have legitimate and loving partners. Any potential romance would require a risky and potentially inappropriate open admission of love from one to the other, in the hopes that the other would see the value of throwing everything away for a new giant, romantic question mark. You can only be the greater fool if you go all in first, and neither of them has been willing to, so they are staying apart at least until next season.
Greater Fool #3: Aaron Sorkin & Us
From day one, Aaron Sorkin has been characterized by critics as a cheeseball of the highest order. He’s been maligned for his schmaltzy montages, like the "Baba O’Reilly" moment from last night. He’s taken flak for deploying some of the most overwrought and too-slick dialogue on television, like last night’s snappy exchanges between Sloan and Don about the futility of trying to change minds. But Sorkin is most under siege for being a corny idealist. His method of cultural critique is to model the way he wishes things really worked.
Make no mistake, “The Newsroom” is more than just a misty, sentimental take on a more perfect news media. It’s a pulpit and a call to action. There’s an agenda at work here, and it’s undoubtedly a noble one. Sorkin rewrites history with “The Newsroom,” and he does that by asking us to expect more from our news. But for “The Newsroom” to succeed, to get picked up for another season, and to be incessantly blogged about on the internet, people need to be catching a strain of its creator’s bug for social change. He values the prospect of “News Night 2.0” whole-heartedly in hopes that we will too. And in a television landscape littered with bloviating ideological pundits and scare tactic news alerts, maybe the smartest thing any of us can be is Aaron Sorkin’s greater fool.
Win Rosenfeld is a producer and national television correspondent. He's produced and reported for PBS, NPR, and Current TV. He's a bad actor, but his portrayal of Linus in the 3rd grade production of "You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown," was widely acclaimed by his family.