Spoilers Ahead: If you haven't yet watched this week's episode of The Newsroom and plan to, you may want to come back here later. As usual, this will be mostly analysis rather than a straightforward recap.
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What makes South Park so uncannily able to be timely is that each week's episode isn't finished until literally just a few hours before air. It can comment on a news item that happened that very day, making it feel sometimes like Trey Parker and Matt Stone are psychic or are somehow doing an animated show live. This week, Aaron Sorkin seemed to be pulling off the same feat. Watching the penultimate episode of The Newsroom you couldn't help but get the idea that either you were seeing something that had been written two days ago or that Sorkin is some kind of psychic. That's how lucky he got in the art-imitating-life department.
It's difficult to imagine anyone actually bothering to get angry over something The Newsroom does, given that it's about to end and its maddening inconsistency has always made it a largely irrelevant show anyway, but there's a minor backlash already brewing over one of its storylines from last night. In a series of scenes that felt "ripped from the headlines," Don Keefer travels to Princeton to talk to a female student who's set up a website where rape victims can call out their attackers by name. The timeliness of the fictional story and the Newsroom team's relation to it is eerie, given the Rolling Stone UVA rape debacle that came to a head just last Friday.
During the lengthy, balanced conversation with "Mary," Don tries to make clear the position he's in as someone who truly believes a woman's accusation of rape but also as someone who also has to give the accused the benefit of the doubt. A small faction of feminist Twittererupted at this, calling it a perfectly execrable example of Sorkin "mansplaining" and flipping the show's script by saying that it's a "moral obligation" to believe rape accusers. At the risk of facing the same accusation Sorkin is, I think those who are furiousover the storyline are misreading it just a bit. Don wasn't taking the side of the alleged rapist over the alleged victim or even putting each person's account -- in The Newsroom, unlike at Rolling Stone, the journalist actually had sought out and spoken to the people being accused of rape -- on the same level.
The conversation between Don and Mary saw Sorkin having a difficult internal debate over the demands of a journalist's job. He or she can have absolute faith in the version of events as explained by someone who claims to have been a victim of rape (or any other crime, for that matter). But as we learned from what happened to Rolling Stone, that's just not enough. The other side of the story has to be pursued, not because we don't believe the victim but because that's our "obligation": to test our biases in the name of getting to the truth. Don wasn't saying he was willing to consider the accused rapist's story because he wanted to, he said he simply had to, whether he liked it or not. And he was acknowledging the dilemma this created for him, as well as the fact that, yes, social media tools that allow for anyone's accusations to be presented as the unassailable truth can and will at some point be abused. This is a self-reinforcing argument for employing journalism to tell a story as opposed to simply spewing it out into the ether without any concern for fairness or due process.
The other storyline from last night that got a boost thanks to some coinciding real-world events had to do with the "mutiny" among the "News Night" staff. 52 days after the events of last week, with Will McAvoy languishing in jail for contempt of court, ACN has been turned into a giant hashtag by young Silicon Valley billionaire douchebag Lucas Pruit. The network's digital arm, still Neal-less, is now running apps that sound a lot like the old Gawker Stalker feature, and Sloan Sabbith is less than pleased about it. After an acidic newsroom confrontation with the arrogant basement-dweller who runs ACN Digital, she tricks him into appearing live on-air, where she proceeds to eviscerate him in front of the country. It's a wonderfully satisfying scene, even if it feels like Sorkin is fighting a battle that was over years ago. (It was 2007 when Jimmy Kimmel took to CNN to shred Emily Gould, then at Gawker, over Gawker Stalker.)
What this brings to a point of critical mass, though, is the face-off between the old guard at "News Night" and the new social media brand-savviness of Pruit's vision. Pruit immediately demands that MacKenzie and Sloan be fired, but it's clear they barely give a shit anymore. Don also throws a monkey wrench into Pruit's plans when he says that he was't able to find and speak to Mary (even though the real reason he scuttled the interview was the knowledge that Mary's painful story would be cynically exploited by the new honchos at ACN and would create a feeding frenzy among the audience they were determined to appeal to). As I watched this, all I could think of were the two dozen members of the New Republic staff walking off the job late last week because the magazine's new owner and CEO -- young Facebook multi-millionaire Chris Hughes and Yahoo guru Guy Vidra, respectively -- had made it clear they planned to turn the venerable 100-year-old mainstay into a "vertically integrated digital media company" used for "disruption." Sometimes you just have to quit to make your point crystal clear.
Unfortunately, before Charlie Skinner can talk Pruit down, he collapses on the floor. We find out at the end of the show that he's died. Have a glass of bourbon to the best character on The Newsroom. Charlie, we'll fucking miss you. Also, this sets up the series finale to focus on Charlie's funeral.
If you think that's a hacky way for The Newsroom to go out -- well, it shouldn't come as much of a surprise considering the warm bath of Sorkin clichés we soaked in last night. Only Sorkin can make the final coupling of Jim and Maggie -- which no one really cared about -- feel both predictable and clumsily shoehorned in. Only Sorkin would give us an hour of Will having a much-needed heart-to-heart with his dead, alcoholic, wife-beating father, who appears in the form of an imaginary cellmate. (Please tell me you figured out what was going on the second the cellmate begins psychoanalyzing Will.) Only Sorkin would send Charlie off to Oh Shenandoah. And of course leave it to Sorkin to resolve this year's main storyline -- the one that really held our attention for three outstanding episodes -- with an off-camera suicide.
For the first part of this final, truncated season of The Newsroom, the show was firing on so many cylinders that I really didn't want to see it go. Now? I think it's already gone. Tune in for the funeral next week.
Update 12.8.14 5:20PM ET: The backlash over this episode really has become a pretty big thing. I linked to a couple of pieces that were furiously critical of the Don/Mary storyline above, but there are several moreout there. One interesting development is that a female writer on the Newsroom staff was apparently kicked out of the writers' room during the story session for the episode, she says because of her objections to the way Sorkin wanted to handle the campus rape thread.
Sorkin has issued a response to Smith's decision to air her grievances on Twitter. Short version: he's not happy.
Let me take a moment to say that I understand that the story in last night’s episode (305–”Oh Shenandoah”) about Don trying to persuade a Princeton student named Mary (Sarah Sutherland) not to engage in a “Crossfire”-style segment on his show has catalyzed some passionate debate this morning. I’m happy to hear it.
It catalyzed some passionate debate in our writers room too. Arguments in the writers room at The Newsroom are not only common, they’re encouraged. The staff’s ability to argue with each other and with me about issues ranging from journalistic freedom vs. national security to whether or not Kat Dennings should come back and save the company is one of their greatest assets and something I look for during the hiring process. Ultimately I have to go into a room by myself and write the show but before I do I spend many days listening to, participating in and stoking these arguments. As with any show, I have to create a safe environment where people can disagree and no one fears having their voice drowned out or, worse, mocked.
Alena Smith, a staff writer who joined the show for the third season, had strong objections to the Princeton story and made those objections known to me and to the room. I heard Alena’s objections and there was some healthy back and forth. After a while I needed to move on (there’s a clock ticking) but Alena wasn’t ready to do that yet. I gave her more time but then I really needed to move on. Alena still wouldn’t let me do that so I excused her from the room.
The next day I wrote a new draft of the Princeton scenes–the draft you saw performed last night. Alena gave the new pages her enthusiastic support. So I was surprised to be told this morning that Alena had tweeted out her unhappiness with the story. But I was even more surprised that she had so casually violated the most important rule of working in a writers room which is confidentiality. It was a room in which people felt safe enough to discuss private and intimate details of their lives in the hope of bringing dimension to stories that were being pitched. That’s what happens in writers rooms and while ours was the first one Alena ever worked in, the importance of privacy was made clear to everyone on our first day of work and was reinforced constantly. I’m saddened that she’s broken that trust.
Man, this is thing is a Charlie Kaufman-esque Mobius strip of life-imitating-art-imitating life, with the creator of a show that featured a plotline about a woman who took her outrage to the internet facing off against a writer on the show who took her outrage to the internet -- with a based-on-myriad-true-stories story about the word of one man against the word of one woman who claimed she's been victimized playing out in real life.
As he's being accused of in the context of the show, Sorkin sounds like a condescending asshole here, but guess what: he's right, at least about this. Alena Smith is a playwright with very little experience writing for film or television and if she really did refuse to table her objections when it was made clear by the showrunner that a decision had been made then, yes, she deserved to be shown the door. And yes, Sorkin's right when he says that throwing a public tantrum isn't the way for a professional to behave -- not if that professional ever wants to work in the field of TV or film again. This has nothing to do with the fact that Sorkin is a man and Smith is a woman. It's about one person being the boss and the other person not.
RELATED: You can find last week's "Newsroom Notes" here.