Let me preface this by saying — for those of you not familiar with where I stand on Aaron Sorkin’s Newsroom — that I’ve been a huge defender of the series since the beginning. I forgave the missteps in the first season, I overlooked the fact that Sorkin was basically stealing from himself, and I enjoy wallowing in his smugness, because sometimes Sorkin’s characters say things that I agree with but am not a big enough asshole to say aloud. I didn’t even mind last week’s episode, with its contrived, sitcom-y conclusion. Sorkin is a condescending prick, but he’s also a sentimental prick, and the way those two competing forces collide and meet in the middle hits me in my happy place.
All of which is to say, if I hate an episode of Newsroom, then somebody must have torn the fabric out of its soul. That somebody was Aaron Sorkin.
And “Shenandoah”? My God, that was a terrible fucking episode of television. It was the worst of the series since the Africa episode in season two (the lone major misstep in an otherwise excellent season). I didn’t even hate it for the reasons one might think if you’d only read the episode description and knew that Sorkin was taking up the issue of rape on college campuses (I know, I know).
In fact, thanks to Thomas Sadoski — who plays Don — the rape issue subplot may have been the best handled of the show, though that isn’t saying much. It was an off-key exchange between a rape victim who launched a website to identify and shame other rapists who wouldn’t otherwise be brought to justice by the criminal system, and Don, who was attempting to explain to her why that was a bad idea. They were both right — Don for thinking that such a website would ultimately create false positives and potentially ruin the lives of innocent people, and the rape victim, who balanced that possibility with sense of justice that would come from punishing potentially hundreds, or even thousands of rapists who would otherwise escape the consequences of their actions. Typical Sorkin mansplaining.
It wasn’t the worst thing in the episode, believe it or not.
It was everything else about the episode that was absolutely terrible. Granted, while the way Sloan Sabbith tore into the tech guy for the Gawker Stalker App was satisfying, it was about five years too late, even for a series that re-fights two-year-old battles. It was an embarrassingly stale debate and not the high-stakes issue you’d want to see Sloan jeopardize her job over, or the issue that would turn the entire series on its head with a final few moments that tainted the entire (f**king) season.
But first, let’s back up to: Jim and Maggie. Just when you thought that Sorkin might — just might — avoid his own will-they-won’t-they pitfalls and keep two people apart who are better off apart, he forced them back together in a harried, insultingly boneheaded manner. There was nothing earned about that kiss. It was fate, and by “fate,” I mean: It was tediously unavoidable. These two weren’t Ross and Rachel. They were Kevin and Winnie: In the end, they were much better off as friends. Maggie knows Jim better than anyone, which is exactly why she should have stayed away from him, because she knows he can be a morally condescending butt plug.
Meanwhile, Will McAvoy served 52 days in prison for refusing to name his source, and during that time, he went mad. How do we know that? Because Sorkin tried to play fucking Shyamalan card on us and introduce a cellmate incarcerated for domestic violence, who we realized in the end didn’t actually exist. He was a figment of Will’s imagination. Will was having a conversation with his dead father the entire time.
It was a terribly executed gimmick. It was a clumsy, heavy-handed, overwrought series of exchanges made even moreso by the reveal in the end, which forced us to reevaluate the entire conversation with the knowledge that it was between Will and his dead father. That was some inexcusable Nicholas Sparks bullshit right there. Sorkin may be overly sentimental, but he’s (usually) not a complete hack.
That was a hack move.
Oh, and that source, by the way? She blew her brains out. Deus ex suicide. What a cheap way to conclude that storyline. That Espionage Act subplot was the best thing going for this season, and rather than force an actual resolution, Sorkin put a bullet in its head. Cheap.
But the worst — the absolute worst — development in the episode was Sorkin’s weak-ass attempt to turn Charlie Skinner into The Newsroom’s Mrs. Landingham. Sorkin killed off Charlie. With a heart attack. Over a fucking segment involving a Gawker Stalker app. Unbelievable.
That’s not even the worst part: He assassinated Skinner’s character first. Sorkin turned him into a patsy for B.J. Novak’s regime. Skinner, in the day before he died, was defending the new regime because the ratings had improved. Skinner was choosing ratings over principles. And then he died.
Sure, we may found out next week that he did it to protect the jobs of everyone in the newsroom, but Charlie Fucking Skinner wouldn’t compromise his values to that extent for anyone’s job. He would’ve stood up to Novak’s character. He would’ve gotten himself fired before he kowtowed to that bullshit. Skinner never would’ve allowed himself to be the mouthpiece for a slick, social-media obsessed shithead trying to push Lady Gaga’s tweets over an important Supreme Court decision. Bullshit.
And then Charlie died. And did we get Jeff Buckley’s “Hallelujah,” or even something comparable? No, we got “Shenandoah,” by Sissel, which was incredibly heavy-handed (though, I will concede that after watching the scene three times, the song grew on me). But the whole scene was unbelievably, excruciatingly tone deaf, and so poorly directed to slo-mo death by Paul Lieberstein (DAMMNIT TOBY) that it completely robbed the best character on the show of the devestating send-off he deserved. That’s not just bad writing. And bad directing. That was character assassination.
When he created Sports Night, The West Wing, and Studio 60, Sorkin wrote the screenplays. That was the breadth of his contributions. He wrote. He had a partner, Thomas Schlamme, whose job it was to essentially create the look of the shows, consult with directors, set the overall tone, and deal with all the details that go into producing a series (in fact, it was Schlamme, not Sorkin, who developed the walk-and-talk). That’s what The Newsroom has been missing all along: A guy like Thomas Schlamme who could restrain Sorkin’s worst excesses. Those worst excesses were on full display here in “Shenandoah,” and they were ugly.
Related: Man, I miss. C.J. Cregg.