by request: the empire strikes back (irvin kershner, 1980)
110 years is a long time

flaws: boardwalk empire and the newsroom

Boardwalk Empire is two episodes into its fourth season, while The Newsroom just had its Season Two finale. Other than the fact that they are both on HBO, there isn’t much connecting them, so this post is partly just me trying to squeeze two series into one blog post.

But …

Last week, Tim Goodman asked the question, “Why Isn’t ‘Boardwalk Empire’ Compelling Even When It’s Really Good?” It’s a question I’ve often asked myself. It’s not that the show gets no love … it has won a dozen Emmys and been nominated for many more. It ranks high on the Metacritic site, which collates critical opinion. There are big names attached to it, most notably Martin Scorsese. The large cast is both solid and varied, and the recreation of 1920s America is excellent. You might argue that it is a flawless show … there’s a flaw in the excess of riches category, since there are so many great characters and actors that not all of them get their due, but it’s hard to call something that positive a flaw. (My wife points out that with each season, fewer characters actually care about anything real outside of their gangland lives, and she’s right. Whether that is a flaw is another question.)

But compelling? For many people, it is. For me, its quality doesn’t necessarily translate into a compelling series. Interesting things happen, there are more actors I love than practically any other show, I’m always glad to watch it … yet it’s not always the first thing I watch when the DVR begins to back up, and sometimes that backup includes an episode of Boardwalk Empire that I haven’t gotten to yet.

Meanwhile, there’s The Newsroom, which is defined by the flaws of its creator, Aaron Sorkin. I consider myself a fan of Sorkin, since the days of Sports Night. I eventually gave up on West Wing, but that was after he’d left the show. Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip did little for me, but I liked The Social Network. What I don’t like in Sorkin’s work is the heavy-handed soapbox pontificating, which seems to me to have gotten worse over the years. (Perhaps since Sports Night was set in a studio that produced a sports show, while West Wing and The Newsroom have politics at their core, my memories of Sports Night are that it mostly lacked the soapbox.)

In the season finale, which itself was the latter half of a two-part set of episodes, things were going along fine, until suddenly, dropped like an anvil into the middle of the episode, we got Jeff Daniels as Will McAvoy pontificating about why he is a Republican. As character development, this might be interesting if we didn’t already know everything he said, but it didn’t come across as character development, it came across like Aaron Sorkin offering his opinion on the Tea Party. And this kind of scene pops up on a regular basis.

It’s odd, because Sorkin is rightfully lauded for his dialogue … he has both an Oscar and an Emmy for his writing … but he can’t help himself when it comes time to deliver a pompous editorial in the middle of one of his shows.

So The Newsroom is flawed, which even its biggest fans probably accept (I haven’t even mentioned the way he creates interesting, smart, capable women characters, only to turn them into babbling goofballs, or the way his cluelessness about the Internet is only matched by his hatred of the culture he thinks it propagates). Yet it also has a lot of great acting … I like how Olivia Munn, not “really” an actress, often outshines her more experienced counterparts, and Jane Fonda is fun in the Maggie Smith “old codger who pops up once in a while and gets the best lines” role. In fact, when Fonda, one of our greatest actresses, gets wrapped around Sorkin dialogue, it’s quite a treat. (Although when Fonda’s Leona Lansing proclaimed, under the influence of marijuana, that she wanted to get the Allman Brothers back together, it rang false in that particular Sorkin way. You see, the Allmans reunited in 1989. If this was meant to show how Leona Lansing was out of touch, I tip my cap, but my guess is, Sorkin doesn’t know anything about the Allman Brothers work over the past 20+ years.)

I probably enjoy watching The Newsroom more than I enjoy watching Boardwalk Empire, and I’m not talking about hate-watching, no matter how much I complain. The flawed messiness of The Newsroom appeals to me more than the more perfect excellence of Boardwalk. But I never seem to be able to get past those flaws. The Newsroom doesn’t make me want to go back and watch old Sports Night episodes … rather, it makes me wonder if I’ve been overrating Sports Night all these years.

Boardwalk Empire, first two episodes of Season Four: A-. Grade for Season Two of The Newsroom: B+ (up from last season’s B-).

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