The Newsroom: Season 1, Episode 9–The Blackout part 2: Mock Debate

“The story is this: Will is a heavyweight, and for a long time he pretended to be a lightweight.”

NewsroomDebate

I still think it’s an odd/brave decision to have The Newsroom’s first two-part story at this point – in the first season before the show has properly proved itself, but late in that season so that there’s actually only one more episode after it. But actually the rationale holds up a little more strongly than I thought now I’ve seen ‘Part 2’ – because apart from the somewhat contrived cliffhanger last week, it doesn’t really feel like a two-part story at all, merely another episode in what’s basically an ongoing drama serial. In fact, given that it’s hard to point to any episode that feels totally self-contained so far, the whole idea of a two-part ‘story’ seems rather redundant.

Having said all that, how does this stack up as a ‘conclusion’ to The Blackout? From a straightforward perspective of dramatic structure, not all that well. We open with the studio in darkness, the evening’s broadcast jeopardised at the worst possible time, with ratings dropping and the network execs circling like sharks scenting blood. But Mack insists that, with a little ingenuity, they can carry on. Generators can be procured. Permissions can be obtained from the NYPD. And the show can be broadcast, from a single camera, right on the streets of New York City. Yes, Goddammit, let’s do the show right here!

It was an inspirational speech – but a contrived seeming one, like Bill Pullman’s toe-curling effort in Independence Day. Thankfully, just as it really was starting to look like an old Judy Garland musical where they stage the show in the barn, the lights came back on, to Mack’s disappointment. It was a belly laugh moment, and worked well at that; but having the ‘crisis’ of last week’s cliffhanger resolved (with no intervention from the heroes) in the first five minutes of the episode seemed to not only undermine the cliffhanger, but make the ‘two-part’ format seem a bit of a contrived cheat.

Further, it seemed to make the title a bit of a nonsense too – why call it The Blackout when said blackout, presumably intended as the dramatic pivot of the episodes, came and went in a couple of minutes? Still, Aaron Sorkin’s a clever man, so I immediately started looking for a more metaphorical meaning. Was it the ‘blacking out’ of honest news? The ‘blacking out’ of Mack and Will’s integrity, in their compromise over Casey Anthony to keep their proposed GOP debate? Had I missed something?

Still, if the ‘blackout’ of the title was a metaphor that passed me by (assuming it was more than a reference to a momentary plot blip), at least the second part of the title made sense on two levels. Yes, it was about a ‘mock debate’ staged by the newsroom staff to gain RNC approval for ANC to host it; but it was also about ‘mocking the debate’, as it became clear that the RNC shills sent to evaluate ANC’s proposal were never going to approve this in a million years, and the US voter would be left with such penetrating questions as CNN’s, “Miss Bachmann, do you prefer Elvis or Johnny Cash?”

Yes, after last week’s plethora of news story targets, this week the show focused down on just a couple, most prominent of which was those interminable Republican Primary debates that seemed to take up most of last year. The older of the two RNC officials (Adam Arkin as Adam Roth) sent to evaluate ANC’s approach used to work with Will in the Bush (1) White House, and shared his distaste for the pablum that passes for political debate on TV these days. But principles can be a costly thing; he can’t afford to stand up for them when the GOP’s wages are paying for his son to attend Stanford.

Sadly, it was obvious to anyone with a knowledge of how this kind of drama works that Will and Mack’s proposed debate format was never going to get off the ground. The Newsroom can comment on recent history, but to show our fictional characters taking an active part in such real events would stray too far out of the real world Sorkin’s so intent on commenting on. Nonetheless, it made the frustration he felt about the debates perfectly clear. As Roth commented, Will’s approach would “clear out the clown car” of the more outlandish Republican hopefuls. No such luck; instead we got a seemingly endless series of debates which began increasingly to resemble the theatre of the absurd, at the end of which the Party settled on the candidate least likely to cause offence. That Mitt Romney was that man tells you quite something about the electability of his competitors.

A shame we never got to see more of the mock debate, but I concede that Sorkin had already spent a fair bit of time last week demolishing the bizarre rhetoric of some of the more eccentric contenders. Instead, there were a few more tidbits on the newsworthiness of the Casey Anthony and Anthony Weiner stories. In particular, the absurdity of singling out the Casey Anthony trial as ‘tragedy porn’ was highlighted when it (highly conveniently) turned out that Maggie’s roommate (and Jim’s ‘Schrodinger’s girlfriend’) Lisa actually went to school with Casey, and was therefore summoned to appear on air as a promotable interviewee and an exclusive.

Her appearance was secured following a somewhat protracted comic scene showing Jim and Maggie pestering her at her job (selling insanely expensive dresses for commission only). Yes, it was quite amusing, but felt a bit dragged out – even though the script managed to work in an almost-quote from British comedy legends Morecambe and Wise. After Maggie spewed out various media jargon about ‘promotability’ and Lisa commented that she’d never hear Maggie use such words before, Maggie retorted that she certainly had, “but not in that order”.

That aside, Mack cleverly turned Lisa’s interview into a Trojan horse (at Maggie’s suggestion) by furnishing the interviewee with a detailed list of all the recent child murder trials that weren’t being reported sensationalistically coast to coast. Unfortunately Lisa, carried away with crusading zeal, then unwisely decided to shoehorn in her views on why abortion should be more acceptable. Given that this is one of the most incendiary subjects in US politics right now, it was little surprise that she found a brick being hurled through the window of the shop she worked at, and ‘Baby Killer’ sprayed all over the storefront.

This again gave Will a chance to show how moderate he is as a Republican. He may be ‘pro-life’ rather than ‘pro-choice’ (gotta love the linguistic contortions each side goes through to ensure they’re not seen as ‘anti’ anything), but he’s certainly anti-throwing bricks through windows.

Moderation, however, is not a big part of his emotional makeup when it comes to relationships. Following the trend last week, this episode saw yet more delving into the motivations behind Will and Mack’s breakup and inability to sort out their current feelings for each other. Will unloaded (again) to his therapist Dr Habib, who perceptively worked out that he’d been scouring internet dating sites for advice; meanwhile Mack intermittently fumed at her ex Brian, perhaps inadvertently giving the impression that she’s some kind of a ‘news groupie’, and prefers Will because he’s a more important journalist.

Despite yet another ‘reconciliation’ scene at the end of the episode, it’s plain that Sorkin thinks this plot has plenty more mileage in it yet. As indeed does the Maggie/Don/Jim/Lisa one, which is beginning to be actively frustrating in all of its participants’ inability to tell each other the truth and reach some kind of conclusion. Steps at least were made in that direction this week, as Mack’s inspirational quoting of a 17th century poem made Jim resolve that he was going to go for Maggie after all.

But with the inevitable comic timing of classic farce, he turned up at her apartment to tell her this just as A) Don was already there and B) Maggie had talked Lisa into giving Jim another go at dating. Just as I was about to scream with annoyance, Don, in a rare moment of empathy and perception, twigged that Jim had actually come to see Maggie, and spilled his guts about his own recent infidelities in an attempt to do the right thing. Perhaps some good will come of this. On more recent form though, Maggie will probably decide to take the plunge with Jim just as he’s got back with Lisa. And round and round it goes, until someone (possibly me) brains Aaron Sorkin with a tea kettle.

Speaking of violence, Neal’s comic quest to infiltrate the online community of trolls took a turn for the serious. Having tried and failed to gain their respect by trolling a discussion on economics and altering Sloan’s Wikipedia entry to say that she started out as a stripper, he was in the chatroom trying to claim responsibility for the death threat against Will. But he may have stumbled on a bigger story than he anticipated, as one user knows he’s lying – because that user was the real culprit. Cue Neal’s frantic call to Will’s bodyguard Lonnie, and the episode closing on a shot of a pensive Will, still a target.

This was an uneven episode with its none-too-convincing form as the second half of a two part story, but as an ongoing drama it was still pretty compelling. There’s just one more episode to go, though thankfully the show’s been renewed by HBO and will be back next year. News of the renewal may have altered the form of the final episode – I dread the possibility that the various ‘near-miss’ relationships’ resolutions will be artificially extended yet further. But there’s also the genuine drama of the death threat against Will, who seems to have been ditching his bodyguard with alarming regularity, and the impending exposure of ACN’s parent company as a News International-type phone hacking operation. However it goes, I think there’s going to be plenty of excitement next week.

3 thoughts on “The Newsroom: Season 1, Episode 9–The Blackout part 2: Mock Debate”

  1. Hope to see you comment on last night’s finale. It surely fired me up to say a few things on my blog. I chose a real-time commentary format for Episode 9, to see how it felt. I really liked Michael Scherer’s Republican debate commentary, in that same vein. Although my prose in no way rose to the level of his on Time magazine, I did learn some things. It convinced me to get an Apple wireless keyboard for the IPad, cause it’s hard to write spontaneously clever musings with just an index digit. Obviously you used more digits after the fact, with great results!

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