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The Newsroom: Things Fall Apart

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.

Comments (27)
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I suspect some of the Olivia Munn haters to shut up for a while now. In my opinion, she's proven herself over the course of the season
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I LOVE Shock Corridor, it's absolutely brilliant! Everyone go and watch it right now, you won't regret it. I also like this show.
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Not really sure on the hate on Maggie's rant. It was 100% legitimate. That is *absolutely* a question that should be asked of a major political candidate. If they want to be placed in power and represent the wishes of millions of people, then they should be held to higher standards. To claim to be 'chosen by God' to represent Americans is completely ridiculous, and its insulting to Christians and non-Christians alike.
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I'm really starting to love Don's charcter. At first I thought he was an ass, the next week I feel sorry for him and the next week he's an ass again but very funny all the way through.
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Not going to write a long comment this week, just because I'm feeling lazy today. Suffice it to say that I liked this episode.
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Don's play-by-play breakdown of a Nancy Grace broadcast was hilarious. Probably the best part of the episode for me. Also, Olivia Munn continues to impress me. Whatever other problems Sorkin is having with the writing, he's doing something right with Munn and Sloan.



Aside from the whole NSA super-computer conspiracy -- which I found a little too out there for a show like this -- I quite liked this episode.
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Regardless of what happens next week there will still be stress in "The Newsroom." What if Charlie and the gang decide to report on ACN's hacking scandal? Will that hurt the financial well-being of the parent company? I'm pretty Leona won't be happy if her son is charged in the same fashion as what took place with News Corp. I had to miss the Sunday airing of this episode, but I set a recording on my Dish Hopper so I wouldn't miss out on what was taking place. My coworkers at Dish thought it was funny that Charlie hadn't seen "The Dark Knight," but I am surprised he was even able to use a cell phone!
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Being TBC'd is never fun, but when its an episode of an Aaron Sorking show it seems especially frustrating because I have a tendency to watch and rewatch his shows and when an episode is To Be Continued each time it comes to that point it becomes less and less exciting. Still I do like that there is usually at least one completed story line by the end of each part.



The best part of this episode was the play by play of the Nancy Grace show and explaining exactly why its format makes it popular.



The worst part was Mac. I think its great that she was able to become a force again but after six weeks of her looking like a total moron it was hard to enjoy any of it. In fact because of what I saw from her the past six episodes when she was getting her way and squandering that freedom. Her actions in this episode made her look more like a petulant child and less like a female Don Quixote. I honestly don't understand how I'm supposed to feel about her character at all. Two week ago when Sloan asked Will for wisdom and Mackenzie stepped up and said "I have wisdom," even before Sloan did her mock mushroom cloud I was laughing because up to this point , if Mac has wisdom then she sure as hell isn't displaying it when her character is on camera in the Newsroom.



The same can be said for Maggie as well. She made a very valid point when she said that the first question for Bachmann should have been about what God's voice sounded like. Initially I thought that she was just trying to get Jim's goat, but when she started explaining herself it made perfect sense. Unfortunately, we only ever see Maggie as an incompetant character who is only still employed because she dodges bullets. A scene that still makes me a bit sad to remember, because what adult acts like that and expects to be taken seriously. Also after having to dodge so many bullets wouldn't one learn how to avoid the gunfights.



Finally this whole Olivia Munn is obsessed about her weight joke needs to stop. She is supposed to be an intelligent woman, at least thats how I view character's with two Ph. D's, but when Don said "You're Expanding" a few weeks ago for her to immediately think he was digging on her weight was foolish, especially considering the context of the conversation. Add in her anger at Neil (hypothetically) mentioning she has a big butt, and you're taking a character who has had great growth and stunting her. Yes character's should be flawed, but I think Sloan has enough of a flaw in her lack of social skills that we don't also need her to be foolishly obsessed with her weight.



Overall I am a huge fan of the Newsroom and will watch and rewatch each week because it is usually a lot of fun. At this point though I can admit I am worried about where a lot of the characters are going to end up because of their bi-polar character development.
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This episode was dull. I was bored through most of it, probably because the conspiracy stuff is stupid. The only highlight was watching Don describe how those tabloidy news programs grab your attention, it was sickeningly fascinating. Don is fast becoming my favourite character.
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In Neal's defense, Trolls are an interesting subject. They are usually really annoying, but they can occasionally be fun. My favorite is the guy who kept posting comments to David Bowie's "Ashes to Ashes" (a music video from 1980) at YouTube, saying that Bowie had no talent or originality and is just stealing everything from Lady Gaga. (This was at least a year ago, so you would probably have a hard time finding those comments now).
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Why such hate on Neal, TIm? :) I mean yes, he can be quite annoying, but he kinda grew on me :)
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This article wasn't written by Tim Surette, fyi.
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"...describe the voice of God... Remember discourse? Intelligence? Thoughtfulness? That question isn't those things."



If you're arguing against the precise choice of words, then you have a point. If you think it's not a relevant question, then you're just wrong. Some version of that question should have been the first thing everyone asked.



It was however a bit weird to ask specifically about the *voice* when Bachmann hasn't mentioned a voice (AFAIK). I would have asked "HOW exactly did God tell you this?", and I would have been relentless with follow-ups.



"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. "



I totally agree. That was great.
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I loved Maggie's rant and I love Neal and the fact that he's a grown-up Marshall Teller. Why is it so wrong for him to believe in Bigfoot? I mean, I don't believe in Bigfoot but is it any crazier than believing half the things "normal people" in this country believe?
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Two wrongs don't make a right. No matter how crazy other people's beliefs are, Neal would still be wrong to believe in bigfoot because a) there's no evidence of bigfoot, and b) there's no plausible theory of how a large animal can avoid leaving evidence of its existence.
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Okay, well, you give me proof that water can be turn into wine (or better yet, vodka) and I'll be happy to discriminate against Neal for believing in something he's never seen.



I believe in The Scottish Play curse. Sure, it's silly but does it make me wrong? Maybe, but it's my right to believe in it and honestly, this isn't that important to be writing a follow-up to so I bid you adieu.
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You're just making the same mistake again. What other people believe has no relevance to what we should think of what Neal is doing.
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His entire point is that it's not okay for him to mock other people for believing in Christianity, but it's totally fine to mock Neal for his (equally unbelievable) beliefs.
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MACBETH!
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Thanks. I read that and a house fell on me.
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It's considerably more believable than Michelle Bachman believing God talks to her.
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This was a very interesting episode indeed. And I'm in love with Olivia Munn ever since she started speaking Japanese!



Can't wait for part 2!
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easily the hottest scene on TV in recent memory.. and with the glasses no less? yes.
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wasn't a bad episode, but not the best either.. which is probably because it was a two parter so you can't really judge it until you get the 2nd half..



It was nice to see Paul Schneider again, even though Parks & Recreation became amazing after he left, I still miss seeing him on there.. Alison Becker was the reporter that Paul's P&R character slept with so I found that funny. it's always nice to see Chris Messina again too even though his character is the evil ratings person and we all should be aware now that ratings are BUUUULLCRAP and 100% inaccurate but that's a rant for another time. Paul and Chris together made me think of Away We Go, and the whole chocolate milkshake comment made me think of Pleasantville, where Jeff Daniels owned the malt shop lol and the "The Real Morons of South Beach" line was a nice dig at those horrible horrible shows.
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Great essay this week!





I am all on board with your first three notes. 1. Poor Maggie. At least the staffers pointed out her folly. 2. I would like to show this sequence to classes when teaching argument and logical fallacies. 3. Intellectual lawns are just as sacred as real ones, y'know.



I, too, unexpectedly now look forward to Olivia Munn's scenes.
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Way to trick us into giving the recap a shot. Bad headline fakeout!
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