Aaron Sorkin’s misplaced media malaise

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A whole new, transformative kind of debate: Just what we needed. ()
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Every Monday, Glynnis MacNicol writes about the new HBO series, "The Newsroom." Today, Episode 8, "The Blackout, Part 1: Tragedy Porn." (Earlier posts here.)

There is one episode of "The Newsroom" left.

That the final episodes of this 10-episode season feel like things to be endured rather than enjoyed (even if only on the level of a basic, satisfactory tying up of loose ends) perhaps says more about this show than any critique of its real-world backdrop or tick-tock of its plot lines and character developments (what little there are) ever could.

I simply do not care what happens to these people.

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Is it worth pointing out that this is only the first season and perhaps it's warming up into something better? Maybe. The first season of "Sex and the City" was by far its weakest. One imagines that the same will be said for "Girls," a hugely flawed and often infuriating show, which showed dim signs of hope in the last two episodes.

But probably not. With both of those shows it was clear the creators were and are attempting to do and say something new, and that their flaws were the result of the struggle to wrangle some new, as-yet-unexplored truth out of the story lines and characters they came out of the gate with. "The Newsroom," meanwhile, is simply stale and two-dimensional. We've seen this all before. Many times. And it isn't twisting itself into something unexpected, as we were promised it would.

And anyway, "Deadwood," "The Wire," "Breaking Bad," "Mad Men," and "The West Wing" all had extraordinary first seasons—their challenge was to live up to expectations, not persuading the audience to stick around in case something maybe gets good.

Last night's episode was the second part of the two-part "Blackout" story arc. You will recall the last episode concluded with the "News Night" staff being forced to do the unthinkable and cover both the Casey Anthony trial and the Anthony Weiner sexts in the hope that the subsequent ratings bump might secure them the host spot for a G.O.P. debate for which they have big, historic, debate-changing plans (plans we still had not been shown).

But just as Will is about to go live with one of Weiner's girls, and MacKenzie asks for a sign from God they are doing the right thing, the power cuts out. This is where last night's episode opened and the short-lived power outage was essentially the only reason to create a two part show. On HBO.

In the darkness MacKenzie gives a truly ridiculous pep talk about how a miracle will happen and they will do the show from the sidewalk. (I'm trying to picture the executive producers I know predicting a miracle.) However, just as the team is rallying, the power comes back on and they are back with Anthony's girl. God hates "News Night."

The episode unraveled from there as a series of disjointed scenes that I suspect were intended to push the characters' relationships along and to create some sort of tension heading into the last episode, but actually just felt like a bunch of first-draft herky-jerky character sketches thrown together. And these sketches are really sketchy, given the characters we know.

Here's one: Maggie's roommate Lisa, just a few episodes ago, was scared to go on a date with Jim because she felt she was too dumb. This week she is revealed to be a former classmate of Casey Anthony's with some moral qualms about going on TV to discuss it. After Maggie and Jim strong-arm her into appearing on the show to aid their nobly-intended race for ratings (there was some strong skepticism last night about whether a real newsroom would consider this a get worth fighting for), Maggie and MacKenzie, still smarting at having to use their vast brainpower to talk about the Anthony trial, slip her some statistics about child abduction, which Lisa dutifully repeats on air (with only one misstep; girls don't do math!) before launching into left field with a pro-choice argument based on the fact that Casey Anthony shouldn't have had a child.

Here's another: Neal continues his attempt to infiltrate some secret cabal of internet trolls by posting crappy, somewhat pornographic takedowns of Sloan, a scheme she has agreed to, naturally, in an effort to help him land the story. I suspect Sorkin is confusing something like 4Chan or even Anonymous (both shady groups of internet savants who like to create havoc online) with actual commenter trolls, who generally can barely spell let alone organize themselves some sort of digital union.

(I should say, this plot line is most likely to succeed, in terms of directing the course of the show. Are we getting foreshadowing that this anonymous commenter who keeps leaving death threats might just try to shoot Will? But even then, it would be much like the assassination finale of the first season of "The West Wing." In other words, another repeat.)

Another: Don dates other women when he and Maggie are on a break.

Another: Jim attempts to woo Lisa back on a "real" first date only to show up at Maggie's apartment to maybe confess his love for her after MacKenzie tells him to "gather his rosebuds while he may." She really says this. Except Don is there, confusing matters again, and Jim ends up shuffled out the door with a newly amorous Lisa.

There are more. But the crux of the story remains the G.O.P. debate. In comes Alan Arkin, an old friend of Will from his R.N.C. days (and the original therapist on "The West Wing" episode Sorkin recycled earlier this season). With his young sidekick, he's come to discuss giving Will and ACN the debate. The "News Night" staff, having prepared for months, stages their mock debate as a sort of audition. We are made to understand that the way their debate will be different is that there will be no rules for the moderator. Will will get to hammer away at the candidates' answers, or lack thereof, as much as he wants, essentially making it the Will show (though the "News Night" staff argues he is merely holding the candidates accountable). The younger R.N.C. dude is outraged. He wants the old Will back! The one with no opinion. He stomps out, leaving Arkin; Will tells Arkin not to let the R.N.C. bully him, and Arkin slips away apologetically after mumbling something about Stanford tuition fees. No debate for ACN.

In Sorkin's defense, I'm sure when he wrote this it did seem like the G.O.P. line-up of circus acts would make a terrific dramatic tableau with which to explore the bigger question of what's wrong with the Republican Party.

In real life, there were 20 G.O.P. debates (26 if you count forums, etc.) this presidential cycle. There were so many debates it's hard to remember which ones were the good ones and which ones were ridiculous (Sorkin highlights a CNN one near the end of this episode).

They were very popular with audiences, which is one reason there were so many. But in the early stages on the G.O.P. side, it's not clear to me the debates were ridiculous because of the lenient moderators, and not the ridiculous candidates, who said so many idiotic things on and off the stage without the help of moderators.

Sorkin has said his show is not reality, but a fantasy in which one show handled the news differently and made a difference. But that's also the problem. In the real world, the G.O.P. did not nominate any of its many fringe candidates; they nominated Romney, who in turn has tapped Paul Ryan, the ultraconservative but not-at-all unserious congressman from Wisconsin. Herman Cain, Donald Trump and Michele Bachmann are distant memories. Better or different television debate questions would have changed nothing (and after 26 debates it's hard to argue the candidates weren't put through their paces). In fact, the media did it better than Sorkin's "Newsroom" is doing it, not worse.

Cable television may be the biggest megaphone for the distorted conversations that plague Washington and exist online (which is where they source the majority of their stories), and it's probably true that cable's cartoonish point of view elevated bad or ridiculous politicians—from Sarah Palin to Donald Trump to Herman Cain—into real (if unlikely) candidates for office.

But cable television giveth and taketh away. It was, after all, the 24-hour cable news cycle that ultimately presided over the destruction of the fringe candidates. To borrow a phrase from Homer Simpson about alcohol: Cable television is the cause of, and the solution to, all our problems.

Well, really not all of them, and that's another problem with the operational conceit of "The Newsroom."

What is going on with the G.O.P., it's becoming increasingly clear, has little to do with the lack of the great men Sorkin so misses from the glory days of voice-of-God journalism. (Also, television is not exactly bereft of tenacity, Soledad O'Brien's interview with John Sununu being the latest, greatest example.)

The party's cultural breakdown would indeed be worthy of a show. How did the party of Reagan become the party that just yesterday made famous the term "legitimate rape," when Rep. Todd Akin, the man leading the polls in the Missouri Senate race, theorized a woman's body is capable of blocking unwanted pregnancies that result form rape, so that ipso facto, abortion should never be necessary in the case of rape.

So Maureen Dowd is actually left to ask the question, using real inches of newsprint and ink: "What on earth is nonforcible rape?"

It is mind-boggling that the conversation has gotten here, but it's not clear that that's happened because television journalism has allowed it to. It might really just be that some people think some crazy things, and that those people have a platform in the spiraling G.O.P.

This is not a party that can be "fixed" (to employ Sorkin's favorite term) by some better phrased debate questions. The party is currently in a full-blown identity crisis and violently fracturing down cultural lines.

And there is a fascinating media angle on it, though it's nowhere near "The Newsroom." Not long ago, venture capitalist Fred Wilson rather brilliantly posited on his blog: “We are crossing a huge chasm from an industrial society to an information society. And there is immense pain in that transformation. Obama can't solve the problem nor can any of his opponents."

On a deep level, media (as information) is the mode of the entire society, the entire political process, the entire economy; so the question whether news organizations are tough enough on candidates in debates seems a laughably small matter in comparison. There is someplace to write about all of this, but the setting is not ACN, the protagonist is not Will McAvoy, and the villains are not the R.N.C.

Perhaps that's why the characters on "The Newsroom" seem trivial, too; their importance is tied too tightly to something vastly unimportant.

Sadly, an exploration of the small steps that lead people and political parties to fractured extremes seems beyond Sorkin's scope. It would be better suited to someone like Vince Gilligan, the creator of "Breaking Bad," who has done an extraordinary job of turning Walter White, the most middle of Americans, into such a terrifying, loathsome character I find myself hoping Schuyler will muster the resolve to stab him in the eyes next time he crawls into bed with her and runs his fingers down her arm. That is some character development!

Meanwhile, "The Newsroom" continues to stumble around the television studio in fits and bursts, sometimes literally.

Last night's episode ended with the team deciding to scrap their "rundown" of the day stories, instead heroically reporting on the debt-ceiling crisis. What bravery, in the face of banality!