The Newsroom Recap: Episode 1.3 “The 112th Congress”
In many of the series reviews I’ve read of The Newsroom, critics unanimously declared that the pilot, “We Just Decided To,” was the strongest of the first four episodes that reviewers were given screeners of in advance. For me, however, this Sunday’s episode, “The 112th Congress,” is easily Sorkin’s strongest stuff thus far, at least partly because of the episodes effective structural reliance on a device that Sorkin memorably used in David Fincher’s The Social Network. That device of course is framing the events of the episode through a “boardroom meeting” in this case (as opposed to deposition hearings in The Social Network) that describe complicated events, which we then see dramatized in concurrent flashbacks. The structure allows Sorkin to discuss detailed themes that occur over a large time-frame (in this case, several months) in a relatively clear way. Sorkin, like Community‘s former showrunner Dan Harmon, is at his best when he’s playing with structure, and this weeks episode is another example of that strength.
The episode is also Sorkin’s most overtly political of the series, in that the “news story” being covered is the lead up to the 2010 congressional elections, and in particular the influence of the Tea Party. Obviously an entire episode devoted to election coverage, four months before the 2012 presidential election, is going to get a bit preachy. While at times, the ironic “recent past” setting of the show has been about as easy to swallow as Buckley’s Couch Syrup at times – like the deus ex machina sources that allowed Will and the news team at ACN to grasp the full ramifications of the Deepwater Horizon spill over the course of a single afternoon – in this case I think it works.
The astroturfing genesis of the Tea Party, and the real forces at play (and Sorkin, to his credit, calls out the infamous Koch brother by name) was a major story that was massively under-reported by the broadcast news media from 2009 through to the 2010 fall election. It wasn’t until the New York Times got their heads out of their ass in the fall of 2010 that this story was even told, and one could even argue that one of the major cable news networks – the “Fair and Balanced” one of course – was instrumental in “hyping” the movement to begin with. In my view, this is subject matter where Sorkin’s criticism of news broadcasts feels particularly fair and pertinent.
Not only does Sorkin’s script take aim at the way the news media told – or ignored – that particular story, but the episode earnestly examines the reasons why. In the semi-fictional world of The Newsroom, ACN’s CEO (humourously played by Jane Fonda – the former wife of broadcast mogul and CNN founder Ted Turner) has political and business interests beyond the scope of running her television station. In one of the episode’s highlights, Charlie Skinner (Sam Waterston) – at his prickly, self-righteous best in the episode – is given the opportunity to stand up for Will in the face of corporate intervention. Also, the threat that is issued towards the end of the meeting, that the bosses will manufacture a situation in which it appears “noble” to fire Will McAvoy will surely be re-visited.
Thankfully, it looks like the show has finally set up a central dramatic tension for the first season: that the new editorial direction of News Night will come to threaten Will’s job. That’s the sort of driving force that the first two episodes of the season lacked, and as a result left me wondering: “what is this really? A newsroom procedural? A story about a guy having a mid-life crisis?” It may have taken them a few weeks to get around to it, but here’s hoping that this sort of centrifugal force will help focus the series going forward.