Guys? Help me out here. All throughout this inaugural season of The Newsroom, I have attempted to look for the positive. In some cases, that came more easily than in others. There have been some very good episodes of this show, and there have also been some pretty heinous ones. But even in the more heinous circumstances, there were usually a couple things I could point to in order to say, "See? There's something worthwhile here."
In watching "The Blackout Part II: The Mock Debate," I was unable to find one of those things.
I tried. I really did. Initially, that debate demonstration we've been building toward seemed like it could have been this episode's great moment. I sat there, thinking about the merits of the new debate format the staff pitched to the RNC, the aching plead for more pointed questioning and scrutiny of presidential candidates that Will and Mackenzie and Charlie have been fighting for. I watched as Will tore the boilerplate answers of his impersonating staff to shreds in front of RNC reps. I knew, of course, that the reps would never go for it. No party in its right mind would ever put its candidates through these kinds of paces, because that would be suicidal—especially with the clown-shoes crop of candidates we've got this election cycle. What I didn't expect was to find myself agreeing with the smarmy, by-the-book RNC guy who we were all meant to hate.
It's not that I don't think there's merit in the idea of grilling our presidential candidates harder. There was no more savage moment this week than the brief clip of Michele Bachmann being tossed the softball question of "Elvis? Or Johnny Cash?" by John King. It's that the savagery with which Will went after his mock candidates demonstrated a greater self interest than simply improving discourse. He cross-examined them, obliterated them every time they tripped on their words. He murdered them, and in the end, the only one who could possibly have looked good by the end of it was Will McAvoy. And the smarmy RNC guy pointed that out. And he was right.
With the debate dead, all of News Night's pandering to the Casey Anthony and Anthony Weiner rubberneckers was for naught. All that hard work, all that crawling around the muck, it meant pretty much nothing. And yet, I suppose it really couldn't have gone any other way. But there was still something kind of empty-feeling about the whole ordeal. Seeing the staff flip to the dark side, only to immediately flip back, felt so hollow. The principles these people supposedly believe in so much apparently can be flipped on and off like a light switch. They might not like the switch when it's dark, but they flip it anyway, because ratings, but also Journalism, and... wait, where are we again?
I stress that these unfortunate debate sections of "The Blackout Part II" were the best parts of "The Blackout Part II." The rest of the episode was a train wreck, a colossally miserable mash-up of all the things this show doesn't do well, scrunched together into a frenzied, generally execrable hour of television that overstuffed itself with too many things of little import. Unless, of course, you're one of the nine people who's super invested in Will/Mackenzie/Old Boyfriend situation, or Jim/Maggie/Don/Lisa's quadrangle of relationship nonsense. If that's you, then this was probably the best episode ever.
We've run this course so many times now that I had honestly begun to believe that maybe the Maggie/Jim thing was just over with. Don hadn't been made out to be a particularly bad guy, and Lisa, despite her occasional ditziness, arguably appears to be a far more sane and put-together woman than Maggie. So this week, of course all of that got messed up. We learned that Don had been sleeping with other women while broken up with Maggie, and that this revelation may finally put the kibosh on their coupling. We also watched Jim go from wanting Lisa, to Lisa forcing him back to Maggie, to Jim wanting Maggie again but suddenly finding himself with Lisa all over him once more. All of that in an hour.
And somehow, there was still room for Will and Mac to flit around their own issues as well. Mac knows Will's psychologically punishing her by having her ex hang around the office. Will knows he's doing this, but he doesn't know why. Eventually his therapist got around to telling him why, but still we were left dangling. All we learned this week is that both characters know what they're doing, they know it's idiotic, yet they continue to do it. Why am I supposed to root for these two again?
For all these actors' inherent likability, I couldn't bring myself to cheer on any of these clods as they continued down their spiral of endless shrieking and espousing of principals while pretending they don't want to screw each other. It's exhausting, unbearable stuff that completely distracts from the show's purported purpose of highlighting the news media's various failings. Even when I find Aaron Sorkin's methods preachy, I still find myself compelled to watch as he deconstructs where the media has failed us. He might be a smug armchair quarterback, but more often than not, he's right. Dammit.
This week featured none of that. Neal continued his ludicrous pursuit of "online troll sites" by continuing to demean Sloan on comment threads. She finally gave him her grudging permission for some reason, but mostly focused her attention on the subject of the debt-ceiling votes, which she proclaimed nobody was covering. That, by the way, isn't exactly true, since I distinctly recall hearing pretty much nothing but commentary on the debt ceiling when all that stuff broke. Sure, it wasn't on Nancy Grace, but that doesn't bother me because I don't watch Nancy Grace, on account of I am a sane human being who has an ounce of self-respect.
Even when Sloan finally got her wish, we got to see none of it. Instead, more time was dedicated to Casey Anthony, and the revelatory realization that Lisa used to go to high school with "Tot Mom." Lisa didn't really know Tot Mom, of course, but that didn't matter. Will needed a guest no one else had, and she had to be it. So Maggie and Jim had to walk on down to the expensive dress shop where Tot Mom works, and engage in absurd behavior to eventually get her to agree to appear. She did, albeit with a big card full of prepared statements written by the News Night staff. Suddenly, she had become a squawk box for the staff, railing against their own coverage in a way that Will and Mackenzie couldn't. But then she went off script, delivering a scathing pro-choice statement that apparently someone didn't take too kindly to.
Everything that was wrong with "The Blackout Part II" could pretty much be found in the scenes that followed. Because of her courage to say what she felt, Lisa was rewarded with a visit to her place of work by a vandal, who painted the words "BABY KILLER" on the front of the store. How did the vandal find her place of work? It was on her Facebook page, which Jim hilariously instructed her to "take down." And then in walked Will, out of the smoky nighttime distance, to comfort poor Lisa and rescue her by talking to her boss. Why was Will there? Nobody bothered to ask. But the deftness with which he handled the situation was like something out of old Hollywood.
And then there was a scene where Will fell over in the middle of the newsroom with his pants around his ankles.
So, to tally up this week's damage, Will morphed into both a white knight and a clumsy boob, Mackenzie returned to her screaming hysterics phase, there was no real forward progress with the big honking conspiracy against AWM, and the news was basically ignored altogether in favor of spending far too many precious minutes on the relationship stuff that even the show's most ardent fans have a hard time defending. Did I miss anything?
– I really wanted to see the big, inspirational, outdoor newscast Mackenzie had cooked up right before the power came back on. For the first time all season, then Mackenzie began screaming her skull off, I actually felt her pain.
– In Neal's trolling expl toits, he accidentally discovered the online home of the guy who threatened Will's life. Suddenly the possibility of Neal dying by season's end seems more realistic. Not that I'm rooting for that, or anything. Of course not.
– Nice to see Adam Arkin as the more friendly, less partisan RNC staffer. Him and Will chatting made up the best moments of this week's episode. There weren't nearly enough of them.
– How is "The Blackout Part II: The Mock Debate" not the name of somebody's rap album?
– To answer a question from last week's comments as well as clarify a point about this week's episode, I absolutely believe that real-world debates should be more mindful of the statements politicians have made in the past, and more pointed in their questioning. It's the way the questions are being delivered by the staff (and, by proxy, Sorkin), with maximum gotcha-ness, that I can't quite deal with. Nobody wants to be cross-examined, which is exactly why nobody gets cross-examined unless they have to. There's intelligent discourse, and then there's self-aggrandized preaching. That's what Will's method is.
– Only one more episode left in this season, and it's sure to be heavy on the conspiracy stuff. I'm just wondering exactly how much the show is going to tie up this season. If the bit in the preview we saw with Jane Fonda pulling a Vince McMahon on Will is the last line of a cliffhanger finale, I'm quitting this series altogether.