If I have one issue with The Newsroom thus far, and I mean apart from the wild tonal shifts, painfully clumsy attempts at sitcom-level humor, and inability to—okay, so I have several problems with The Newsroom thus far. But the one I haven't said much about yet is Aaron Sorkin's gift for turning anything and everything into a blinding metaphor. Sorkin is not subtle about, well, anything really. He's a guy who delivers his message as loudly and clearly as possible. To a degree, that can be a welcome trait in a writer, but in Sorkin's case the notion even extends to his attempts at something resembling subtlety. When he embeds a metaphorical scenario in his writing, he spells it out for you with such intense clarity that he's practically screaming at you in flashing, all-caps Impact font with Nyan Cat gliding by in the background. You aren't allowed to not understand Sorkin's metaphors, because he won't let you not understand them.
This problem ran up and down the spine of this week's episode, "The 112th Congress," in which we got our first taste of how News Night will be handling election coverage. The 2010 election brought about a sea change in our congressional make-up, with a huge influx of Tea Party candidates reigning triumphant not just over their hated Democrats, but even Republicans who weren't "bought in" on the group's message.
Make no mistake, this was by far the most conservatives-attacking episode of The Newsroom we've seen yet, but that was hardly the issue with it. The Tea Party itself isn't quite the force it was back in 2010, and many of us have learned that hey, maybe these guys aren't quite as brilliant as they seemed at the time (if you ever thought that at all). But in 2010, the Tea Party was at its apex of relevance, and Will McAvoy had a real problem with that.
Interestingly, Will self-identified as a Republican in this episode, doing so while ranting and raving to Charlie about how the Republicans were shouting down the more reasonable political discourse with cogent yet ill-conceived slogans and platforms. Will wasn't having it, and said he wanted to go after them. MacKenzie, lurking in the background, agreed. And with that, we were off to the races. The congressional races, I mean.
Will was relentless this week. Guest after guest appeared spouting the Tea Party rhetoric, and Will systematically dismantled every argument they had. He poked holes in their ideas, gave them statistical data that directly contradicted their platforms, and even directly went after the Koch brothers, the billionaires known for their somewhat clandestine funding of the Tea Party. Even during election night, Will couldn't resist trying to get a newly elected Tea Party congressman to comment on the debt ceiling, a question he artfully dodged by pretending not to hear it over the din of his celebrating supporters.
By all accounts, News Night was firing on all cylinders in every on-air moment this week. Good guests, witty commentary, complete and utter command of the facts before them, it was all there. Even Will's heavy-handed speech at the beginning of the episode, in which he apologized for the crappy turn News Night had taken prior to its recent discovery of capital-J Journalism, managed to work thanks largely to Jeff Daniels' strong delivery of Sorkin's speechifying.
So where could things go wrong? How would we find conflict amid so much successful journalism? Why, with the corporate suits, of course! This week proved to be the reckoning from the network heads that seemed all but assured to be coming. Throughout the episode, Will asked Charlie what was going on with the execs upstairs, and Charlie simply reassured him that everything was fine. Except, it wasn't.
Several times during the hour we found Charlie stuck in a conference room surrounded by boring men in suits, all of them explaining to him in excruciating detail why they believed News Night's new direction was detrimental to the network's interests. One, it put them at odds with the ratings-grabbing news programs on other networks who might, say, sensationalize the 2010 attempted Times Square bombing, instead of painting it as what it was: an isolated incident stopped before anything happened. And two, it put the network at odds with those Tea Party crazy people currently in elected office.
Charlie was unmoved by the stats and figures presented to him, explaining that he didn't care about their concerns. They were doing a news show the way he believed a news show should be done, dammit, and he was going to keep making references to Edward Murrow and McCarthyism until someone in the room agreed with him.
Unfortunately, he never got his assist. The lone silent voice in the room, the head of ACN (played by Jane Fonda), finally broke her silence and explained in no uncertain terms that News Night was to lay off the Tea Party now that it had some measure of power. After all, ACN had pending business before this new congress—a fact so important, she had to say it twice, exactly the same way—and mucking around with the Koch brothers and the newly elected congress would complicate that. We got no glimpse of how this new edict will affect News Night's direction, given that everything that happened in the conference room was meant to represent current time, while all the News Night segments were flashbacks. But it's safe to say that Will's carte blanche just got a little less blanche.
What we do know is that Sorkin will not resist any opportunity to draw parallels between the struggles of News Night and whatever else might be happening in the world. Nowhere was this more apparent than when Will found himself interviewing a newly deposed Republican congressman (played by the great Phillip Baker Hall; really good roster of guest-starring character actors on this show, eh?), who explained that his loss to a Tea Party candidate stemmed from him reaching out to sponsor a bill with a Democratic congressman (on housing for wounded veterans, for Christ's sake), and refusing to call Obama a socialist. He spoke facts, not party lines, and he was crucified for it. Does this sound familiar? And by that, I mean does this not sound exactly like what is happening with News Night right now because the metaphor is staring you right in the face?
Hall was great in his brief part, but this segment illustrated the heavy-handedness with which Sorkin attempts to use more subtle storytelling techniques. And it wasn't even the only example of this in the episode, though most of the others were smaller, sometimes even-more-obvious situations pertaining to the omnipresent interoffice relationships. I've already said my piece many times over when it comes to The Newroom's concepts of relationship humor, but "The 112th Congress" was a particularly meaningless exercise in said situations. This week, Will decided to go out with a series of hot women and meet them all in the office, which obviously rankled MacKenzie's feathers. Also, Maggie and Don broke up and got back together several times, while Jim continued to look sad. Zero forward progress, a lame twist (turns out MacKenzie has a secret boyfriend, who she showed off just as Will was about to apologize for flaunting his ladies in front of her), and more nothing dialogue that gave us no further insight into how any of these people think.
The only character who seems to be getting a truly illustrated backstory (besides Will) this season is Maggie, who this week we learned is prone to panic attacks and takes medication to quell them. It was the only scene in the episode that didn't involve actual news being reported or Sam Waterston yelling at people that really made any impact. Alison Pill, who I refuse to stop praising, managed to sell the feeling of uncontrollable panic without flying off into actor-y histrionics, while Jim's comforting words to help Maggie through the situation actually made me kinda like him for the first time in, well, ever. The problem? I still don't care if the two of them ever get together. The actors are putting on a good show for us, but in terms of this would-be love triangle, I'm not really sold either way.
In some ways, "The 112th Congress" was a foot forward for The Newsroom, and in others, a regrettable step back. And in others still, no step anywhere. This is a show that stalls, stumbles, and confidently strolls in random order every single week. I'd really love an episode to come along that maybe excises the former two pieces of that equation. Maybe next week, when we discover what Charlie's new mandate means for the News Night team, we'll get it.
– Could MacKenzie have been any less of a factor this week? She was a bullet point on the suits' tear-down of the show's direction, and got to continue to act like a higher-degree version of a Katherine Heigl romantic-comedy character. God, you can see Emily Mortimer trying, but I feel like these last couple of weeks, her character's been drained of the feisty intelligence we saw in the pilot. And I don't even know what to do with this boyfriend revelation. I wouldn't be surprised if he just disappeared a couple of episodes from now.
– This wasn't an episode that featured much Olivia Munn, which gives me the feeling that we're not going to get any real development of her character this season. She's starting to feel like a late studio note hastily stitched into the season's storylines at the last possible second before filming.
– There was so much more Sam Waterston this week, which I am grateful for. And while I've cringed at many of Jane Fonda's late career choices, she and Waterston having it out this week was blissfully excellent. Fonda is terrific. Tough and contrarian without being over-the-top about it.
– Whoever the actor is who plays the ACN president/Fonda's son deserves some kind of special Emmy. The character hasn't even done anything that devious or underhanded yet, and already he's my Joffrey Baratheon for this show. I want all the horrible things to happen to him.
– Line of the episode goes to Will's response to MacKenzie's "warning" that the girls he's dating just want to sleep with him because he's famous: "That didn't sound like something that should come with a warning. That sounded like something that should come with balloons."
What'd you think of Episode 3?