The staff at ACN do one thing, do it well: report the news. Operation Genoa aside, over the past two seasons, Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels) and his team have worked to attain a certain standard of journalistic integrity. Even if that has resulted in the lowest ratings amongst their competitors, “The Newsroom” staff do adhere to an unwritten rulebook, one that lets them go home at night knowing they’ve done the best work they could. But as “Main Justice” kicks off, their responsibility to journalism has resulted in the FBI raiding the studio, with this episode picking up right where last week’s “Run” finished. Computers are being taken apart, hard drives are removed, and questions are being asked constantly about the whereabouts of Neal Sampat (Dev Patel). So, how can ACN get the FBI out of their hair? Report the news.
Charlie (Sam Waterston) comes up with the brilliant idea to broadcast the presence of the FBI in his newsroom live on air. Of course, he’s not really going to do that, but the team is going to make a big show of it. Gary (Chris Clark) grabs a camera, Jim (John Gallagher Jr.) and Don (Thomas Sadoski) hit the control room and fumble around trying to figure out how to turn on the banks of monitors and the control deck. They barely manage until the increasingly confident Maggie (Alison Pill) waltzes in and helps them pull it together. Meanwhile, Sloan (Olivia Munn) sits behind the anchor desk and gets ready to go to air. And just seconds away from going “live,” FBI agent and MacKenzie’s friend Molly (Mary McCormack) calls off the raid. And after a quick meeting in the boardroom, Rebecca Halladay (Marcia Gay Harden) emerges with the news that a compromise has been reached: there will be a cease fire on both sides for one week, and the following Friday at midnight, the key portions of the ACN team will meet with prosecutors at the U.S. Department Of Justice for questioning. If the authorities can figure out who the source is based on the information obtained, they’ll walk away happy. If not? It could become an issue of “national security,” and Will and/or Neal will be forced to give up the identity of the leaker. And while MacKenzie thinks it’s a raw deal, Charlie points out it’ll give them a chance to run the story with the guidance they need, without anyone being put in danger.
But the feds aren’t the only thing that the newsroom has to worry about. With the potential takeover of AWN looming, Lenoa (Jane Fonda) and Reese (Chris Messina) reveal they only have one option left to keep control of the business — sell off ACN. Charlie was expecting this, but there is something of a silver lining — there is already an interested buyer in the shape of Lucas Pruit (BJ Novak), a genius, tech world success story, and the 1,390th richest person the world. The problem? He has his own ideas of what news reporting should be.
So fast forward a week and the temperature rises on both fronts. First off, the meeting at the U.S. Department Of Justice does not go well. The prosecutor they meet with is hardly in a cooperative mood. He reveals that the feds have found out that Neal has made his way to Venezuela and suggests they are fully willing to make him look like a guilty man fleeing the country, looking over his shoulder. And rather than meeting ACN halfway, the prosecutor pushes for Will reveal the source — especially in light that his credit card was used to buy the air-gapped computer, thus implicating him as a collaborator in Neal’s actions — while asserting that he won’t be able to hide behind the First Amendment. But he goes too hard, and Will points out he was ready to help any way he (legally, journalistically) could, but the threats against Neal, and the insults toward MacKenzie, Charlie and Rebecca, has spoiled that goodwill, and the entire team walks from the meeting.
The next night, the ACN crew attends the Correspondent’s Dinner, for appearances sake, as Charlie is slated to meet Louis, and what he gets surprises him. Imagine if Novak took his character Ryan from “The Office” circa the WUFPH era, but infused it with far more confidence and ego. The result is a man whose vision for the news is “disruption.” In an ADD-rattled riff, Louis tells Charlie his half-baked ideas for user-generated news, crowd-sourced reporting (while acknowledging the bungled attempt during the Boston Marathon), and a vision of having no cost for content. Needless to say Charlie is taken aback, and even as he previously told everyone else to give Louis the latitude to share his ideas, he’s unsure if he can work with him.
Meanwhile, the party introduces a couple of ticking clocks before the episode closes. First, Will is served a subpoena to appear in front of a grand jury in two days time on Monday morning. And then, Neal’s source Lilly (Clea Duvall) boldly introduces herself to MacKenzie and asks her why the story hasn’t been run. She doesn’t understand why ACN is trying to cooperate with the government and she gives MacKenzie an ultimatum: she has until Wednesday to run the story or she’s going somewhere else with her material. The stakes, which were already high, just got higher. And Will, who previously thought he was Too Big To Jail (ha), is suddenly realizing that government overreach doesn’t stop at celebrity.
And though the mainline thread is great stuff, Aaron Sorkin fumbles with his subplots here. Maggie’s potentially juicy EPA story goes completely off the rails when Richard Westbrook (Paul Lieberstein) goes off the deep end during his live, on-air interview with Will. He essentially posits that it’s too late for mankind, we’re all doomed, and there’s nothing that can be done to save the day. It’s a spectacular trainwreck of an interview, but the twist leaves a sour taste. With Sorkin taking pains to mention in “Run” that no one is paying attention to environmental news, by turning Maggie’s scoop into a comic relief, he muddles his intention to perhaps treat the issues more seriously here.
Perhaps even worse is the introduction of a new HR exec who makes it his mission to prove that Don and Sloan are dating for reasons that are never quite convincing. And the mildly screwball antics of Don and Sloan trying not to be a couple in front of him are painfully unfunny.
And then there’s Jim who rather unbelievably learns that there are some places on the web, prominent news sites even, that pay their writers a salary plus a bonus for page views. Hallie (Grace Gummer) has landed a new job at one such startup, and Jim is aghast that such a business model exists. But he takes one step further into asshole territory, when he half-jokingly suggests that depending on how big Hallie’s bonus is, she’ll spill some of the things she’s learned in private about ACN, include things about Neal, with Don and Jim apparently in touch with him. Hallie, rightly so, is furious that Jim would even have that thought cross his mind.
While starting strong, “The Newsroom” has slipped a bit in the midway point of the final season. Again, the main thrust is compelling and strong, but the supporting stories are all the more weak in comparison and, particularly in “Main Justice,” appear like half-hearted filler. Three down and three to go, and we’ll see what Sorkin has up his sleeve next. [C+]