The Newsroom: Things Fall Apart

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The Newsroom S01E08: "The Blackout Part 1: Tragedy Porn"

Things are finally coming to a head at News Night. The big honking conspiracy that goes all the way to the top of ACN's parent company is revealing itself. And it's oddly familiar... almost as if it were exactly like a real tabloid conspiracy that happened in real life several very real months ago at another major news company that may or may not have really been called News Corp, if my memory serves. It's almost as if Aaron Sorkin were using a real-life news story and rejiggering the details to make it fit his very fictional news universe.

The only reason I sarcastically bring this up right at the top is that this feels to me a bit like an example of exactly what Aaron Sorkin said he didn't want to do with The Newsroom. In defending the show's right to use real-world events to shore up his plotlines, Sorkin claimed that fictionalizing the news would lessen the impact of the storytelling. But in a sense, isn't he doing that exact thing right now? Isn't he taking the News of the World phone-hacking scandal and reworking the details (rather fantastically, I might add) to make them work in his News Night world? Granted, he's having characters actively acknowledge that the News of the World scandal really happened, and that ACN's hacking scandal is just like it, except different. Sort of. He's pulling a Dick Wolf "ripped from the headlines" maneuver while also acknowledging the actual headline he's ripping from. I don't know if that's a minor stroke of genius, or just outright hubris. It's probably not anywhere in between.

But it's there. It's happening. As Charlie learned from the NSA source he picked up last week, AWM is not merely giving tacit approval to its TMI reporters to hack phones for the sake of stories, but it's being pushed all the way from the top. Or, well, second from the top, as it's Reese (a.k.a. The Newsroom's Joffrey) allegedly pulling all the strings. How does Charlie's source know this? Because the NSA has actually developed the technology Lucius Fox invented for The Dark Knight to spy on people's cell phone calls. No, really. He even referenced The Dark Knight and everything.

The conspiracy stuff maybe leaves me a bit flabbergasted just because I don't necessarily understand where it's leading beyond the inevitable confrontation with Leona. This week practically shouted from the rooftops that we are in for a big showdown, either during or before the big season finale. Leona's still pissed, and she wants Will out. Will and Mac and Charlie are now scrambling to find some leverage to push back. Enter Mr. NSA, who potentially has the key to saving News Night 2.0.

But what comes after? What is Sorkin's end game? I only ask because The Newsroom has been doing its best work when the show is under duress. The best episodes this season have been when things were going wrong, and in fact, this week featured some of the best character work from any of the leads all season, specifically because the conflict between management and Will was finally pushing forward. This was especially true of Emily Mortimer, who suddenly brought MacKenzie back to a place where she didn't have to scream and fall down every five minutes.

She did this mostly through silent—as well as not-so-silent—protest over what she perceives as an abandoning of News Night's new principals. And she was right. Despite previously taking the bold-ish stance of refusing to cover the Casey Anthony trial, suddenly Mac found that everyone had reversed course following the realization that half of News Night's audience had flown the coup to the fiery hellscape that is Nancy Grace's show. Will and Charlie were suddenly on the side of ratings, it seemed. With such a brutal numbers drop, how could they not be? But Mac was unconvinced. She was still sticking to her guns, but was eventually overruled by Will and Charlie.

I guess it took some real strife to finally bring back the super interesting MacKenzie I remember from the show's pilot. For too long Mac has sort of just been this flailing, unremarkable presence who Will bats around like a cat toy. Last night, Mortimer finally had the chance to flex her muscles a bit, and she didn't waste the opportunity. Mortimer's half-petulant, half-enraged reaction to just about every aspect of News Night's new-new direction was fantastic. Even when things were going wrong earlier in the season, Mac never quite got to do much apart from disagreeing with Will or agreeing with Charlie. Suddenly, it was all Mac this week, and Mortimer drove home her disappointment and anger at having to pander to the tabloid-gobblers in a smart, funny way that made Mac suddenly look like a strong presence again. Mac generally hasn't mattered outside of Will's perpetually bi-polar interest in her. This week Mac got to be her own character, and it worked so, so well.

Even the relationship stuff between Mac and Will had more weight this week, largely because it went to some dark places. Will brought in a reporter to potentially write a cover story for New York Magazine about what News Night is doing, and it just so happened that the reporter once dated MacKenzie. In fact, he was the ex-boyfriend MacKenzie cheated on Will with. Normally this would be a recipe for histrionic-laden awkwardness, but Mac held things together in a way that suddenly made me like the character again. And Will's cruelty toward Mac was never more apparent than it was this week. As I said last week, Will is an asshole who we're meant to like. He made it very tough to like him this week, but Jeff Daniels still managed to pull it off. I'm not necessarily rooting for Mac and Will to get together at this point, but this week marked the first real fleshing-out of their history that actually worked for the episode, instead of distracting from it.

It's moments like these that make me worry about where The Newsroom goes after this season. As potentially ridiculous as this conspiracy is, it's creating an environment of struggle that suits these characters well. Leona and Reese's motives are clear, plain, and in their own twisted logic, reasonable. Will's fear is similarly cogent, and I like seeing him actually dig into more personal subjects, beyond the scope of Real Journalism. Mac suddenly feels like a force in the newsroom again, and any subject that allows us to completely forget about the Maggie/Don/Jim thing is A-OK by me.

But once this plotline wraps itself up (I just can't envision this bleeding into next season), what becomes the strife? With a conspiracy so far-reaching—one that can only end with Reese either in handcuffs or thoroughly blackmailed into leaving News Night alone—what becomes the challenge? What do these characters fight against except who gets to sleep with who? It's not like they're going to get the actual Koch brothers to come on the air, so what, do we manufacture a new villain in the news media for Will to rail against? Again, that seems to go against Sorkin's idea of treating the real-world news to his brand of observation.

Maybe I'm wrong and I'm worrying for nothing. If nothing else, the issues we have in front of us right now are making for compelling television. Suddenly existent Dark Knight technologies aside, "The Blackout Part 1" did a lot of things right, even during its most laughable moments. I'm just hoping that in wrapping up this season, the things that made this episode so compelling don't fall by the wayside.



NOTES


– Maybe it's just me, but Will's idea for a debate-style program sounded great until I started hearing the questions his staff was coming up with. Maggie angrily demanding that Jim (pretending to be Michelle Bachmann) describe the voice of God was precisely the kind of embittered raging that, supposedly, this show is against. Remember discourse? Intelligence? Thoughtfulness? That question isn't those things.

– On the flip side, Don's breakdown of Nancy Grace's insidious formula for trash television was a stroke of genius. It's sickening how detailed and effective it really is.

– Will mocked bloggers again this week, and Leona snidely referred to having a podcast as something akin to career death. We get it, Aaron, you hate the internet.

– I wasn't really looking for a literal blackout to happen this week. I thought the episode's title was just some kind of metaphor, as is custom. Nope! Literal blackout, right as Mac asked God for a sign. Oh Aaron...

– The show's plot synopsis this week instilled fear in me regarding Sloan, given that all it said was, "Sloan complains about not having enough airtime." Fortunately, the situation was more layered than that, and Olivia Munn turned in another stellar performance as she passionately pleaded to get a real issue on the air. I'm finally starting to get used to typing the words "Olivia Munn" and "stellar performance" week after week.

– I swear I'm not just praising Munn because she did what I've wanted to do all season, in slamming Neal's head against a wall. If any character needs to die at the end of this season, please let it be Neal. Ideally by a horde of internet trolls who descend on him like the nymphomaniacs in Shock Corridor. Sorry, I just watched Shock Corridor over the weekend. Still got it on the brain.

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