There are bad episodes of The Newsroom, and then there’s last night’s “Oh Shenandoah,” the kind of down-in-flames wreck that sets the Internet to red alert. Even if you don’t watch the show, the blowback to the show’s penultimate episode was so universal that you might be clicking on reactions just to figure out what went so spectacularly wrong. A lot of the scorn stems from a central plot dealing with a college student’s allegations of unprosecuted campus rape. But the show’s indelicate approach to that plot wasn’t the only thing that left me aghast. “Oh Shenandoah” was Aaron Sorkin soapiness dialed to unwatchable extremes, coupled with a series of grating, one-sided lectures on the dangers of new media.
The Newsroom has usually failed to make its rapid banter sound like two distinct characters having a conversation. Yes, pretty much every interaction on the show is one character saying one thing, and the other proposing a counterpoint, but while this could lead to poetry on Sports Night or The West Wing, on The Newsroom it feels more often than not like a clunky term paper. Will McAvoy is the biggest culprit, since the show only ever made him into an irascible, incorrigible genius who knows everything about the news. There’s nothing but endless, tiresome authority from his side of every conversation. So, why not take his time in prison (for refusing to name his source on a governmental leak) to a logical extreme? Why not have him talk to himself?
Sorry to spoil the twist ending in a twist-laden episode, but the reveal that Will’s prison-mate (played by Kevin Rankin) was actually a blast-from-the-past vision of his own abusive father must have sent heads into desks all around the country. Will spends his time in the slammer (52 days, give or take!) verbally sparring with Rankin's character, who considers him an elitist northeastern media snob, “doesn’t like Jews,” has been arrested three times for domestic battery, and eventually reminds Will that his dad probably just wanted to go fishing with him and he should relax already.
What? Rankin was playing the latest in a long line of messed-up Aaron Sorkin father figures, a trashier version of Jed Bartlet’s dad from The West Wing (who was also abusive and also scornful of his wife’s Catholicism). But he was so fundamentally unlikable in every way, and Will’s elitism was so established, it was hard to even take the prison debates as a serious argument. Yes, Will has a bit of a complex about his mean, departed dad and his homely Nebraska origins. But I cannot think of a more amateurish, one-sided way to present that complex. Doesn’t matter: At the end of the episode, Will is released from prison, idealism and reputation intact, because ACN’s source kills herself and the government stops caring about compelling Will to reveal her name.
Meanwhile, in the precious seven or so weeks while Will is behind bars, new media takes over at ACN and turns it into a withered husk, a horrifying joke on journalism that barely resembles the splendid fortress of freedom we might have recalled just one episode prior. Pond-scum new-money millionaire Pruitt (B.J. Novak) has turned ACN into a hashtag-centric TMZ-style garbage zone, reporting on Lady Gaga (heaven forbid) and developing apps that speciously stalk celebrities and leave them helpless prey to paparazzi. Forget the implausibility of the idea that Pruitt has somehow, in seven weeks, hired a whole team of sniveling tech hobgoblins to hollow out the network. This whole nightmare scenario was just one Sorkin rant too far. Perhaps it’s because ACN is 24-hour cable news, but it was just hard to take the whole “death of journalism” ballad seriously.
Sloan takes her frustrations out by eviscerating an ACN app developer on the air, partaking in the kind of hectoring to which she’s not usually given over. Mac somehow approves this segment, putting both of their jobs at risk for no good reason at all. I suppose we’re meant to think that this stalker app is the straw that broke the camel’s back—but Will isn’t even out of prison yet. Why would either of these consummate professionals waste their time on such silliness? They, along with Don, are complaining to Charlie that ACN isn’t doing enough serious news, while Charlie is running around like a headless chicken trying to convince them that everything’s okay. Hey, Jim and Maggie are off trying to get Edward Snowden right now, he reminds us!
Oh, right, the real world again, poking its nose into a show that has largely abandoned its conceit that it covers true events from 18 months or so ago. Yes, Maggie and Jim make a half-hearted effort to track Snowden down in a Moscow airport, before getting on a flight to Havana without him (as many journalists at the time did) and finally realizing that they were in love with each other. Finally, we have an answer to the question: What happens when the entirely stoppable force meets the totally movable object? Answer: It looks a lot like Jim and Maggie kissing. I’ll say Maggie can do a lot better, and I don’t even like her that much.
ACN fails to track down Snowden, though, and Sloan and Mac’s little insurrection brings the world crashing down around Charlie, who is clearly caught between his nasty new owner and his loyal employees. That might be an interesting dynamic to watch—but we didn’t get to see it play out at all, thanks to the time-jump. It also doesn’t help that Novak’s character is a zero-dimensional cautionary tale about Internet millionaires buying news companies. Anyway, just to ratchet up the consequences of new media a little more, Charlie drops dead of a heart attack in the ACN offices, slayed by the inextricable paradoxes of anonymous tweets not equaling real reporting, or something.
That’s when the folk song “Oh Shenandoah” kicks in, and it’s where I threw my hands up for the 10th time in an hour at Sorkin’s incredible, unearned satisfaction with himself. After an hour of lecturing, he expects me to be moved just because he killed a character off with a bolt from the blue and played a stirring American folk hymn over it? No thanks. And we haven’t even discussed the campus rape plot yet.
That’s a whole other series of lectures, delivered by two people: Don, in a quiet, even tone, and Mary (Sarah Sutherland), largely while angrily crying. Don is reporting on Mary’s website, which names alleged rapists on campus who have gone unprosecuted, including her own. Don is doing this for a peculiar and absurd reason: Pruitt, who is apparently the pole star of inhumanity, has decided he wants Mary and one of the men she says raped her to appear together on ACN for some sort of debate. Don is trying to persuade Mary against this course of action, and in doing so, articulates a case for presuming innocence in all matters, warning Mary that someone will hijack her website to ruin a young man’s life.
The presentation of the debate is all wrong—like I said, Don comes off as a stable, reasoned beacon of truth, and Mary as an understandably upset, hysterical creature of emotion, blinded from logic by her tragic circumstances. I have my objections to the debate that plays out, but it’s the presentation that’s particularly infuriating, not to mention the conclusion: Don takes it upon himself to lie to his producer and claim he never found Mary, shielding her from whatever media horrors he might imagine.
This is The Newsroom at its worst, through and through. I have no problems with a show that explores the heroism of journalism, perhaps while balancing that against ethical quandaries. But this is no a heroic moment, and it’s an embarrassment to watch it treated as one. After Don softly informs Mary of all the flaws in her arguments and nods sadly at each one of her rebuttals, he goes home having learned nothing but presuming himself all the wiser. That’s the episode in a nutshell. We haven’t learned a single thing, but Aaron Sorkin sure thinks we have.