By Oliver Lyttelton | www.oliverlyttelton.com August 20, 2012 at 11:01AM
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.