“The Newsroom” – Episode 3: “The 112th Congress”

On any television series, there are going to be good episodes and bad episodes – except for “Arrested Development.” They were all good. Still, it is generally unwise to get too worked up about any single episode, good or bad, as an indication of what’s to come. Having said that, tonight’s episode of “The Newsroom” was, in my eyes, a near perfect show. It was funny, sad, and romantic, while combining genuine insight into important world events with engaging human drama. We are not allowed to ask for more than that.

It is very important for a film or TV show to make the audience feel like they are in good hands. It’s a hard thing to quantify, but even a person completely uneducated in the art of directing, writing, or producing can sense when a show knows what it’s doing. In tonight’s episode of “The Newsroom,” all it took for me to feel comfortable was the episode title card: “The 112th Congress.” This felt like familiar territory for Sorkin – like “West Wing” territory – and the show lived up to the best episodes of that series.

Given the series trajectory so far, it felt like there was a lot riding on tonight’s episode. The pilot was killer; the second episode a setback. “The 112th Congress” returned to the liberal wish fulfillment of the pilot but somehow still raised the bar and the stakes. While the pilot episode was about the largest environmental disaster in history, tonight’s episode – about the 2010 Tea Party election – felt even more urgent, as it was portrayed as an indication of how misinformed and ignorant the American electorate truly is.

Sorkin is a master of structure, and he devised a brilliant one for this episode. We start in a dark, cavernous room on the 44th floor. Charlie (Sam Waterston), the news bureau chief, is listening to a network ratings-guru drone on about how the new, facts-only News Night is hemorrhaging viewers. Charlie stands in for the audience in this scene. He has not been told the subject of the meeting, and neither have we. But we’re pretty sure it has something to do with the woman in the corner.

We learn more about what transpires at that meeting as the shows progresses, but immediately we flash back to the News Night episodes in question, specifically those in which Will challenges a series of Tea Party congressional candidates for their nonsensical positions. While it has been hinted at in previous episodes, we learn tonight that Will is in fact a Republican, and the anger that he is channeling towards these candidates comes from a feeling that “[his] party has been hijacked.” It is a smart move by Sorking to make Will a Republican. Had a Democrat spoken his dialogue, the show would be quickly written off by many as a product of the liberal media. Of course, some will, anyway, but they shouldn’t. Many of the points Will makes in “The 112th Congress” have also been made by many real-life prominent conservatives, such as David Frum and Andrew Sullivan. Thus, Will’s perspective as a Republican is credible, and it underscores his point: the Tea Party is not a true conservative movement.

Much as in the pilot, “The 112th Congress” functioned as a piece of journalism disguised as drama. Sorkin is doing the work that most reporters failed to do during the 2010 mid-term elections. He is challenging their logic on the debt ceiling. He is exposing the corporate funding behind a supposed “grassroots movement.” But he is incorporating this serious and urgent work into a funny, sentimental, and tense piece of dramatic television about people that I am starting to care about quite a lot. I really started to like these characters tonight. It was a fast-paced show, so the scenes in which two characters stopped to take a breath and talk to each other – the rooftop scene between Jim and Maggie – have a great emotional impact.

Before I go, it might be time for some disclosure: I lean left. I have been a lifelong Democrat, although as I get older, I find myself seeing eye-to-eye with libertarians on some issues. But I find myself so aligned with values of this show that I think it might be useful to hear some other perspectives on it. So if you are anything but a dyed-in-the-wool liberal, please chime in with your comments below. I’d love to get a discussion going.

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