Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

The Newsroom: “The Blackout Part II: The Mock Debate”

Illustration for article titled The Newsroom: “The Blackout Part II: The Mock Debate”

Tonight is my last week reviewing The Newsroom. I depart for sunny Delaware this Friday and leave the final episode in the capable hands of our TV editor, Todd VanDerWerff. So let me offer a final, three-word summary of the show, based both on my overall experience and my specific experience with “The Blackout, Part 2: Electric Boogaloo.”

I don’t care.

I don’t care about Will and Mac—the affair that she had, the hair-splitting over whether Will was rejected or betrayed, the trouble he has in forgiving Mac, or the future they may or may not have together. I don’t care about Jim, Don, and Maggie—the withering love between Don and Maggie, the flirtatious chemistry between Jim and Maggie, Maggie’s deflective attempt to set Jim up with her roommate, whoever the hell signed for the flowers. None of it. I don’t care about News Night’s bid at reinvention, because it’s too often made to seem too easy, because it has opened up endless opportunities for speechifying and 20/20 journalistic hindsight, and because the show so cavalierly ignores the way an actual newsroom might operate. It’s a fantasy that never resonates, despite Aaron Sorkin’s fundamentally valid points about the inadequacies of broadcast news to inform the public, address serious issues, and seek truth over right/left balance.

It doesn’t help that “The Blackout, Part 2: Armed And Fabulous” devotes the lion’s share of its time to the weakest aspect of the show, i.e. the relationship stuff. With the season nearing the finish, Sorkin has to shit or get off the pot on Will and Mac and the Jim/Don/Maggie love triangle. And shit he does, sending Will to therapy to gain some understanding over why he can’t get over Mac’s betrayal and why he’s so intent on punishing her that he’s brought back Mac’s ex (Paul Schneider) to write an exclusive story about “News Night 2.0.” Things are even more complicated with the younger trio, because Maggie’s roommate Lisa (Kelen Coleman) makes it a quartet: Lisa has feelings for Jim but can see that there’s something between him and Maggie. But neither Jim nor Maggie seem capable of honestly discussing their feelings for each other because they’re adorably frazzled in exactly the same way. And really, who cares?

(And none of them are the worst character on the show, either. That honor goes to Neal, which is no slight against Dev Patel, who’s a perfectly buoyant and charming young actor, but a slight against a character who exists solely to send the show down asinine journalistic tributaries. Nothing can top his “Bigfoot” rantings from the notorious fourth episode, but his pursuit of a story on Internet trolls—and the absurd revelation of the troll who issued a death threat to Will—was pretty undignified and demeaning. I’m not going to tell Sorkin how to do his job, but connecting trolling to “Anonymous” or other such web hacktivists might have given the subplot some shred of relevance. Instead, it’s another example of following this useless character down the rabbit hole.)

Though the “mock debate” subplot has its roots in The West Wing, Sorkin hits on a legitimate point about televised debates: They’re soft, they’re formatted to allow candidates to make unchallenged and unverified assertions, and they’re inadequate in providing voters with the information they need to make a well-considered decision at the polls. The most effective moment in tonight’s episode was a simple clip of John King asking Michelle Bachmann whether she prefers Elvis to Johnny Cash. (King also famously teed up Newt Gingrich with a question about his ex-wife that allowed Gingrich to turn on the media and enjoy a brief but boast-filled reign as GOP frontrunner.) So there are Exhibits A-Z in how the debate system is broken.

The solution is, in typical Newsroom style, absurdly fanciful: a format that allows Will to ask rhetorical questions of the candidates, then interrupt them with still more rhetorical questions when he doesn’t get the answers he wants. We can see in the two GOP reps who come to observe the mock debate—Will’s old buddy Adam Roth (Adam Arkin), with whom he talked about the faulty debate system back in the day, and the cocksure young partisan who ultimately runs the show—the split Sorkin sees within the party itself, which has been given over to far-right partisans. And while Sorkin (and everyone) has the right to expect more from a debate than what we’re getting, the “mock debate” is presented as such a format-free shredding of the candidates that it can’t be taken seriously.


It all comes around to the message of “The Blackout”: You can’t compromise your integrity and expect to have it restored down the line. By submitting to Casey Anthony and Anthony Weiner coverage—and let’s say here that those cases are not remotely analogous in terms of what the public needs to know—the News Night team abandoned its mission statement and it was doomed to lose the debate for their trouble. The chorus of “fuck yous” the characters get to say to the smarmy GOP rep bring the show right back to the dubious idea that doing a great news show is as easy as simply resolving to do so. News Night can now go back to being the great, noble, quixotic experiment in resetting the standard for broadcast news.

It can start with the debt ceiling debate, which no one was talking about at the time. And by “no one,” I mean everyone.


Stray observations:

  • Breaking news shortly before I finished this: Tony Scott committed suicide. This is really sad and shocking news about a man who changed the face of commercial cinema—and was surprisingly experimental in his later years. R.I.P.
  • Let me restate at the end of this journey (this season at least) that I honestly hoped for better things from The Newsroom and I’m sorry to let down those who enjoy the show and have this wet blanket douse their enthusiasm every week. I thought Sorkin’s screenplays for The Social Network and Moneyball were among the best of the last two years and thought the premise for this one had a lot of promise. To borrow a phrase from another esteemed critic: It just didn’t work for me, dawg.
  • It would have been terrific fun to see the News Night team stage a blackout show outside, which might have been tense and spontaneous and full of innovation. Mac wasn’t the only one disappointed by the lights coming on.
  • A good insight into Will from Brian, who says he cares about ratings “because the audience makes him feel less lonely.” Sure sounds like the Jay Leno of news to me.
  • Sorkin wrote Jim like Maggie during that excruciating scene at Lisa’s boutique store.
  • I enjoyed Sloan’s takedown of the “If I can balance my checkbook, why can’t the government balance the budget?” line, which is always deserving of mockery.
  • Lisa’s appearance on show, talking about Casey Anthony, allowed for more Sorkin soapboxing about the uselessness of TV character witnesses in cases like that. But the abortion statement and its aftermath took a minor subplot well off the track.