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'The Newsroom' Episode 8 Review and Recap: 'The Blackout Part 1' Lights Up the Season

Television
by Beth Hanna
August 13, 2012 3:13 AM
4 Comments
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HBO Emily Mortimer in "The Newsroom"

While the newsroom staffers attempted to stop a ratings plummet, "The Newsroom" halted its season-long plummet with a smart, strong episode. And welcome back, Mackenzie. We like you so much better with a brain.

What happened:

Will courts New York Magazine writer Bryan Brenner (Paul Schneider) to write a feature story on the changes "News Night" has undergone since the "2.0" makeover

, as a method of combating the negative press from tabloid TMI. As it turns out, Bryan is Mackenzie's ex-boyfriend and the man with whom she cheated on Will.

Reese informs Will, Mackenzie and Charlie that "News Night" not covering the Casey Anthony story resulted in a ratings plummet. Will is anxious to do whatever it takes to save face -- the show is hoping to air a mock debate, and needs good ratings to assure the debate's fruition. Mack, however, is staunchly against the team morbidly focusing on a horrific case, claiming that sort of coverage is "just this side of a snuff film."

The newsroom staffers prep for the debate, as Mackenzie lops off 22 minutes of stories to make room for Casey Anthony coverage. Don, the "master of the dark arts" of human interest pieces, gives a crash course to the news geeks on how to do sleaze. He shows video of Nancy Grace's coverage of the Anthony case, stressing that Grace's questioning and editing have emotional appeal. If viewers feel superior to Anthony, they'll keep tuning in.

Don's presence on "The Newsroom" usually feels forced. He produces the 10pm show, so why does he hang around the "News Night" gang so often? Primarily because the Maggie-Jim relationship needs a third point on the triangle. But in "The Blackout Part 1," Don's character is worked in organically and cleverly. Don has been languishing in the 10pm slot for about 18 months, and now he gets a moment to take all the cheap dirt he's learned and pay it forward to "News Night."

"The Newsroom" often includes actual news footage effectively, and this episode offered a particularly strong example. Nancy Grace rapid-firing the words "duck tape" and "broken neck" in reference to the Anthony murder is stomach-turning, and yet somehow fascinating, especially with Don lecturing alongside her, pointing out how her methods work. As viewers we at once side with the newsroom staff by being repulsed, but we also realize the effectiveness of "tragedy porn" -- this scene has us hooked. We're complicit with those half-million viewers who turned off "News Night" in favor of more sordid fare.

Charlie meets his "Late for Dinner" contact -- whose real name is Solomon Hancock -- at the library. Solomon (Stephen McKinley Henderson) works for the NSA, and tells Charlie that in the wake of post-9/11 "security," an NSA-supported program called Global Clarity has been illegally wire-tapping countless numbers of Americans. TMI has been using the Global Clarity technology to hack phones, much like News of the World did. Knowledge of this initiative extends as far up as Reese Lansing. Solomon wants Charlie to report on the NSA, and in turn will offer protection against the Lansings.

A few interesting things are going on in this scene. First, consider the glamour shot of the library. When Charlie breathlessly enters the reading room, the vibrant colors of the shelved books jump out at the viewer. In an episode where the words "blog" and "Podcast" are delivered with heightened scorn, Sorkin is taking a moment to fetishize physical media. Second, Charlie beelines for the white old boy-type, assuming this is his Deep Throat contact. In fact, "Late for Dinner" is the black man sitting a few tables away. Solomon's "Psst! Charlie!" is exaggerated and funny -- an instance of the goofy humor of "The Newsroom" working.

Jim is assigned to work on the NSA/TMI story. Meanwhile, Neal successfully pitches a story on internet trolling.

Will pays a surprise visit to his therapist. After hearing that Will purposely selected Bryan -- the man who made him a cuckold -- as the journalist to give "News Night" good press, Dr. Jacobi suggests that Will is behaving masochistically as a means of becoming indifferent to the situation. "The trick isn't not minding, the trick is forgiving Mackenzie."

Charlie confronts Leona Lansing on the street. He tells her he knows about the TMI connection. But it will take more than that to shake this old dame: Leona tells Charlie that Will is "one fuck-up away from having his own Podcast."

Maggie meets with Sandy, a young woman at one time involved with Anthony Weiner. In the wake of Weiner accidentally tweeting a dick pic to his 40K followers, "News Night" feels obliged to a) give the story a bit of coverage as a ratings boost, and b) to get a pre-tape interview with Sandy, who will let the world know "what kind of a man Weiner really is."

As Sandy"s interview is prepped, Mack looks like she's about to throw up. Luckily she doesn't need to -- the 98-degree heat wave comes to the rescue, and plunges the "News Night" building into a blackout.

Episode 8, A New Hope:

This episode was the strongest of the season -- a remarkable turnaround from last week's episode, which I deemed the weakest. In the pilot of "The Newsroom," Mackenzie delivers an impassioned speech to Will on "speaking truth to stupid" and the importance of thorough news coverage in an age when the human interest fluff piece is king. I didn't necessarily buy Emily Mortimer's delivery of the monologue, but I appreciated its sentiment and what it said about Mackenzie's character. Then Mack went on to spend six episodes acting like an immature middle schooler whose crush didn't reciprocate her feelings, who knew astonishingly little about certain important subjects (like economics), and whose authority over the newsroom was sporadic at best.

Her original ideals finally made a return this week. She was the only one who seemed to have a genuine crisis of conscience about the Casey Anthony coverage, and she wasn't afraid to label it radically -- as "snuff." Not one but two of her ex-boyfriends were roaming the newsroom, and yet she didn't dissolve into a puddle of hysterics. Why? Because she was truly distracted by something more important, something I'd like to see her distracted by more often: the news.

The only person who was game to match her in impassioned ideals was Sloan. Their final argument in the newsroom was great. Sorkin has a tendency to tell (and tell, and tell) when he could show, but the Mack-Sloan shouting match was an inspired scene. These two women are yelling at each other because they feel the same way -- Sloan knows the importance of the debt ceiling coverage, and Mackenzie knows it too. Sloan yells because she wants the story to get air time, Mackenzie yells because the program she runs and cares so much about is at once a news show and a ratings game, and never the twain shall meet. They're both frustrated, with their hearts in the right place, and this scene demonstrated that elegantly.

Meanwhile, a few storylines that were growing tiresome showed the glimmer of a payoff. Neal, spouter of bizarre and pointless pitches, may finally have a winner in his trolling story idea. The TMI angle, which has been spinning its wheels since we discovered that the tabloid is owned by ACN, was rejuvenated with the News of the World parallel. And Will McAvoy's intense blend of narcissism and masochism -- which somehow never keeps him from being the hero of the newsroom -- may finally be posed with a real challenge in the form of Bryan Brenner. We'll see.

Other ideas or interpretations? Thoughts about the episode?

4 Comments

  • John Adams | August 14, 2012 7:19 AMReply

    I am still watching but it is so pretentious it is getting difficult. The idea of "straight" journalism being simply a rant and controlling the storyline such that the news is left of MSNBC ruins the concept. The triteness of a "Republican who has seen the light and is trying to save the ideals of the party" but has no desire or journalistic curiosity to take on the Dems ( the party in power but which he hasn't joined for some reason) and a staff that is simply impassioned about covering its view of the radical right will cater to a smaller and smaller audience.

    If you want to do a story about a news organization that wants to tell the striaght news then simply be contrarian - no one else is. Take on the government.. cover the nonsense whether GOP or Dem. On Sloan's rant about the debt ceiling --- was is it stupid not to realize that the debt ceiling would be raised, of course. Is it equally or perhaps even engage in spending policies that drive the debt ceiling higher and higher as if there is no end to the citizens ability to be taxed... Many would say that is far more damaging to the public. Cover hard news from that angle and you may actually be reporting the news and not preaching. Not passing a budget for three years is a much bigger hard news story than whether Michelle Bachman hears God's voice followed by some hyperbolic speech in defense of "real Christians." Even if the writers made a semblance of an effort instead of simply always taking the high road compared to Fox news jokes in their news room it would substantiate the desired debate about which the show is premised.
    I am watching because it is still mildly entertaining. I like the characters but they are becoming wooden fast.

  • Drewvt | August 13, 2012 10:44 AMReply

    "She was the only one who seemed to have a genuine crisis of conscience about the Casey Anthony coverage, and she wasn't afraid to label it radically -- as 'snuff.'"

    That is not how it looked to me at all: when Don was giving his presentation about the Casey Anthony coverage by other networks and their methods, they were all making disgusted faces at him. True, McKenzie was the only one verbally articulating that disgust, but remember that it's a presentation - the team is just reluctant to interrupt Don whereas Mckenzy has no qualms about doing that. More to do with hierarchy than anything else.

  • Drewvt | August 13, 2012 1:43 PM

    Yes, you are quite right about the ratings. In reaction to that, Will was pretty much reverting to the type he was before McKenzie came back. He still had his eyes on the larger and more admirable goal of getting the debate but it was so obviously a relapse in every other way.

  • Beth Hanna | August 13, 2012 11:48 AM

    @DrewVT -- Thanks for your comment. I believe she was the only one in a position of producing power (i.e. Charlie, Will and Mackenzie) who had a genuine crisis of conscience. That certainly isn't to say that Charlie or Will liked the idea of the Casey Anthony coverage -- but the ratings plummet spoke to them in a more absolute way than it did to Mackenzie. When faced with that kind of viewership drop-off, both Will and Charlie knew what needed to be done, whereas Mackenzie protested. But yes, I should have clarified.

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