By John Keegan and Edmund Boys
The gloves come off in “The Newsroom” as “The 112th Congress” convenes. Some of the show’s disparate strands come together and the main event comes sharply into focus. What also becomes clear is that, despite the real-world events swirling outside, life inside the Atlantis World Media tower is firmly embedded in the Sorkin-verse. Like ”The West Wing”, this is a show about idealism and wish fulfillment, only this time around with a license to reinterpret the history we already know.
Having committed himself to the cause, Will McAvoy goes all in with an on-air apology for “News Night”’s prior missteps. Will identifies himself to Charlie Skinner as a Republican, albeit of the frustrated moderate variety, but his call to arms leans closer to the pronouncements that issued from Keith Olbermann's desk before his various fracases with upper management. I personally agree with much of Will/Sorkin's pontificating, but this one was on much surer footing than the pilot rant. Given all the missed stories and failed analyses of the past decade, committing to greater journalistic rigor and intelligence is an appeal that can cut across partisan lines.
Of course, this is Sorkin's soapbox, so the target of Will's umbrage is the Tea Party movement, who are subverting his Grand Old Party. The on-air segments, even the SB1070 train crash, have been the strongest part of the show, and they step it up another level here. Will and the rest of the team show exactly what sort of journalism he was advocating in a breakneck montage of reports and ‘gotcha’ interviews. The episode actually speeds through six months from the apology in April to Election Night in November, which begs the question of whether they’ll catch up to present-day by season’s end.
The obsession is perfectly appropriate, given the time period, but it also erodes the veneer of verisimilitude, revealing the fantasy world beneath. Most notable is the decision to create a fictitious Republican incumbent, Bryce Delaney, just defeated by a Tea Party challenger. Admittedly, the actual Congressmen who suffered similar fates would never appear on an Aaron Sorkin show. But just having Will report their true stories isn't as much fun as bringing on the great Philip Baker Hall to lend his gravitas to a man drummed out for not only refusing to call President Obama a socialist, but also having the temerity to co-sponsor a bill with a Democrat that, wait for it, helps homeless veterans! That, my friends, is a satirical pile-on.
Intercut between all the fun they’re having on-air is an extended meeting where Charlie is getting called out on the carpet for “News Night”’s new direction. The meeting is being run by Reese, the ratings guy, but observed from a shadowy corner by Jane Fonda. Even if you don’t know who she’s been cast as, the body language, plus the fact that it’s Jane Fonda, clues you in to her importance. At first, I assumed this was the culmination of a series of meetings over this period. It fit that Charlie had to defend the show all this time, while reassuring Will all was well on the 44th floor. The reveal at the end that apparently none of this has come up until the day after the election puts us squarely in fantasy land. No network would have let this slide for so long, especially during an election campaign.
Given his Machiavellian tweaking at the top of the episode (faxing Will the polls that set him off), I hope this is a false reveal. I don’t like the idea of Charlie being so enamored of his new toy that he’s been oblivious to the consequences. Plus, he's going to need his wits about him, as the battle lines are very clearly drawn. Jane Fonda finally enters the discussion, dragging out a terrible, if pointed, joke and bringing a raft of associations with her. As Jane Fonda, she carries the background of being the ex-Mrs. Ted Turner, CNN's founder. As Leona Lansing, CEO of AWM, she shares the first name and wardrobe of the imperious Leona Helmsley. And then the hints turn into confirmation that Reese is not just the ratings guy, but her son, the AWM president and heir apparent, just to add a soupcon of the Murdoch clan.
Once she orders everyone else out, even acceding to Charlie's dismissal of Reese, it's a crackling scene between two old pros. Now that the people Will’s been lambasting have led the Republicans back into the House majority, she will not tolerate him jeopardizing her business interests. As she says, she bought a media company to influence public opinion, and Will’s pushing the wrong ones. Charlie puts up a spirited defense, but even the tried and true McCarthy analogy fails him. The only point that fell flat was when Leona paused to mention she agreed with Will. No CEO interrupts a dressing down like that to concede a point. Especially when she’s building up to the threat that Will shapes up, or she will find, invent, or manufacture the means to fire him. And there we have the central conflict of the show: can “News Night” survive the wrath of its parent who controls the purse-strings? Tune in next episode to find out.
What isn’t inspiring repeat viewings are the personal relationships. Lost in all this time-accelerating helter-skelter are the back stories Sorkin’s previous shows took care to develop. Here, all we get are broad strokes and set-piece pastiches of conflict. Will’s parade of post-show beauties (who “should come with balloons”) is trumped by MacKensie’s secret boyfriend. Don’s drunken complaint of being “set up to be an asshole before I even got started” might as well be the actor’s lament to Sorkin, as he continues to be little more than the loutish oaf of the triangle. There are some good moments, like Jim talking Maggie down from her panic attack and the hint of her cell-phone signoff, but did it have to be preceded by rank insensitivity from Don? That final “crushing” scene on the steps just felt like stringing things along. At this point, I’m not sure any of them deserve each other.
So, the show has gotten much stronger on-air and in the board room. Perhaps, now that the crux of the season has been established, there will be time to slow down and give us some background that helps us care more about the characters. The shorter HBO season, with less than half the episodes of network shows, may be playing into this less-detailed palette. Or Mr. Sorkin is content with presenting this fable of what-might-have-been and what-can-be. Either way, things have gotten a lot more interesting. I’m still intrigued to find out what happens to the show, just not so much the people making it.John Keegan is Editor-in-Chief for Critical Myth, a partner site of SciFi Vision. Edmund Boys is Critical Myth's reviewer for The Newsroom.