By Kevin Jagernauth | The Playlist July 8, 2012 at 11:00PM
For those who have barely tolerated the (at times) strident idealism of Aaron Sorkin's "The Newsroom," the opening of the season's third episode, "The 112th Congress," may severely test your patience. The show opens with a clip of the (now former) National Coordinator for Counterterrorism for the FBI Richard A. Clarke, apologizing in 2004 to the American people for the failures of himself and the government in being able to stop the attacks of 9/11. And in a brutal segue, Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels) uses that moment to preface his own apology to his viewers for failing to "successfully inform and educate the American electorate." While the moment is supposed to be one of monumental integrity, pairing it on the back of one of the nation's greatest tragedies is crass, but that feeling slowly turns to tedium as Will's editorial speech goes on and on, again invoking the great journalists of yore (Murrow, Cronkite, Rather, Russert) and the shortcomings of the current news landscape. We're barely into the third episode and Sorkin is on thematic repeats.
But once that moment gets out of the way (which takes up nearly the first seven minutes), '112th Congress' marks the first time the showrunners have decided to play with switching around the narrative timeline. This episode is centered around a meeting between network president Charlie Skinner (Sam Waterston) and president of the parent company, Leona Lansing (Jane Fonda). While we'd imagine in actual meetings like this, Leona would be so busy that she would just want to get right to the point, this meeting stretches out across the run of the episode, with marketing/ad honcho Reese Lansing (Chris Messina and yes, Leona's son) breaking down the numbers and giving a hard-hitting examination about who Will has been targeting (mostly members of the GOP). "I've been sitting here for two and a half hours and I still don't know why, it's like being in the cast of a Fellini film," Charlie quips (he also does an incredible Burgess Meredith from "Rocky II" impression later on).
Meanwhile, in flashbacks between segments of the meeting, we see the newly revitalized Will not only dismantle the GOP, but take a very keen and particular interest in exposing the hypocrises of The Tea Party. This is all framed around the run up to the 2010 Senate election, with Will pointing out the inconsistencies of the Tea Party platform and what choices the few members elected will have to make, and how they contrast with their publicly stated positions. But his big bombshell is the revelation that billionaire brothers David and Charles Koch are secretly financing the supposedly "grassroots" Tea Party movement. In effect, they took something that actually did start out independently from a handful of like-minded Americans and spun it into their own (far) right wing political machine. And this where Leona is worried.
Some of the many companies the brothers control have seen the coverage and have started pulling advertising. Even more, Leona and Reese's invitation to one of the Koch's biannual get togethers of the rich and influential hasn't arrived. Leona makes it perfectly clear: 1) ACN accounts of less than 3% of all the parent company's total revenue, so thus, in the eyes of shareholders, Charlie has no friends 2) Will is ordered to pull back his critique of the newly elected, Koch-friendly GOP members and 3) If he doesn't? Leona will fire him, manufacture a reason why they had to let him go and then keep his 3-year, non-compete contract intact so he can't work anywhere else, effectively killing his career. It's a major gauntlet being thrown done, and it will be interesting to see how Charlie handles it moving forward in the next few episodes -- particularly as Will, who has been frequently asking him if the network brass are upset, and if he's being kept in the dark about all these happenings.
As for the rest of the characters, their arcs moved very slighty. Mackenzie spends most of "The 112th Congress" watching Will meet his dates right in the middle of the production floor, parading one successive beauty after another in front of her. Yeah, it's a dick move, but it's clear Will and Mackenzie both still have feelings for each other, as complicated as they are, though they choose to deal with them the way teenagers might. Meanwhile, the brewing romance between Margaret (Alison Pill) and Jim (John Gallagher Jr.) continues to rip from the Jim/Pam playbook from "The Office." Watching her abruptly leave a production meeting, Jim finds Margaret out on a balcony dealing with a crippling anxiety attack. Having been embedded in combat situations as a producer, Jim gently uses what he learned to refocus her thoughts and allow her symptoms to subside. It's a lovely little moment between the two. Before going back inside, Margaret picks up her cellphone she put aside when Jim came outside, and tells her roommate who's heard everything, "Yeah, that was him."
This is basically a carbon copy of "The Office" season three finale where Jim confesses his love for Pam, she calls her Mom essentially confirming that she loves him, before he bursts in and gives her a kiss. But of course, Margaret is still with Don (Thomas Sadoski) so of course, the romantic frustrations continue for Jim here. And speaking of Don, who is now producing the program by Will's protégé, he's worried about his job as Elliot (David Harbour) simply lacks the charisma or incisiveness of Will -- a problem when trying to maintain ratings or presence when your show broadcasts after Will's.
The paradox of "The Newsroom" is that Sorkin wants to make a case for the return of an informed news media that shies away from fluff and delivers the facts. And it's hard to argue with that notion that essentially asks for journalists to go to the middle and not engage in the Fox News versus MSNBC polarized presentation of the news. But narratively, with this episode swinging from an idealistic speech that opens the show to the seeds of a elaborate scheme to ditch Will McAvoy should he step out of line, already sets up the character as a martyr. We suppose if you like your protagonists turned into idols it's fine, but we'd prefer something a bit more dramatically honest and nuanced....because isn't that what being in the middle is all about? [C]