Howard Hawks, besides being one of the greatest filmmakers in Hollywood history, has the following famous quote when describing the definition of a good movie: “Three great scenes, no bad ones.”
By that logic, this episode of The Newsroom might very well be a pretty good movie.
“Main Justice” is a marked improvement over last weeks “Run”, as things start clicking into place. Almost every scene crackles with the tension of events spiraling out of control, and we do in fact have three great scenes.
GREAT SCENE #1: FEDERAL CHICKEN
We hit the ground running after last week’s FBI raid cliffhanger. With the Feds tearing apart the studio trying to uncover the source, we get the deeply awesome scene where Charlie pulls off a massive bluff, threatening to turn the cameras on themselves and the Feds to air the raid live.
A game of chicken between the Feds and the news media is a hell of a way to kick off an episode that rarely stops moving, and it’s only the beginning.
In short strokes: Will and Rebecca Halliday cut a deal to cooperate with the DOJ to see if they can’t get Neal off the hook without compromising their integrity. This is how they wind up in a DOJ office on a Saturday night, facing down a fire breathin’ inquisitor that ain’t got no time for high handed comedic banter.
GREAT SCENE #2: WILL VERSUS THE ATTORNEY GENERAL WHO LOOKS KIND OF LIKE THE LATE MAURY CHAYKIN TO ME
At his best, Sorkin is able to turn normal scenes of exposition or conversation into full-on action set pieces, where the words can hit with the impact of an exploding car, and you might actually find yourself involuntarily pumping your fist. That’s exactly what happens here as Will, Rebecca, Mac and Charlie come face to face with Barry Lazenthal, the remarkably unimpressed Assistant Attorney General for National Security.
Lazenthal, who starts out at a 9.5, and only becomes more intense as tempers flare around him, reveals he knows exactly where Neal is and takes a certain sadistic pleasure in lobbying threats and insults at our heroes.
And when he’s finished, Will, who has been nothing but polite and accommodating to both the FBI and the DOJ immediately turns the tables, shutting him down with another of those perfectly designed Sorkin speeches. You know the kind: the ones where the Hero tells his would-be tormentor exactly when and how he fucked up, and why he won’t be able to back up his bluster.
As delivered by Jeff Daniels? Gentle reader, I can assure you: fists were indeed pumped.
(Inwardly, I mean; there were people around and I have my pride…)
GREAT SCENE #3: WILL VS. TOBY FROM THE OFFICE AND THE PROPHECY OF DOOM
The Maggie reclamation project continues as she spearheads an interview segment based on her EPA encounter last week. I wasn’t expecting any follow-up to that little plotline, and I certainly wasn’t expecting it to culminate in one of Sorkins’ “patented interviews gone horrifically awry”, as returning EPA guy Paul Lieberstein (Double Toby score!!!) resists Wills’ every attempt to sugarcoat the inevitable apocalypse (though credit where credit is due: he does allow for the miniscule possibility of a Road Warrior-style hellscape…)
Deft writing and the beautiful chemistry between Daniels and Lieberstein elevates this to one of the strongest comedy bits in the shows history. In an episode so thick with tension and danger, it was a relief to release the pressure gauge a bit and get this purely comedic, laugh out loud funny sequence.
So, there you have it: three great scenes. But what about the rest of the episode?
Last week, I had noted that Jim, previously filling the role of earnest, handsome young idealist and demographically desirable romantic lead, had fallen off the radar as a character this season. But the fallout from Hallie’s firing thrusts him back into the spotlight for the B-Plot, and he does yeoman’s work in reminding us of what we had forgotten in his relative absence:
Jim Harper is, and always has been, a massive tool.
Jim starts off by bantering with Maggie over her EPA story, though his banter comes off as less “playful” and more “incredibly dickish”. Then he continues his winning streak by badgering Hallie about her new job as a blogger for Carnivore.com, which is a downright terrible name for a news site, and whose “more page clicks, more cash” incentives rub Jim the wrong way. He bloviates in that way great Sorkin men do when they sense injustice; his talking points are essentially correct, but delivered in such a smug and condescending manner that they’re impossible to hear over the sound of our own teeth grinding.
There is something deeply satisfying in the scene where Maggie calls Jim out on his behavior. The days of her pathetic pining are long gone, and she’s more than willing to give Jim the shit he truly deserves. With her dating Sexy McPoyle, I’m hoping this is the new shape of their relationship and they won’t try to pull a Hail Mary and have them wind up together in the end, which will just bum me the fuck out if it happens…
Speaking of romantic entanglements, we may as well get this weeks’ Don and Sloan misadventure out of the way. For no good reason at all, the new HR Rep, Toofer from 30 Rock, vows to prove they’re a couple, which will result in one of them being relocated to a different bureau.
Like last week, this is one of those things where if we were dealing with a 22-episode, or even a 13- episode season, I’d be fine with it. But with only three shows left, this seems like a pretty big waste of television real estate.
Which isn’t to say it’s a total loss: Don presiding over a dispute between Gary and a staff writer/former conquest was a pretty amusing example of the ol’ Sorkin back-and-forth (though it’s kind of a bummer that the only character development Gary gets in three years is being revealed to be a bit of a poon hound. A poon hound that knows all the words to ‘Anything Goes’, but a poon hound nonetheless…)
Meanwhile, in the wonderful world of corporate intrigue, an even newer threat to ACN and News Night has reared its boyish head: Former CEO of Dunder Mifflin Infinity, Ryan the intern!
Seriously, what is going on with the casting this season? What’s next, Stanley as Mac’s long-lost sister?
(I know that Catherine Tate is the obvious choice here, but I believe in color blind casting. So there.)
BJ Novak turns the douchey eccentricity up to 11 as Lucas Pruitt, a potential buyer for ACN. Selling the news network, we find, might be the only way to raise the capital needed to the impending Savannah buyout. An unusually cowed Charlie meets with Pruitt, who has some very odd ideas involving crowdsourcing journalism and specialized content streams.
This bit brings us back to the conflict posed in the premiere: that of old school journalism in the age of the internet. It’s seen in Novak’s brief cameo, where he extols the virtues of tailoring your output to target a specific demographic, and the economic benefits of unpaid ‘volunteers’ creating their own news cycle. And in the Hallie plotline, we find that her new job as a news blogger pays bonuses for page clicks, prompting Jim’s concern that gossip will win out over actual reporting, which he helpfully explains in as aggravating a manner as humanly possible.
There’s a bit of disingenuousness in the way Sorkin is approaching the subject matter. As portrayed here, Pruitt sounds like a complete lunatic, and Hallie’s job is not the absolute death of journalism that Jim makes it out to be. Which, to be fair, is more or less what Maggie tells him, but it’s pretty clear where Sorkin’s sympathies lie, and that bias does a disservice to the actual complexities of the issue.
In other big news, we finally meet the source that started all of this in the first place, and it’s Clea Duvall!
(I don’t think the character is given a name here, so I’m just going to assume it’s the actual Clea Duvall, playing herself)
Duvall confronts Mac at the White House Correspondents Dinner to ask why they haven’t run the story yet. Mac tells her they’re trying to comply with the Government, which goes over exactly as well as you’d imagine with a leaker of Government secrets. She gives them an ultimatum: run the story in four days, or she’ll leak it herself.
(You might want to do what she says, Mac; do you really want to fuck with Stokes?)
And just when things can’t get any worse, Will gets served a subpoena to appear before a Grand Jury!
So here’s where our heroes stand at the end of the hour:
– ACN is about to be bought by Mindy Kaling’s ex, who might just be a crazy person; — Will has been served, and not by Omarion and Lil’ Fizz; — Clea Duvall is going to make all the shit the News Night team has gone through on her behalf totally irrelevant; — Sloan and Don are forced to live a lie where meatballs are forcibly fed to the elderly; — Jim’s hair falls out and his skull is revealed to have the exact same shape and euphemistic value of an erect phallus;
– The world is literally going to end in our lifetime.