The Newsroom Review: "The Blackout, Part I" (Episode 1.08)
One of The Newsroom’s many unique traits and challenges is how incredibly dense the individual episodes are. Even for the network that produces and airs narratively complex series such as Boardwalk Empire and Game of Thrones, The Newsroom wears the crown in this aspect in large part because Aaron Sorkin’s characters never stop to breathe. When the characters don’t breathe, the audience can’t breathe, and it makes it incredibly difficult to enjoy the show. “The Blackout, Part I” finally teetered off the ledge of drama and became a classroom lecture whacked out on Walter White’s Blue Magic.
To be clear, all of the speechifying and pontificating within the episode was well-written—if a little too prescient in Sloan’s case—and, depending on your political allegiance, highly satisfying. The problem was that there was too much news, too many ethical dilemmas and too much plot to provide an enjoyable experience. The news happens when it happens, and the Casey Anthony-Anthony Weiner-Debt Ceiling Crisis hydra happened to rear its ugly heads all around the same time. The failure is not as much with the premise of the series as it is with the inability to creatively adapt to an onslaught of significant news stories; the solution is not always to write harder, better, faster and stronger monologues.
The first of many diatribes belongs to MacKenzie, who refuses to cave to Reese Lansing’s demands that Will cover the Casey Anthony trial on News Night even though Nancy Grace grabbed nearly half a million of News Night’s viewers with her (ahem) frenetic coverage. Will and Charlie both cave, however, because they rationalize that they need to keep ratings up to keep doing the kind of news show they want to do. This is helpful if for no other reason than it shows previously unaware viewers that the purpose of this invention called television is not to show shows but to create valuable ad space.
The real reason Will caves is because he wants to change the way news networks interview presidential candidates by hosting the presidential debates. This provides an opportunity via a mock debate for the team to attack the low-hanging fruit that is Michele Bachmann. Maggie-as-moderator asks Jim-as-Bachmann, among other questions, what God’s voice sounds like as she (Bachmann) claimed that God told her personally to run for president. Maggie-as-Maggie argues that, as a Christian, Bachmann has insulted her by suggesting that all Christians are gullible buffoons. Fair enough, but this debate and others throughout the episode were excessive. Don’s artful deconstruction of Nancy Grace’s coverage of the Casey Anthony trial was a delight to watch, but it simply added to the confusion.
Throughout the episode, MacKenzie complains vigorously that she cannot properly produce News Night 2.0 with so many stories to cover in so little time (after Charlie exercises his executive power to allot 20 minutes to Casey Anthony). Perhaps Sorkin felt it necessary to share in her pain, but the show would have benefited from a bit of restraint.
Elsewhere in the Sorkindome, Will has unleashed a New York reporter/MacKenzie’s ex-boyfriend (with whom she cheated on Will) into the office to write about the idea of News Night 2.0 before Leona Lansing (Jane Fonda) pulls the plug. He specifically picked this man because he both hates and loves himself so much that he doesn’t care how the decision will affect his coworkers. Meanwhile, Charlie meets his Deep Throat of the previous episode in a library where they proceed to talk much too loudly about Top Secret NSA Business. The informant, who works for the NSA, claims that the U.S. government has a program in place called Global Clarity, which he compares unfavorably to the system Bruce Wayne invented to track down the Joker in The Dark Knight. This is both a bit detached from reality to fall in line with The Newsroom’s reliance on the truth and the series’ first pop culture reference from the past 20 years. Charlie also learns that Leona’s good little soldier, Reese, has been tapping phones à la News of the World.
Of course the ratings freefall in tandem with Charlie’s revelation about the corporate powers that be provide a clear path toward a dramatic season finale in two weeks. That said, the drama of this particular narrative struggles mightily to gain momentum as it is lost in the quagmire of the series’ other storylines. The content of “The Blackout, Part I” was in many cases quite good. There was simply too much of it.