Recap: 'The Newsroom' Holds A Mock Debate, Hits New Lows

Television
by Oliver Lyttelton
August 20, 2012 11:01 AM
17 Comments
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On TV at least, it feels like one of the major problems with Aaron Sorkin's writing, both on "Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip" and "The Newsroom," is that it seems like he'd still rather be writing "The West Wing." It's understandable. For one, he was unceremoniously fired from that show at the end of the fourth season, and presumably feels there's an itch still to be scratched. For another, it was pretty much the best network TV drama of the last 15 years. We'd certainly rather be watching "The West Wing." But while it's not as inorganic as it was on 'Studio 60,' there's a sense that Sorkin is returning to the same kind of issue-based plotlines he tackled before, but in a setting that makes it feels somewhat forced.

That's certainly the case with this week's "The Newsroom" episode, "The Blackout Pt. 2: The Mock Debate" which, as the title might suggest, pivots around the mock debate that Will McAvoy and co. have arranged to show the RNC that a new format, one that asks tough questions and doesn't let the candidates off the hook, can work. That storyline doesn't really come together, but it's far from the biggest problem for an episode that squandered the relative promise of Part 1.

The world's worst cliffhanger (the power went out in the studio!) is resolved fairly quickly, after a semi-inspirational speech by Mackenzie, when...the power comes back on. Boy, and to think of all the sleepless nights we had over that one. The show continues on with its half-hearted coverage of the Casey Anthony and Anthony Weiner scandals -- all done in the hopes of getting the ratings up so they don't lose the debates.

From there, we get basic recaps of much of the same conversations we had last week. Neil Sampat: Boy Reporter asks Sloane, for the second time in about 15 minutes, if he can make sexist remarks about her on an economics website in order to gain acceptance into some kind of top-secret trolling group. She's ok with it, for reasons that are never quite clear. Meanwhile, the same circular conversations about Mackenzie and Will's long-ago break-up replay once again (albeit with a little bit of insight into the latter from third party Brian, who tells Mac, in a rare moment when Paul Schneider gets to do something other than be well-paid set decoration, that Will chases ratings because "The audience makes him feel less lonely").

Meanwhile, because no news item can pass without one employee of "News Night" having an immediate friend or relative directly linked to the story (it's becoming the journalism equivalent of Jessica Fletcher stumbling across murder cases wherever she goes on "Murder She Wrote"), it emerges that Maggie's roommate Lisa went to high school with Casey Anthony. She and Lisa's sometime beau Jim go to her place of work to try and convince her to appear on the show, eventually succeeding. Trying to make it more paltable, they brief her with some facts about other, less newsworthy missing child cases, but on air, Lisa goes off the rails, and ends up suggesting that Anthony, and anyone who is deemed to be an unfit mother, should have gotten an abortion. Oh, women, and their silly female brains! If only they were as wise as Will McAvoy, who turns up in person when someone spray paints "Baby Killer" on Lisa's store, something that is never referred to again as soon as the scene ends.

Meanwhile, Jim's done some digging on the NSA source who claims to have evidence of phone hacking from parent company of "News Night," and it's not looking good;  the whistleblower failed his last psych evaluation, and stalked his ex-wife. But that's all backburnered when the RNC reps (led by Adam Arkin) arrive to see the mock debate. Even after they're told that John Gallagher Jr in a sweatshirt with Michelle Bachman's name on it isn't meant to be a literal impersonation (sigh), they're unimpressed, maybe because Will's groundbreaking new debate format seems to involve him shouting at the candidates for an unspecified and unlimited amount of time.

It's all a good excuse for another mournful montage, capped off by real-life footage of Bachmann being asked at a CNN debate if she prefers Johnny Cash or Elvis. It's a good clip, but only reinforces that, while Sorkin tends to make good points, he often makes them in a way that feels an awful lot like he's shooting himself in the foot. The episode closes off with Jim seemingly winning Lisa back (but was he really after Maggie?), Don confessing to Maggie that he slept with other people when they were broken up (slightly unclear what the problem is here, but still...) and Neil, who's making inroads in the trolling circle, discovering that Will's death threat came from someone called Charizma (who, if we're not mistaken, was a member of early 00s UK garage collective So Solid Crew).

We don't like hating the show. When it picks up a little, as it has in places in this season, it makes us happy, because we want something that at least gets close to the greatness of "The West Wing," or Sorkin's recent work on "The Social Network" and "Moneyball." But when we hit an episode like this one, with so few redeeming features, we start to question whether we'll be able to stand the heartbreak of sitting through the second season of the show. Let's see if our minds can be changed in next week's finale. [D-]

Bits And Pieces

- Judging by the brief shot near the end, the plot of the finale will involve Terry Crews assembling The Expendables to take down Charizma.

- Musical Theater Watch! Sorkin's been dropping references to musicals throughout the series -- this week, there was the actress who's looking for a dress for the Tonys.

- Aspiring comedy writers -- do you see how Sorkin inserted the scene with Will's tailor, which serves no purpose whatsoever other than to set up a bad, lazy slapstick gag later in the episode? Don't ever do that.

- As ever, the two people who remain eminently watchable on the show are Thomas Sadoski and Olivia Munn, the latter of whom gets better week on week. The moment when they told the RNC guy to "Eat me" and "Fuck off" was probaby the highlight of the episode.

- By contrast, Maggie and Jim get worse and worse as the weeks go on. At least Maggie's now been reduced mostly to comedy reaction shots, like a dog in a Todd Phillips movie. But both the writing and performance of Jim was truly dreadful this week, particularly in an incredibly obnoxious dress shop scene which can only be explained by John Gallagher Jr being absolutely off his face on drugs throughout.

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17 Comments

  • emma | August 28, 2012 11:28 AMReply

    I guess we’ll just have to agree to disagree because I thought this episode was rather brilliant. The subtle hints that Sorkin included, like Neal’s discovery of Charizma’s hand in Will’s death threats, really left me aching to find out what happens next. My officemate at Dish suspects Charizma is someone close to Will rather than a stranger, which is an interesting theory to consider. Admit it; you’re a little curious to see who is behind the threats. I can’t wait to find out! It’s killing me that I haven’t gotten around to seeing the finale yet, but I will ASAP! At least I can rest assured that the recording is securely tucked away on my Hopper DVR, with such a large memory space that I never have to worry about my shows getting deleted, so now I just have to find a free moment to watch it. I bet you’re looking forward to the finale just because it means you’ll finally get a break from watching this show that you loath. LOL!

  • byron | August 22, 2012 2:43 PMReply

    I've enjoyed EVERY episode minus the Bin Laden one, which was very disappointing, because the preview for it really made me anticipate it. But it wound up coming off as cheesy. Just wasn't as good as I thought it could have been. But the first 5 episodes were much better than the more recent ones

  • Lucy | August 21, 2012 11:56 PMReply

    I want more Sloan and Don! The others make me cringe so much!

  • judgegerry | August 21, 2012 3:06 AMReply

    Take off the maven cap and view the program as interesting and romantic entertainment embracing some brilliant lines. Why romantic? Just dig Amy Winehouse's stirring finale of "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow".

  • Offy | August 21, 2012 1:01 AMReply

    Did you even watch the show?

    "Don confessing to Maggie that he slept with other people when they were broken up (slightly unclear what the problem is here, but still...)"

    The problem wasn't that he did it, it was that he was continuing to see the break-up girl once he got back together with Maggie without telling either Maggie or the other girl. You don't see what the problem there is?

    "The world's worst cliffhanger (the power went out in the studio!) is resolved fairly quickly, after a semi-inspirational speech by Mackenzie, when...the power comes back on. Boy, and to think of all the sleepless nights we had over that one."

    I guess you missed the parts that showed how this team has come together and showed what they were willing to do to get the program on the air. Sure, it wasn't a life-threatening cliffhanger, but if I point out that the inspirational speech coming right before the power came back on was extremely funny, you'll probably fault Sorkin for putting it in there just to set up a later joke.

    "She's ok with it, for reasons that are never quite clear."

    I could have sworn that I remembered Sloane saying that she thought it was a good story and that she thought Neil was going to turn out to be a good reporter.

    Will showed up at Lisa's work to talk to her manager because he felt bad that it happened. "That should have been me, not you."

    Oh, you also forgot all of the very easily comparisons between this and Sports Night. Heck, the second half of the title of each show IS EXACTLY THE SAME. SORKIN ISN'T EVEN TRYING! Casey and Dana had a previous relationship in that. Natalie and Jeremy were two younger people with a bit of an on-again/off-again relationship. Don't forget the beloved older actor who plays the character that's the head of the department, yells at people and acts as a mentor as well. But yes, Sorkin touched upon political issues in that series as well. That was before West Wing, so how do you explain that?

  • Offy | August 27, 2012 9:43 PM

    17R3W - You missed my point completely.

  • 17R3W | August 21, 2012 9:56 PM

    Your point about "Sports Night" is spot on. As the author says, it seems like he'd rather be writing "The West Wing". So much about this show, is recycled from his previous shows.

  • 17R3W | August 20, 2012 3:04 PMReply

    I couldn't agree more with your "West Wing" point. The biggest problem I have with the newsroom, is that nearly every plot point was done already (and done better) when we saw them on West Wing, Studio 60 or (in some cases) both.

    The pilot of The Newsroom was almost identical to the pilot of s60.

    - after being brow beaten by some twit (standards and pratices rep / panilist moderator) a rogue show runner gives a stiring but inapporaite speech about the world today, that quickly goes viral.
    - Network excects quickly bring in two, young hot shot producers, to save the day!
    - but wait, one of these producers was envolved with the show's star!

    If that was the only episode like that, it would be one thing, but it's far from the only example.

    This week episode deals with debate prep, just as we've seen on the West Wing.

    Will McAvoy reluctantly gets a body guard after recieving a threatening website comment, just like CJ did after see got a death threat via email.

    A journalist is kidnapped and taken ransom, and the network may need to save his life, which was identical to the last 5 episodes of S60, and simalr to an episode of the West Wing.

    Will McAvoy goes to a shrink, just as President Bartlet did on West Wing.

    A journalist is embeded in the show, to write a long lead story about how the show works, but spends more time focused on the failed relationship between the show's producer and it's star, again identical to S60.

    That's 6 examples in just 9 episodes, and I bet there are several more I've missed. Maybe the best solution is for HBO to buy the rights to The West Wing, and relaunch that show, but in the meantime, Aaron Sorkin is waisting time, retreading old ground instead of writing fresh material for the newsroom.

    It's good show, that could be great, if only he'd write something fresh for it.

  • AJ | August 22, 2012 3:59 AM

    I've never seen West Wing or Sports Night, but I was a huge fan of Studio 60. Because of that, I was really looking forward to seeing Sorkin on HBO with the Newsroom. And with every episode, it's like deja vu. The amount of parallels between Studio 60 and the Newsroom is unreal as if Sorkin created a template and can't ever drift from it.

    In the last episode of the Newsroom, episode 9, the blackout immediately made me think of Studio 60. Your comments are spot on with the recycled story lines. He's even recycling music. The Studio 60 episode "The Focus Group" ends with the song "Will you Still Love Me Tomorrow". Episode 9 of the Newsroom ended with the same song.

  • 17R3W | August 20, 2012 3:18 PM

    #7 - Power goes out in the studio, and makes it harder to produce the show (just like an episode of Studio 60)

    #8 - not exactly a major plot point, but the whole gather ye rose buds line was already used in the west wing. The "just this side of a snuff film" line, was identical to that used in Studio 60's pilot.

    #9 - the whole thing about Don seeing other people when they we're broken up, is exactly like the second episode of S60, with Matt and Hariet, only it was done better then, as the third person was Gina (dun-dun-dun) another member of the cast.

    There you go, 8 (or more) recycled plot points, in just 9 episodes.

  • 12 men in the huddle | August 20, 2012 12:22 PMReply

    Very entertaining. Show gets better each week.

  • joanne meyrowitz | August 20, 2012 11:53 AMReply

    I think this is the best show to come on in a long time. I look forward to Sunday nights with a show that is not dedicated to reality tv or the Kardashians.

  • Christopher Bell | August 20, 2012 1:20 PM

    AS: They could probably kill some horses.

  • AS | August 20, 2012 12:55 PM

    You could only think this is "the best show to come on in a long time" if the only shows you watch are "reality television" and "the Kardashians." It's an awful show, through and through. I'm sure there's a bunch of HBO executives thinking "is there anyway we can cancel the second season, even though we've already green-lit it? Damn! If only there were horses on this show..."

  • jimmiescoffee | August 20, 2012 11:41 AMReply

    oh my ...this show has become a serious hobby now. i've been watching all season with my jaw on the floor and it keeps getting better.

  • Maloy | August 20, 2012 11:39 AMReply

    Two comments: One - Friday Night Lights was better than the West Wing. Two - How could you not point out that excruciatingly bad joke about Will not being able to put his pants on properly. I heard groans from three states over when that terrible attempt at humor failed.

  • Christopher Gipson | August 20, 2012 11:06 AMReply

    At this point it's only background noise while I work on stuff. Hoping next season will be better. Right now it feels like I'm watching a show that should be leading into Grey's Anatomy.

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