God has a big part in "The Blackout: Part 1," both as savior and political cudgel. But the Devil gets a lot more screen time, especially in the monstrous form of Casey Anthony. The maybe-murderer-mom becomes the catalyst for one of the most humorless, sour hours on "The Newsroom" thus far.
Since it's a two-parter, Aaron Sorkin throws a ton of material at the wall, much of which will presumably get resolved in Part 2. Things start as Reese Lansing, the show's petulant Dr. Evil, has some bad news for "Newsnight" -- it's lost half its audience to Nancy Grace and her coverage of the Anthony trial. He demands that Will start covering the trial, and, to MacKenzie's horror, Will and Charlie both agree. They need higher ratings to convince the Republican Party to let them do a Will McAvoy-style truth squadding debate with the presidential candidates where, if Maggie has her way, he will shout at them about their religious fundamentalism.
Plus, a reporter for New York magazine is snooping around the office for a profile on Will, and he just happens to be the guy MacKenzie cheated on Will with. And Sloan can't warn the world about the debt ceiling fight that's about to explode because the show is all Casey Anthony now. And the power could go out at any minute!!! Hence the title!
This is the preachiest episode Sorkin's done in a while and, as usual, he picks the easiest targets to rail against. Poor MacKenzie gets the brunt of the ranting, yelling repeatedly about how the honor of the show is being sacrificed at the sinister altar of the ratings beast. The staff is equally disgusted by the turn of events. Their show is Too Important to be soiled with this stuff, after all. Why, they even have to bring Don in to educate them in the sordid world of cable news crime coverage. The Victorian prudishness of it all almost made me root for Nancy Grace -- something I never, ever, ever thought was possible.
I've been trying my best in recent weeks to avoid harping on about the show's frequent tin ear for the realities of the cable news world. "The Newsroom" isn't a documentary, after all. But the Anthony premise is just the tinniest of tin ears. Yes, it's a scuzzy story, which is exactly why the "Newsnight" crew would never do it.
If Will has been airing very high-minded shows for a year and his ratings have held up, why would they suddenly crater because of the trial? Surely the people who watched him would have learned to turn to him because he was offering an alternative. In the real world, HLN's ratings exploded, and the McAvoy-type shows that barely covered Anthony did just fine as well. There was more than enough audience to go around.
Plus, the idea that the GOP would let Will anywhere near a Republican presidential debate is ridiculous, so his motivation for caving is also ridiculous.
Sorkin further treats the emerging Anthony Weiner story as a sickening, sleazy affair. Maggie interviews one of the women he was sexting (the woman's portrayed as essentially evil, of course), and she practically vomits in horror at what she's having to do, rather than, say, pondering the benefit her show might get for advancing a major congressional scandal. Even Rachel Maddow got into the Weiner act! Luckily "Newsnight" is saved from its fall from grace by a blackout, just as Will is about to interview the woman. (That's God intervening, by the way.)
There are things to cheer for, though. Happily, my dire predictions about the direction of the phone-hacking story proved false. It turns out that Charlie's anonymous NSA caller is using his evidence about TMI as a carrot -- he'll only give Charlie the goods on the hacking, which goes all the way up to Reese Lansing, if he agrees to run a story on a highly illegal new NSA data mining program. Cloak-and-dagger national security reporting meets Murdochian venality? Yes and yes, please. It's the most fun storyline on "The Newsroom" up to this point.
Plus, it provides for another juicy little scene between Charlie and Leona Lansing. Jane Fonda, who has been kept from us for a criminal amount of time, brings the goods again, threatening to bump Will down to a podcast. I wish I bought the specifics of the corporate scheming behind her villainy (ask Comcast how much Lawrence O'Donnell's Tea Party rants are hurting it on Capitol Hill), but I don't mind too much.
"Blackout: Part 1" also had something that, on its own, might be enough to vault it into the upper rank of episodes so far: no Maggie/Don/Jim/Lisa love quadrangle! Not even a second of it! And the MacKenzie/Will/reporter ex stuff was also shoved relatively into the background, where it could generate its usual lukewarm amounts of heat. Note to Mr. Sorkin: continue both of these trends!