Watching "The Newsroom" is sort of like putting on a slightly bad pair of glasses (the headaches included). Everything is off just enough that it's a problem, but you can still see how, with the right lenses, these characters would be appealing or inspiring, and this show would work.
We're now one episode away from the season finale, and I'll lay my cards on the table: I'm not a huge fan of this show. Surprised? Didn't think so. While Aaron Sorkin's latest has recovered somewhat from a truly heinous opening series of hours, "The Newsroom" remains a very flawed venture and, to my mind, a missed opportunity. "The Blackout Part 2: Mock Debate" continues that legacy, as glimmers of a better show struggle to break through the fog.
We're still in Casey Anthony mode as things get underway in "Mock Debate." MacKenzie needs a big exclusive guest who knew her, and asks if anyone in the room has a connection to the famous defendant.
Maggie tremulously raises her hand, continuing the show's irritating tradition of having big breaks in every major story land in its lap through fortuitous personal connections. It just so happens that Lisa went to high school with Casey Anthony, and has the capacity to go from an extremely reluctant guest to a crackling, provocative commentator on the media's so-called "missing white girl syndrome" with just a bit of courage and an ethically iffy assist from Maggie and MacKenzie.
In fact, she steps over the mark, hinting that societal pressures against abortion may have contributed to Anthony having a child she didn't want and wound up perhaps murdering. Someone then throws a rock through her job's window and scrawls "Baby Killer" on the front door.
If we just focus on the scenes leading up to her appearance, this is definitely Lisa's finest hour on the show. Kelen Coleman makes clear here that she's just another one of the tragically misused actresses on the premises. The scene where Maggie and Jim go to her fashion store to persuade Lisa to come on the show gives her a nice combination of daffy comedy and moral purpose to work with, and she does a good job with it.
But, sadly, along with Lisa comes the love quadrangle from hell. This week's revelation? Don is kinda-cheating on Maggie, and Jim decides to go for Maggie but is thwarted in a sitcommy series of misunderstandings that put him right back into Lisa's arms. At this rate, it seems clear that Sorkin is intent on pulling a Ross-and-Rachel with Maggie and Jim (except that those two actually got down to business in the first season). If only this pair was half as interesting. Alison Pill and John Gallagher are very winning in their own right, but there's been no chance for their characters to organically find each other. If you recall, MacKenzie ordered Jim to flirt with Maggie, and he did — hardly the stuff of watchable romance.
It's also clear that Sorkin is using Will's therapist as a firehose for psychological exposition. He helpfully informs Will (and us) that his father's abusiveness made him extra-sensitive to betrayal, and that this is the reason he keeps wanting to punish MacKenzie by, say, having the ex she cheated on him with profile the show. As I've said before, I find these scenes kind of icky — a quick way to sketch in backstory rather than a more meaningful exploration of very troubling traumas. MacKenzie has had a very good run of episodes, but here she regresses, sinking into near-hysterics at one point as she wails at Will in front of the whole newsroom. (She does have some good scenes putting Brian the reporter in his place.)
But back to Casey Anthony. The only reason Lisa is even on "Newsnight" is because of the Debate That Will Change Everything that the crew has been prepping madly for. It turns out that he has an old buddy from the Bush 41 years who's now in a position to help him land the forum for ACN, and shares his vision of a debate filled with hostile questioning and thinly disguised contempt for the more idiotic candidates. (Which is definitely a better way to go than the current system, and also something no party would ever, ever, ever agree to do.)
Sadly, the buddy is accompanied by a slick RNC guy who, unsurprisingly, is not interested in having all of his party's potential rivals to Barack Obama repeatedly mocked and exposed as charlatans by Mr. McAvoy. When he promptly refuses to the terms of the debate, everyone looks around, crushed, as if they couldn't have seen this coming from 50 miles off.
Sorkin gives a couple of characters some lines about how nobody could have expected it to work, but if that's the case, why the hell did we have to spend so much time on it?
In other plot lines, Neal's quest to become an Internet troll hits a snag when he starts talking to the person who sent Will the death threat. And the NSA guy might not be so reliable after all. I have a feeling those things will show up in the finale. Oh, and where in God's name is this show's savior, Leona Lansing? Jane Fonda, we need you now!
Follow Jack Mirkinson on Twitter: www.twitter.com/jackmirkinson