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The Newsroom Review: Moral Conflicts vs Ratings

By on August 13, 2012

The Newsroom image © HBO.

What is entertainment and what is real news? That is the question that the News Night staff argue about in ‘The Blackout, Part 1: Tragedy Porn’. It is a topic that has been building plenty of tension since the premiere of the show. Additionally we see the usual character conflicts, including Will and MacKenzie as they try to sort out where they stand with each other. That situation is amplified when Will has MacKenzie’s ex-boyfriend audition to write a piece about the newsroom.

Brian Brenner (guest star Paul Schneider) is not just any old ex – he’s the man that MacKenzie cheated on Will with. Brian and Will banter back and forth on terms until they agree that Brian will ‘audition’ for the chance to cover the coveted story. Later, Will says that no serious journalist would have agreed to the demands Will insisted upon. Brian seems too fervent about writing the piece to challenge that dig.

Will is focused on gaining permission to introduce a new debate format. In order for that to happen, he needs good ratings and support from the powers that be. He also has some of the staff experiment with the new style by preparing a mock debate. Amusingly, Jim chooses to play Michele Bachmann, but is offended when Maggie repeatedly points at him and says ‘she’.

Understandably, having Brian pry around the newsroom has MacKenzie on edge. When Reese informs them that their ratings are dropping and that they need to cover the Casey Anthony trial, she loses it. Charlie and Will enrage her further when they outnumber her and vote to cover it. It seems out of character for Will to agree to the story, but between Leona Lansing breathing down his neck and his desire to bring up the ratings, he feels the pressure to do it.

Very reluctantly, MacKenzie starts removing valued news items from the whiteboard and planning the Casey Anthony coverage. She also has to make room for a lewd tweet/text scandal involving a congressman named Anthony Weiner (and a picture of his groin). To help her with these less than noble stories, MacKenzie brings in Don. He uses a Nancy Grace taping to show examples of sensationalized broadcasting. His audience, the news team, is pretty perturbed that they have to listen to that kind of instruction. Don notes that viewers can draw uninformed opinions from that kind of show. Not that MacKenzie, who looks miserable the entire time, needs to be reminded of that.

Charlie goes to the library to meet the mysterious source from last week’s episode, now known as Solomon Hancock. Solomon informs Charlie about a project called Global Clarity that the NSA is supporting. They are violating the privacy of American citizens by illegally intercepting phone calls, emails and texts every day. He also shares that TMI, the tabloid magazine haunting Will, has been using this method. Most usefully, he spills that it goes as high up as Reese Lansing. Solomon offers to give evidence of this if Charlie will agree to run the NSA story.

Will and MacKenzie sporting matching furrowed brows. Photo: © HBO

Will, like MacKenzie, is struggling with the direction the program is taking, even if it is a temporary thing. He drops in on his therapist demanding an impromptu session, which he somehow manages to get. His therapist tells him that he needs to forgive MacKenzie, and that he is hurting her by the way he is working through his feelings. Will claims that he already knows this and that the advice is no help at all. When his bodyguard gives him a look, Will insists that he is not hurting MacKenzie on purpose. It is a genuine statement and Will seems truly conflicted, despite his always brusque exterior.

After Charlie spills his new, top-secret information with MacKenzie and Will, they decide to get Jim on the job. They tell him about the illegal hacking and ask him to look into it without raising any flags. It is a big task for Jim, but he appears eager for the responsibility.

When Will later talks to Reese about an increase in viewers, he looks like he would love to attack Reese on the hacking, but of course stays quiet. He can’t help telling Reese to say hello to his mother. When Reese says that he will, Will adds under his breath, “Visiting hours will be Tuesday and Friday.”

It turns out that Brian did not know MacKenzie was dating Will during the time they were together. He acts somewhat offended when he discovers the truth, but MacKenzie is not very sympathetic. This does help make Brian a more likeable character, even though MacKenzie refers to him as a ‘douchebag’. She clarifies that she did not cheat on Brian, she cheated on Will. It is a little heartbreaking when she adds, “I work thirty feet away from the life I could have had if I hadn’t been so stupid.” Emily Mortimer (MacKenzie) shines in this episode.

Jane Fonda makes another guest appearance as Leona Lansing, dominating her screen time as usual. Charlie hurries to catch her before she can get in her limo. He tells her to smile while they are talking because they are in public and she does not want it to look like they are having a problem. His message to her is simple – he wants her to stop going after Will in her tabloids. Leona appears completely unthreatened by the warning and has little interest in listening to Charlie. She may come to regret that soon.

At the end of the episode, MacKenzie is half-heartedly preparing for the Anthony Weiner story. There is a young woman with proof that Weiner tweeted her inappropriate messages, and Will plans to interview her. MacKenzie looks nearly physically sick at the prospect, especially after Sloan gets angry with her for ignoring important financial news. The scene between her and Sloan is well done and difficult to watch, because MacKenzie clearly agrees with Sloan and is upset that she cannot do anything to fix it.

Emily Mortimer as MacKenzie McHale. Photo: © HBO

However, MacKenzie is saved by a sudden power outage caused by a heat wave. The episode ends with a witty comment from MacKenzie about comedic timing.

One of the best things about this episode is how MacKenzie seems more like the ambitious woman we met in the first episode of the season. She is clearly still suffering from the guilt of cheating on Will, but she has a vision and standards that she wants the program to meet. She shows a strength that has been somewhat absent lately.

There are many plotlines left up in the air at the end of this episode. It will be interesting to see how these situations unfold in ‘The Blackout Part II: Mock Debate’ next week. Can Will continue reporting stories he hates for the sake of ratings? Hopefully we will soon see some development in Will and MacKenzie’s relationship. We saw very little of the Jim, Maggie and Don triangle this week, but that story is far from finished. Check out The Newsroom Sundays on HBO.

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