As The Newsroom nears its first season finale, it remains unclear if Will McAvoy and Mackenzie McHale will be able to pull of their quixotic mission to transform television news. The "News Night 2.0" experiment has come crashing down—"We hate what we are doing," Mac admits—with the team catering to the sensationalism of the Anthony Weiner and Casey Anthony scandals to retain ratings big enough to secure a Republican debate.
"Do a little wrong, to do a big right," Don later justifies the strategy, as the team is hoping that their new debate format will forever change the way presidential candidates are vetted. "Blackout Part II: The Mock Debate" picks up where last week's episode left off, as Mac interprets a studio-wide power outage as a sign from God that it is time to get her show back on track. Her impassioned rallying cry gets interrupted when the electricity turns back on, and it's moral-compromise-as-usual at the ACN headquarters.
It's also romance-geometry-as-usual on Sunday's episode, with the Mac-Will-Brian the print journalist love triangle challenging the Don-Maggie-Jim-Lisa love parallelogram for the most frustrating abuse of personal/professional norms. Will keeps Brian around to work on his story—despite the fact that News Night is operating far below its normal standards—and Brian uses the opportunity to torture Mac about the ugly turn their relationship took.
Meanwhile, Will covers for Don, who is receiving flowers from other women he says he dated in between break ups with Maggie. "You remember when I didn't care at all about the lives of the people who worked here?...Those were the days," Will complains, showing at least some character development over the season-long arc.
Their pitch to the Republican National Committee for a new format debate approaches, and News Night must up the ante in its Casey Anthony coverage. Maggie and Jim convince Lisa, who went to school with young mother accused of killing her child, to appear on the show, even though Lisa (of all people) is the voice of reason about how despicable the broadcast is becoming.
To turn lemons into responsible journalism, Maggie feeds Lisa statistics about missing children so she can take a more substantive angle on the trial during her News Night appearance. Her interview with Will devolves into a discussion about abortion—something no one wants. And hours later, the high-end designer clothing store where Lisa works is vandalized by pro-life extremists who, lacking creativity, graffiti "baby killer" on its doors.
But all this spray paint and "journalism malpractice," as Sloan calls it, proves for naught, making News Night's mission appear both tragic and naive. A Good Cop/Bad Cop duo from the RNC come to ACN's studio to work out the terms of the debate (Good Cop worked with Will in the White House, Will confuses Bad Cop with a Brady Bunch character). Bad Cop is insulted by News Night's proposal for a new debate formula in which Will can press candidates to explain their more controversial views. "I am not allowing the god damn press to make fools out of our candidates," he says, storming out of the meeting, while the Good Cop laments that while News Night's staff has a good idea, it will never fly with the RNC.
Maggie aptly expresses the frustration that ties into the show's larger agenda: "If every network said, 'We're not playing by your rules, you're playing by ours,' we would raise the level of debate overnight." Aaron Sorkin deserves some props on shedding light on the relationships between political staffers and journalists across many mediums; a recent New York Times story discussed the practice of political campaigns editing their own quotes, which brought up a similar point across the media criticism blogosphere. Discussing the episode in E-mail and over the phone, Jessica Stuart, who has worked in various cable and network newsrooms over the course a 15-year production career, noted that many of the aspects of Sunday's episode reflected what goes on in major network newsrooms across the country.
A power outage is definitely a believable crisis, Stuart said, recalling a New York City blackout a few years ago that sent news teams racing down to their Washington bureaus. Furthermore, the awkward position Maggie finds herself in when she must enlist an unwilling friend to come on the show is a common dilemma.
"As a booker we've all been there," said Stuart. "Any booker can tell you a story where they felt compromised or that they had to comprise a relationship, or had to put trust—outside of work—on the line to get that booking for sure."
As disheartening as it was to see the News Night team lose the debate it dreamed of, it was refreshing to see ACN's other anchors decline (rather colorfully—it's not T.V., it's HBO) the RNC's offer to host the debate, showing the team is unified and will sink with Will and Mac's vision for broadcast news. Sorkin does a nice job acknowledging how difficult, if not impossible, the "newsroom utopia" is to create despite his characters desperate devotion.
Amy Winehouse's bittersweet "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?" haunts the final sequence of "Blackout Part II," with Don confessing to Maggie about his extracurricular romances, Charlie vetting the source that could bulwark Will from corporate meddling, Neal putting together the pieces of Will's death threat puzzle, and Will pining over his inability to get over Mac.
Can Will, Mackenzie, and the gang be able to rise from the ashes and see their vision finally come to life? On a larger note, will Aaron Sorkin accept to the criticism launched at this series, and write a second season that consistently delivers the glimpses of brilliance flashed in its first?
The ambivalence with which "Blackout II" closes is a welcome note to tie up, or rather, purposely leave open the larger questions the show is grappling with. Previews for next week foreshadow a health scare, a resignation, and a fiery Jane Fonda, suggesting that the season finale won't continue to meditate with such ambivalence, but go out with a bang.
- Read last week's The Newsroom recap.
- Read the U.S. News interview with Wesley Clark about his show Stars Earn Stripes.
- Check out U.S. News Weekly: an insider's guide to politics and policy.