Episode Title: “The 112th Congress”
Written by: Aaron Sorkin & Gideon Yago
Directed by: Greg Mottola
Previously on “The Newsroom:”
After last week’s declaration of principles, Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels) makes a public statement on News Night decrying the state of televised journalism, taking responsibility for focusing on ratings above actual news reporting, and promising a new direction in the future. The entire episode intercuts between News Night’s efforts to illuminate the American public about the Tea Party movement and Charlie Skinner (Sam Waterston) defending News Night’s new direction to “The 44th Floor,” the individuals in charge of the network, led by Leona Lansing (Jane Fonda) and her son Reese (Chris Messina).
The bulk of the episode focuses on McAvoy’s attempts to out the Tea Party movement as ill-informed and subject to special interest parties, particularly the Koch Brothers. As time goes on, MacKenzie MacHale (Emily Mortimer) becomes increasingly irritated by Will’s string of young girlfriends, who meet him after every episode. Meanwhile, Jim Harper (John Gallagher, Jr.) talks Maggie Jordan (Alison Pill) out of a panic attack and convinces her to stay with her boyfriend Don Keefer (Thomas Sadoski), who is frustrated that News Night’s new direction has thrown him under a bus. His position as an executive producer is dependent upon ratings, forcing him to follow Will’s show with exactly the kind of reporting that Will is railing against.
November 2nd looms, and Will covers the election night coverage when the Republicans took Congress. Maggie convinces Will to apologize to MacKenzie for parading his string of girlfriends in front of her, but when he finally agrees, he’s stopped by the introduction of MacKenzie’s new boyfriend. After learning earlier that Maggie and Don had broken up, presumably for good, Jim is about to make his own move before he observes that they have gotten back together, presumably due to his own advice.
The episode ends with the conclusion of Skinner’s meeting on the 44th floor. After making many impassionate and reasoned speeches, Leona informs him that now that congress is ruled by the very people News Night has been campaigning against, he has to lay off, since she has to deal with them directly. Despite arguing the principle of his approach, Skinner is informed that Leona will fire Will if necessary. Will has a clause in his contract that would keep him off the air for three years if that happened, but Skinner decides not to tell Will and continue in News Night’s new direction, regardless of the potential consequences.
For two weeks now I’ve been complaining that that “The Newsroom” has been suffering from a lack of antagonism, an over-reliance on real-time storytelling and an annoying tendency to emphasize low-rent sitcom love stories over actual drama. Finally, they got two of out of three right. I’m not sure how they heard my call from several months in the past, but I assume the ham radio from Frequency was somehow involved. (I’m okay with being the only one who thinks that’s funny.)
After initially establishing “The Newsroom” with an apparent formula – the workaday office and relationship politics that go into a single episode of the news, punctuated with a ripped-from-the-headline – Aaron Sorkin and his sudden co-writer Gideon Yago go into unexpected hyperdrive as “The 112th Congress” sprints through the six month-long buildup to election day, when the Republicans took the house. The reasons for the speed ramp could be many: it was the next major news story, it was the best opportunity to take countless swipes at the Tea Party (for better or worse), or possibly that it was the showrunners’ intentions all along to rapidly catch up with the present day. Whatever the reason, the necessity for truncated scenes and expedited character development (or more accurately the lack thereof) prevented Sorkin’s hitherto meandering dialogue from sticking in anyone’s craw, or at least spewing forth from said craw like the winner of the race was going to get a Range Rover.
Alas, “The 112th Congress’s” failings are familiar to audiences who saw the “The Newsroom’s” first two episodes. The love triangle between Jim, Maggie and Don remains artificially fluffed, and attempts to engage characters in dialogue about truly pressing matters like who’s dating whom are distractingly unrelated to the news story at hand. The future of the free world is at stake. We are significantly less concerned in Will McAvoy’s string of young lovers. Cutting from pointed political commentary to MacKenzie’s “Saved by the Bell” jealousy that her ex-boyfriend is dating a cheerleader is about as smooth a transition as a star-wipe to a baby panda sneezing.
Most importantly, “The Newsroom” finally has an antagonist, characterized ominously as “The 44th Floor” and played by Jane Fonda as a woman who gives Will’s show carte blanche for six months and then kvetches about it. The justification that suddenly Will’s punching bags have power in congress puts the “flims” back in flimsy, but the good of the episode’s change in format outweighs the awkwardness in establishing a proper villain. The fact that director Greg Mottola shoots every scene on the 44th Floor like it’s the war room at Legion of Doom headquarters may not be subtle… okay, it’s the opposite of subtle… but it does efficiently compensate for “The Newsroom’s” tardiness in introducing an opposing, and mercifully (for drama’s sake) more powerful dissenting voice. Who wants to bet that Sam Waterston lasts longer on “The Newsroom” than Sean Bean did on “Game of Thrones?” I don’t like those odds.
There’s been talk, reasonably apt, that “The Newsroom” condescends its female characters. The observations include MacKenzie’s backstory as a seasoned war reporter who can’t figure out how to work an e-mail and can barely compose herself in the flimsiest of social interactions, and the tendency to treat characters like Maggie as unable to successfully manage their own lives and in need of constant male supervision to do their jobs properly. It would be less insulting, indeed, if the male characters weren’t devoid of these very issues. The introduction of Jane Fonda as “The Newsroom’s” very own Lex Luthor does little to allay these concerns. It’s not that Aaron Sorkin should be held to a higher standard, but that narrative fiction as a whole should. The most telling aspect is that, sexist or not, “The Newsroom’s” biggest dramatic failings stem from its reliance on clichéd female-centric romance scenarios that feel about as organic as a McRib.
But at the very least, after only two episodes, “The Newsroom” has picked up the pace and demonstrated a willingness to break a conventional narrative mold, which bodes well for the future, provided it wasn’t just a quick gimmick to move into another status quo, improved though it may be by the introduction of an opposing force to the main cast’s insufferable Monday morning quarterback do-gooders who know exactly the right thing to report a scant two years after the fact. With a little more molding, “The Newsroom” could live up to its potential after all.