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Monday, August 20, 2012

The Newsroom: "The Blackout Part I: Mock Debate"

Last week’s promising episode, marred slightly by the cheap power outage gag at the end, was followed by one of the most scattershot episodes of television I’ve ever seen. The Blackout Part II was utterly fascinating to watch, in the same way it would be fascinating to watch a train crash in eight different directions.

The episode veered off into so many divergent storylines that it is difficult to know where to begin. Maybe we should start with how insane Will and the staff at NewsNight must be to think that their mock debate would actually impress the GOP. That “new format” they’ve been hyping up for so long involved nothing more than Will being a know-it-all jerk to the people running for president.

Will has so successfully brainwashed his staff, with the help of Mac, his chief acolyte, that it takes fly-on-the-wall Brian Brenner to call McAvoy out on the sheer hubris such a display required. Hey, even a douche bag down-on-his-luck magazine writer is right once in a while.

The Blackout Part II also dips back into one of the show’s most frustrating wells, having the staff accomplish their jobs only through the sheer luck of knowing someone who happens to know what’s going on. Some of these have been fairly defensible (like Sloan being familiar with the Japanese nuclear plant spokesman) while others have strained credulity past its breaking point (Jim’s sister working for BP and his roommate working at Halliburton. Lisa being a classmate of Casey Anthony’s buries credulity and dances on its grave. (Leaving aside the absurd non-sequitur of Lisa’s pro-choice rant, which had so little to do with the issue at hand that it stunned both the other characters and the audience into silence.)

And of course, we got more of the plot no one is asking for, the excruciating Don-Maggie-Jim-Lisa love quadrangle. This week, Don gets flowers from another woman he’d seen behind Maggie’s back. Maggie and Jim pressure Lisa to appear on air. Mac tells Jim to gather ye rosebuds, and so he goes straight to Maggie’s apartment, despite knowing that Lisa and even Don are likely to be there.

Seriously, at this point I’m less wondering why these people don’t get together than how they haven’t been institutionalized yet. Maggie is the worst of the bunch. The way Alison Pill plays the character is as if she went straight from 8 to 22 without learning anything about people along the way. Every detail of her performance seems calculated to irritate the viewer, from her tone of voice to her indescribably annoying arm-motions. (Seriously, watch the way she raises her hand in the staff meeting and tell me this is supposed to be a character Sorkin wants us to root for.)

Like every episode of this very frustrating series, there was some good to go with the bad. I continue to like David Krumholtz as Will’s psychiatrist, and find his insights into Will’s misbehavior come close to justifying that drawn-out story. Paul Schneider is doing a great job with a hard character to play with, and Olivia Munn manages to steer her material back from outmoded sexist clichés into winning personality quirks on a regular basis. I also think that the vetting into Solomon Hancock took a nice twist last night with the revelation that Hancock might not be as trustworthy as the staff had hoped.

However, one last note of unpleasantness, since it seems more appropriate to end a review of this fairly dismal episode with a dose of negativity. The idea that Neal’s big idea for a news story is about internet trolls, and apparently not even the semi-important kind like those at Anonymous, but just regular old annoying people on the internet, is just the most preposterous display of Sorkin’s intense disdain for the web we’ve seen. How could any legitimate news show think this was worth anyone’s time? And the retroactive justification of having this be the way that Will’s death-threat sender is discovered is just so much hooey.

There’s only one more episode left this season. One more week to see how much damage Aaron Sorkin can do to his reputation.

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