‘The Newsroom’ Recap: Episode 3, ‘The 112th Congress’

Photo Source: Melissa Moseley/HBO
The corporate discontent brewing at ACN finally came to a boil this week in the form of an ethical showdown with Barbarella in the boardroom. Essentially a series of flashbacks, “The 112th Congress” structurally resembles Aaron Sorkin’s Academy Award winning megahit “The Social Network” where a tense negotiation at a big fancy table serves as the framework through which scenes from the past are woven in as talking points for the characters. It’s also not that different from how a thousand lame 80’s sitcoms did their clip show episodes. In terms of effectiveness here, the result is somewhere in between.

The Mission Statement

The action starts with McAvoy (Jeff Daniels) reading a humdinger of an apology on the air at the top of his show. After a quick history lesson on the Communications Act of 1934 (which doesn’t really apply to cable) he cops to years of knowingly subjugating the quality of the news in the name of ratings. It’s cathartic because we should, of course, be outraged. Even though we all know it’s all a fantasy, in moments like this, “The Newsroom” does provide a solid bit of wish-fulfillment fantasy to the frustrated news viewer.

In any case, the anchor’s mea culpa culminates in the public declaration of MacKenzie’s four-point white board strategy about doing the right thing from last week’s episode. This scene also marks the beginning of a probably unnecessarily rapid philosophical evolution for McAvoy from (presumably Reagan-brand) conservative to Tea Party hater.

Running Interference on the 44th Floor

One of Sorkin’s fascinations has always been the stratification of the upper echelons of power, and he indulges in it during this episode by taking us to the darkened conference room on the 44th floor. Will’s boss and head of the news division, Charlie (Sam Waterson) is confronted by his boss, ACN President Reese Lansing (Chris Messina) and Reese’s boss (and mom) ACN’s parent company’s CEO Leona Lansing (Jane Fonda). We discover that the higher ups have been quiet for months while News Night’s ratings have dropped. They’ve been patient, but News Night’s recent assault on the Koch Brothers’ influence on Tea Party politics has brought them to a breaking point. It turns out that ACN’s parent company “has business” with Congress, and the negative coverage on the part of McAvoy and company is beginning to impact the bottom line.

Waterson’s Charlie Skinner is a pleasure to watch in these scenes. He’s a convincing avatar for the whiskey-soaked bygone era of ethical, shoe-leather journalism and he’s willing to go to bat for News Night in the face of serious pressure. Again, wish fulfillment. Fonda, curiously, doesn’t do any talking at all for the first 40 minutes and finally breaks her silence with an old joke that’s kind of funny if not particularly apropos. Jokes aside, she’s willing to fire McAvoy and concoct a false motive faster than you can say “Hanoi Jane.” Finally some pressure comes to News Night even if the peons on the floor don’t know it yet.

Boy Loses Girl; Girl Loses Xanax

The other thread running through the episode is the obligatory love triangle between Senior Producer Jim Harper (John Gallagher, Jr.), AP Maggie Jordan (Alison Pill) and Don Keefer (Thomas Sadoski.) Jim finds himself squarely in the “friend zone” with Maggie despite her tumultuous relationship with Don. We find out that Maggie’s psycho-pharmaceuticals got nicked by an unscrupulous friend of her roommate, and she’s spending a lot of the day fighting off an anxiety attack. Jim, who spent the last few years embedded with the troops offers a little battlefield-tested talking cure, and saves the day. But, despite whatever headway he thought he made, Maggie sticks with Don, who’s beginning to metastasize into the cable news equivalent of a Cobra Kai. Also - there’s an amazing McRib zinger at his expense that’s definitely the high point of the episode.

Scottish journalist B.C. Forbes once said, “Golf without bunkers and hazards would be tame and monotonous. So would life.” Good drama, of course, is also always about characters and obstacles and conflict, and we still don’t get quite enough with “The Newsroom.” With that in mind, the producers may want to ask themselves a version of Leona Lansing’s punchline: “Do you want to (mess) around or do you want to play golf?”

Win Rosenfeld is a producer and national television correspondent. He's produced and reported for PBS, NPR, and Current TV. He's a bad actor, but his portrayal of Linus in the 3rd grade production of "You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown," was widely acclaimed by his family.