'The Newsroom' Recap: 'The 112th Congress'

"The 112th Congress," the third episode of "The Newsroom," takes us all the way through the 2010 elections, when the Republicans regained control of the House, and it is alternately more annoying and, in certain spots, more entertaining than anything that has come before it.

The episode opens with the famous testimony of Richard Clarke, the former national security adviser, apologizing for the government's intelligence failures over 9/11. (His name is misspelled as Clark on the show.)

Then Will, in a not-at-all self-aggrandizing gesture, says he is "joining Mr. Clarke in apologizing to America for our failure." No, his mistakes didn't cause thousands of people to die. But in a "Special Editorial Comment," Will says he "took a dive for the ratings," and recounts the many miserable moments in the media's handling of big events over the last decade. He says he is "switching sides," and will now be calling 'em like he sees 'em.

But Will's apparent answer to the problem of the mainstream media's severe credibility gap is an odd one. "The 112th Congress" gives us the clearest picture yet of the supposedly revolutionary kind of show "Newsnight" has become. Despite Will's repeated assurances of Republicanism (though it's a strange right-winger who calls, as he does, for all news programs to be run ad-free), it looks like nothing more than standard MSNBC fare.

Aaron Sorkin's problem is that he conflates what is a personal earthquake for Will into what he contends is an earthquake for the cable news business as a whole. Certainly his corporate bosses treat it as such, and Charlie Skinner tells them he's let Will loose because "America [needs] a fucking lawyer." But, far from being a lone crusader, Will is aping just about every big name in the MSNBC field.

He suddenly notices that the Tea Party has become pretty right-wing and has hijacked his beloved Republican Party -- and nobody's talking about it! "How is this not our top story every night?" he cries. He makes it the top story for months, all the way through Election Day.

We then see him, for instance, grilling someone about Rand Paul's views of the Civil Rights Act -- just like Maddow grilled Paul himself about the same subject in an instantly infamous 2010 chat.

We see him railing against Sharron Angle -- a favorite Keith Olbermann punching bag.

We see him shouting down Tea Party activists -- a specialty of Chris Matthews'.

It's all entertaining to watch -- with two years' hindsight and the benefit of a script, Jeff Daniels is a formidable foe -- but it's a puzzler why Sorkin presents it as so groundbreaking.

On the romantic front, all the love triangles lurch their way onwards, with varying degrees of interest. Sorkin has not worked out what could be his show's fatal flaw -- its dismal treatment of women.

Yet again, MacKenzie gets a raw deal. When a string of Will's beautiful dates turns up in the newsroom night after night, she is reduced to a crazy bag of nerves, apparently unable to modulate the sound of her voice or prevent her eyes from popping. She's then given a boyfriend who we know she won't last with.

Nothing, however, can match the indignities heaped on poor Maggie Jordan (this part falls into the "more annoying" category). She suffers a panic attack midway through an editorial meeting, and Jim gallantly goes after her. Finding her on a terrace somewhere, he proceeds to wield the panic-calming tricks he learned while embedded with soldiers overseas. He alternately lectures her about what she's feeling and what she should be doing, sternly reminds her to keep her medication around, and checks her pulse tenderly. What a man he is! To see Maggie turn into a prone vessel for Jim's heroic ministrations is depressing to watch. Alas for him, she runs back into the arms of Don.

Emily Mortimer and Alison Pill are wonderful actresses -- so why have they been saddled with such terrible story lines? As with so much in entertainment, the women on "The Newsroom" are defined almost wholly by the men around them. It's a real waste.

If there's good to be found in "The 112th Congress," it comes in the very welcome form of Jane Fonda, munching happily on the scenery as Leona Lansing, owner of the company Will works for. (She's the "more entertaining" part.) In a classic Sorkin bit, the episode is a big flashback, working from the middle of 2010 until the day after the election, when Leona angrily hauls Charlie in front of her to explain himself. His interrogation is spread across several scenes in what appears to be some kind of operatically cavernous war room/fear chamber, as Leona and Reese, who turns out to be her son, hammer Charlie over the corporate angst Will's new turn is causing them. We don't even hear her speak until the end of the episode, but the camera flits obsessively to her disapproving glare.

In the final ten minutes, Leona comes alive, a mustache-twirling villian in a pantsuit. She bluntly tells Charlie that Will has to lay off the Tea Party because "I have business" before Congress. If he doesn't, she'll fire him.

Sam Waterston utters "what?!" like he's in a horror movie and just heard that the axe murderer didn't drown in the lake after all, Fonda repeats her threat with complete seriousness and, for a change, we have ourselves a vaguely interesting plot point. Since "The Newsroom" has already been renewed for a second season, it's a given that Will won't get fired, but maybe I'm just letting my happiness about seeing Jane Fonda walk away with the show get the better of my critical faculties.

Fonda's no-bullshit imperiousness is a mighty fine breath of fresh air in this stultifyingly preachy show. When she started threatening to can Will, I kind of found myself rooting for her.