Monday, March 18, 2013

The Newsroom 1.09: "The Blackout Part 2: Mock Debate"

“Balancing your checkbook is to balancing the budget as driving to the supermarket is to landing on the moon!”

Possibly because it was the second part of a loosely connected two-part episode and possibly because it’s near the end of the season, this particular episode of “The Newsroom” didn’t focus on one particular news event. And I think the episode suffered for lack of that focus. We’ve got a bunch of plots going on in this one. There’s the ongoing AWM fight with Will, Will’s “mission to civilize” manifesting itself in a crusade to reform Presidential debates, Neal’s desire to report on that novel topic of internet trolls, and the Jim/Maggie/Don/Lisa Quadrangle of Doom. And there are probably a couple things I forgot in that list, too. It definitely feels like Sorkin just realized that he has a lot of plot threads to wrap up before the end of the season, and he’s going to get to them all, episode structure be damned!

The episode picks up right where the last one left off, which isn’t really surprising, considering that this is ostensibly a two-parter. Mackenzie has just asked God to give her a sign that she isn’t “doing a big thing badly,” while setting up a pre-tape interview related to the Casey Anthony case, and the power has promptly gone out. Mackenzie uses this as motivation to get her act back together, and she start rallying the troops to do their broadcast outside. Just as they’ve abandoned Casey Anthony and are ready to mount a heroic effort to set up a broadcast over twenty floors down, the power comes back on. And so the Casey Anthony pre-tape resumes, and Mackenzie goes back to feeling like a tool.

In the realm of less important plot lines, the Quadrangle of Doom continues to progress. Don receives flowers at the office from a woman he dated while he and Maggie were “broken up” (they’ve broken up a bunch in the past year and a half, apparently), and Jim signs for them. So Jim knows that he has a pretty juicy tidbit of information he can use to further his chances with Maggie. The idiot doesn’t really succeed in using it, though. He spends most of the episode trying to get back together with Lisa, really. He explains at one point, when he’s told that he’s “on deck” that he doesn’t want to be anyone’s second choice. Although, really, Maggie seems to be Don’s second choice, and Lisa is his second choice, so no matter the configuration we end up with for the Quadrangle, somebody’s going to be with somebody as their second choice. Anyway, Mackenzie gives Jim a speech about “gather ye rosebuds,” and he rushes off to Maggie and Lisa’s apartment. Don is there, and Lisa answers the door. Jim only gets half a sentence out before Lisa says that Maggie convinced her to take him back. They go for a walk, and it’s pretty obvious that Jim’s plan was to ask Maggie out, not Lisa. And Don finally comes clean to Maggie about the other women he’s been dating recently.

In other Lisa-related news, it turns out that Lisa went to high school with Casey Anthony. News Night is still flagging in the ratings, although not as badly as when they weren’t reporting on Casey Anthony at all, so they’re really looking for an angle on the story that nobody else has covered. They need the ratings to improve, after all, if they want a shot at scoring one of the RNC debates. And Will has them working on this apparently amazing, revolutionary debate format. More on that later. Jim and Maggie kind of make asses of themselves bugging Lisa about coming in for an interview while she’s working with a client at a dress shop. Lisa does finally agree, though, and Maggie throws in a twist to make the whole thing a bit more palatable. She reminds everyone that the promo for Lisa’s appearance is all they really need for the ratings. She can say whatever she wants when she’s on camera. Mackenzie has Maggie look up some statistics on missing children for Lisa to read instead of Casey Anthony gossip. Lisa’s grateful for the change in programming, but she makes the mistake of taking it one step farther and throwing in an abortion rights argument. The dress shop where she works ends up getting vandalized, and Will has to clean up the mess with her boss.

So now we’ll take a little break from the mock debate drama to talk about what was both the best and worst plot of the episode at the same time. Neal still wants to do his big internet troll story, and this whole thing cracks me up because it shows the depth of Aaron Sorkin’s likely technophobia. Sorry, but internet trolls are not a new phenomenon. Even worse, Neal is trying to gain acceptance by some mythical ultimate website where trolls congregate. To do this, he wants to trash Sloan online, and this does not make Sloan happy. Neal finds it humorously difficult to get the economists riled up, though, although he does get somewhat of a reaction by asking that typically naive question of why, if he can balance his checkbook, the government can’t balance the budget. She Sloan angle is decidedly underwhelming, so Neal’s investigation takes a more dangerous turn. He wants to look into who made the death threat against Will a few episodes back.

So two RNC staffers, one of which is an old friend of Will’s, arrive at News Night, and Will stages the mock debate. As he explains it to the staffers, he wants to put the candidate on the witness stand. The whole thing fails on so many levels. First of all, Will attacks all the candidates, which while it’s kind of nice to hear as a liberal, clearly isn’t going to fly with the RNC brass. Why would they willingly submit their candidates to that humiliation? Second, it seems very self-serving. Will’s the star of the show, not the candidates. The latter is an argument Sorkin tries to refute by hanging a lantern on it- the RNC folks accuse it of being self-serving, while other characters defend it, saying that Saint Will just genuinely wants to radically change how we do debates in the United States (and bring about world peace and cure childhood hunger too, of course). I’m not buying that argument, though. Even if it isn’t self-serving (which I still think it is), it has that appearance, which means that it fails on its face. Anyway, Will’s college friend thinks the idea is good, but the other RNC stooge doesn’t, and so the idea of a AWN-hosted RNC debate is DOA. And I’ll leave you with that. Three acronyms in one sentence is an achievement I don’t think I’m likely to repeat any time soon.

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