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Monday, July 9, 2012

The Newsroom: "The 112th Congress"

Aaron Sorkin is breaking all the rules of television. He is telling, not showing. He is forsaking nuanced characters for broad archetypes. He is not playing fair or giving equal weight to both sides of a conflict. In short, he is doing whatever he likes with The Newsroom, indulging in rhetoric and wit. The result is not always the most palatable or rewarding, but damn is it fascinating and fun to watch.

How many dramas do you know that have sped through six months of plot in their third episode? It’s an extremely curious decision, and one which critics understandably find fault with. It does casually disregard the slow build-up or erosion of tension as the staff of News Night 2.0 learn to work together under their new directive to save journalism from itself.

“The 112th Congress” thus seems to indicate that the fictional show may catch up to or even surpass reality, rather than constantly allow its characters a foresight no reasonable humans could be expected to possess. Indeed, the episode shows the first hints of fictionalizing history, as actors (including the great Philip Baker Hall) portray fictitious congressmen. Perhaps when Will McAvoy and co. reach nearer to the present day, Sorkin will use his talents to script fake but plausible news stories for them to cover, allowing the drama to come from a more satisfying place than from the irony of the audience knowing something the characters do not.

This time around Sorkin feels like dealing with the Tea Party, and gets things started by making the sure not to upset anybody comparison to the SDS and Abbie Hoffman. McAvoy, who literally appears to be a Republican just because Sorkin assumes he can get away with more that way, feels that the Tea Party was a legitimate movement that has been co-opted by extreme right-wingers. Which seems to neglect the fact that many of the people in the movement are extreme right-wingers, but forgot it, he’s rolling.

Sorkin’s treatment of the election is also a little too simplistic and one-sided, with a particularly frequent trick the cutting away from a gotcha question before the other side even takes a stab at coming up with a response. The implication, obviously, is that nothing they can say could possibly be an adequate response. It’s all done in service of making Will look like a super-genius, and it’s largely unnecessary.

I did enjoy that around the margins of the show, Sorkin seemed to be calling himself out on his own worse tics. Will harasses the on-air analyst over seemingly self-conflicted voting patterns to make a point, but the analyst is annoyed at being used in such a way. Will’s co-anchor Elliot references Mama Rose to Don, and then has to explain the reference when Don states without any shame that he doesn’t understand it.

I am far more invested in the attempts to get the news right than I am in the characters entangled personal lives. Of the two romantic subplots the show is building up, the Maggie-Don-Jim triangle is much less obnoxious than the Will and Mac storyline, which is really just the Ted McGinley arc from SportsNight repurposed. Maggie’s panic attack seemed like a retrofitted explanation for her flighty behavior, but it did lead to a nice scene between her and Jim, and I liked the grace note of her apparently having discussed Jim with her roommate.

“The 112th Congress” is framed largely in retrospect, as Charlie is in a meeting with the hated Reese and his Reese’s mother, the owner of ACN’s parent company, who just happens to be played by Jane Fonda. (This whole time, Charlie has been telling Will that the management is fine with what they are doing.) Fonda is silent for most of the episode’s run-time, allowing her austere presence to hang over the proceedings like the sword of Damocles. When she finally delivers her ultimatum, that Will had better lay off the Tea Party congressmen now that they can affect business, or else he’ll be fired, it is a powerful, if over-written, performance. Fonda is the villain this show desperately needs. She’s not an imbecile, she’s not someone who can be manipulated, she has her reasons and they are sound, but she stands opposed to everything Charlie, Will, and Mac are fighting for, and her enormous resources and power are more than enough to make her a credible threat. The stakes have been raised, and it should ramp up the drama considerably.

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