Review: ‘The Newsroom’ – ‘The 112th Congress’

Senior Television Writer
07.08.12 114 Comments


A review of tonight’s “The Newsroom” coming up just as soon as the best analogy I can use is “Rocky II”…

“I never knew what the word ‘smug’ meant until I met you.” -Maggie

Though “The 112th Congress” has a central idea at its spine – Will takes on the Tea Party, and Charlie catches flack for it from ACN owner Leona Lansing – and a variety of subplots we follow throughout, it’s so episodic in nature, and features so many ideas and problems at once, that I think the best way to address this one is to go bullet point by bullet point:

* First, it’s fascinating how much Good Sorkin and Bad Sorkin are simultaneously on display in Will’s speech announcing the new mission for “News Night.” The message about how TV news lost its moral compass because Congress let Paley, Sarnoff, et al sell advertising way back when was an interesting one, but also one that wouldn’t apply to a non-broadcast outfit like ACN. (Unless Will/Sorkin is suggesting that the FCC would have managed to get sway over cable and… what? Told cable news channel owners that they couldn’t sell ads around the clock? In that case, no one would bother starting such an operation. And if it would have just meant one hour per day without ads, well, the other 23 could still be spent on Bubble Boy, Natalee Holloway, etc.) The speech is simultaneously self-effacing (Will admits he screwed up along with everyone else) and self-important (by placing it on a level with the 9/11 Commission), positioning this new direction as both an underdog approach (“I’m going with the guys who are getting creamed”) and as the only reasonable position of people who are awesome (“Who are we to make these decisions? We’re the media elite.”). It’s a lot of strong rhetoric (one of Sorkin’s specialties) in service of an idea I largely agree with; I’m just not sure it hangs together at all as presented here.

* By doing an early episode that spans six months of time, right after the first two episodes were set within days of each other, Sorkin gets to deal with the whole election cycle in one go, rather than having an anti-Tea Party subplot in every episode for the bulk of the season. But doing so also throws out much of the tension the first two episodes established in terms of this group of relative strangers, bitter ex-lovers, etc., coming together to make this show – and also about the growing pains of the show itself. By racing all the way from May through November, we miss seeing Will and Mackenzie get used to working with each other in any real depth, miss seeing any significant bumps in the road like their Arizona immigration segment last week, miss seeing Maggie get better at her job, miss seeing Sloan adjust to the bigger stage (do we even see her appear on “News Night” before the election coverage?), miss seeing Will genuinely get to know these people (there’s an implied bond between Will and the group at the karaoke bar in the final scene that wasn’t there last week), etc. Sorkin has said (in response to a question about why the show-within-the-show on “Studio 60” wasn’t as hyper-competitive and full of jealousy and neuroses as what we know about how “SNL” works) that he prefers writing about harmonious workplaces to ones where everyone’s constantly in conflict. And if that’s his comfort zone, fine. But then why bother setting up all that potential for conflict, discomfort, etc. in the first couple of episodes if most of it was going to be skipped past in short order by the third episode?

* This one wasn’t quite as overflowing with instances of the female characters acting incompetent, stupid, and/or insane – although Jim does have to stop Maggie’s panic attack on a balcony, which is second cousin to talking someone off a ledge – as last week’s outing, mercifully. That said, it feels like the time spent worrying about the dangers of the Tea Party is matched by how much we’re supposed to spend being concerned about how Mac is responding to Will’s string of attractive female companions, and then to his reaction to her being in a serious relationship with Gordon 2.0(*), and to whether or not Maggie and Don would ever break up long enough for Jim to make his move. And while Sorkin can be a good romantic comedy writer at times (case in point: “The American President”), too often it feels like the romantic arcs on his shows involve characters (male and female) acting like the dumbest, most immature versions of themselves, and that was unfortunately the case here. I don’t care about any of these relationships at this stage, and certainly not in the way they’re being depicted.

(*) I recognize that many of you didn’t watch “Sports Night,” which is fine. But it’s hilarious how close in mannerisms Jon Tenney is on this show to the Ted McGinley character in that one. When that Sorkin supercut went around after the premiere, I was amused but untroubled by it, as I suspect you could do something similar for David Milch, Shonda Rhimes, David E. Kelley or pretty much any other prolific TV creator with a distinctive voice. That said, there’s a difference between liking a certain turn of phrase, or even a certain character archetype (Isaac –> Leo –> Charlie), and straight-up recycling an entire dynamic involving the exact same character archetypes (with Will as Casey and Mac as Dana). I’m not saying this is going to end up with Tenney wearing Will’s shirt or something, but right now it’s the same darned guy.    

* I admire the restraint it took to have Jane Fonda – who was once married to a cable news mogul in real life – on camera for much of an episode and not letting her speak until the 48 minute mark. I imagine when you’ve got an old-school movie star with two Oscars on her mantel, she’s going to make an impression no matter when she talks, but by having Leona sit silently in the meeting for so long while her obnoxious son Reese grilled Charlie, the impact was even greater.

* I’ve spent a while circling back to this review, trying to think of some way to address the Tea Party material without violating my own No Politics rule, stirring up a lot of angry rhetoric going back and forth in the comments, and I ultimately didn’t have the heart to do it. If y’all can find a way to discuss Sorkin’s approach to the topic in a civil manner (and without it simply turning into a discussion of the merits of the Tea Party movement itself), more power to you. If not, whole swaths of comments will be deleted quickly. The most I will say (unless the comments turn out to be surprisingly calm and measured on this topic) is a prediction that the majority of you (whether you do or don’t support the Tea Party) will find Sorkin’s approach to the subject unsatisfying and/or overly-simplistic.

* That said, we’re talking about a show that opens with a pair of apologies, so let me issue one of my own. In my initial review of the series, one of the examples I gave for the show’s 20/20 hindsight was the moment on Election Night when Sloan’s Spidey-sense goes off and she realizes all the winning Tea Party candidates are going to cause a crisis with the debt ceiling. As many of you pointed out, this was a talking point on several actual newscasts back in 2010. I regret the error, and will try to do better.

* Finally, in case you missed it, HBO renewed “The Newsroom” earlier this week.

What did everybody else think?

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