THE NEWSROOM 1.08 ‘The Blackout Part 1: Tragedy Porn’

News Night has to abandon its ethics to stay on the air, but the very concept of Aaron Sorkin's series limits the suspense.

William Bibbianiby William Bibbiani

Episode Title: “The Blackout Part 1: Tragedy Porn”

Writer: Aaron Sorkin

Director: Lesli Linka Glatter

Previously on “The Newsroom:”

Episode 1.07 – '5/1'

Story:

The episode opens with Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels) in a meeting with Bryan Brenner (Paul Scheider), whom Will wants to write a story about Newsroom 2.0. Bryan will be present throughout the ensuing week on a trial basis, but it’s clear the two men have an antagonistic history together. Will wants him to learn what their “whole philosophy” is, but that philosophy is about to get suspended thanks to a meeting with Reese Lansing (Chris Messina), who informs Will, Mackenzie MacHale (Emily Mortimer) and Charlie Skinner (Sam Waterston) that their ratings have dropped 50% in five days because they refused to cover the Casey Anthony trial on the grounds that it’s not proper news.

Not only does this give Leona Lansing (Jane Fonda) all the ammunition she needs to fire Will, but it also jeopardizes News Night’s chances to host a Republican Primary debate which they had hoped would change the debate format forever, by asking hard-hitting questions and holding candidates responsible for their rhetoric. If they can’t keep their ratings up, they won’t have a chance, so Will and Charlie prioritize the debate over a week of serious journalism. Mac is furious, but she begrudgingly goes along with the decision, expressing her resentment every step of the way. It doesn’t help her mood that Bryan Brenner is also the very ex-boyfriend with whom she cheated on Will.

Sloan Sabbith (Olivia Munn) confronts Mac with the need to cover the debt ceiling debate, since it’s an issue of vital national and worldwide economic interest, but Mac can’t give her the air time because of Casey Anthony. What’s worse, Jim Harper (John Gallagher Jr.) brings her the news that Anthony Weiner just sent pictures of his penis to the whole internet. Will wants to cover the Weiner story despite Mac’s objections, because again, it will help get them the debate, even though it’s exactly the kind of story they promised not to cover. Bryan confronts Will about the recent turns of events, and gets Will to tacitly admit that he wants Bryan’s story to expose Leona’s attempts to destroy the program.

Jim and Maggie Jordan (Alison Pill) have a spirited argument over the potential debate questions for News Night’s upcoming auditions, and Maggie insists that Michelle Bachman’s claim that God is speaking to her is a serious issue that mocks all Christians, including herself. Mac comes in and begins the meeting, clearing out serious news stories to make room for Casey Anthony. Don Keefer (Thomas Sadoski) shows up to explain to the team how to tell the news in the most exploitative way possible.

Meanwhile, Charlie Skinner meets with his source, “Late for Dinner,” real name Solomon Hancock (Stephen McKinley Henderson), who reveals that the NSA has a program called “Global Clarity” that illegally spies on Americans. What’s more, he has information that Reese Lansing has been personally ordering over phone taps, the exact same behavior that got Rupert Murdoch’s “New of the World” into trouble. Equipped with the biggest news story of the year, and information that could save News Night, Charlie, Will and Mac tell Jim to begin vetting Hancock as quietly as possible.

Reese celebrates the return of Will’s viewers and tries to pressure him into doing more news entertainment stories, but Will draws the line. Bryan interviews Mac, and it becomes clear that Bryan had no idea she was dating Will when they slept together. Neal Sampat (Dev Patel) enters to ask Mac for approval to cover an internet trolling site, a hub for those who spend their time inflaming message boards, but in order to get in he’ll have to committing an epic troll himself. He asks Sloan if he can slander her, but she responds violently. She’s sick of not being able to cover the biggest economic news story in years, one that actually impacts the American people, and one that they are not being told elsewhere in the media.

Charlie Skinner tries to talk sense into Leona Lansing, who restates her intent to fire Will. News Night accepts an interview subject who has received suggestive texts from Anthony Weiner, and now they’re going to pre-record an interview for tonight’s show. Just before they’re about to go on, Mac says, “God, please give me a sign I’m not doing a big thing badly.” Then the power goes out throughout the building. “I didn’t know he had that kind of comic timing,” she says.

Breakdown:

While the series is still technically on the uptick, “The Blackout Part 1: Tragedy Porn” reminds us all that one of “The Newsroom’s” flaws is utterly fundamental. This week’s episode hinges on the possibility of Will McAvoy hosting a Republican Primary debate and, in the process, fundamentally changing the way we interview candidates for the highest office in the country. Since the show takes place a year ago, we know for a fact that this could not possibly occur and thus the otherwise well-dramatized suspense takes a complete nosedive.

Similarly, while the subplot about warrantless NSA wiretapping has some basis in reality, the fact that we’ve never heard the words “Global Clarity” in the news before (as opposed to “ThinThread” or “Trailblazer”), implies that the storyline will not lead to News Night getting the scoop on a government scandal. There are interesting places to take this subplot, but without Aaron Sorkin going so far as to actually make up the news (at least, in regards to non-fictional characters), it seems to indicate that the whole thing is part of a set-up by Leona Lansing to fire Will McAvoy for more than just bad ratings. Mac brings up this possibility herself within the episode. She refers to it as being “Dan Rather-ed.”

Aside from that, again, fundamental flaw, “The Blackout Part 1: Tragedy Porn” is actually a very strong episode of the series to date: loaded with incident and consequences, and relatively free of sidebars to the hero’s relationship squabbles. In fact, the relationship issue of the week – Will’s hiring of Mac’s ex-boyfriend – introduces some interesting new developments, particularly the fact that he had no idea she was already in a relationship when she slept with him again. Paul Schneider does a fine job with his guest spot, although he conspicuously has no screen time with his The Babymakers co-star, Olivia Munn, even though she’s a series regular.

The dissolution of News Night’s ethos is a strong storyline, and most importantly it has been plausibly presented. Brought down in the ratings by their own standards, they have to build up the ratings again in order to do their jobs properly, but the slippery slope they’re walking is particularly dangerous, and Mac’s protestations seem reasonable and unreasonable in equal measure. The character’s niche in the series, that of News Night’s Jiminy Cricket, is officially solidified for the first time in many episodes, and it’s good to have her sense of righteous indignation back. For too long she had no one to butt heads with, and seemed to lack any reason to be on screen half the time.

Finally, although the scene is a little tangential, Don’s demonstration on the cleverness of emotional journalism finally gives the opposition equal time, and clearly illustrates not just the problem with modern news but by extension also the reason why News Night is such a rebellious program. It’s been too easy to lose sight of why the show’s raison d’être was important in the first place, and Sorkin – combined with Sadoski’s performance – really brings the point home for a change.

Still, it’s hard to get too riled up for the climax of “The Blackout,” considering that the ending is either a foregone conclusion or a potential about-face from the very tone of the series. We’ll see how it pays off next week, but until then “Tragedy Porn” deserves some credit for making the most of an imperfect set-up.