Both missed their marks, by varying degrees. Boardwalk, at least, has been a very watchable period piece. It's enjoyable even if you’re not compelled to keep a ledger of every suit lurking in the peripheries of expensive-looking parlor rooms. The Newsroom is just an out-and-out mess, a never-plausible Sorkinverse of The Men Who Do The News that conveys dramatic moments via Coldplay montages.
But for HBO dramas up against cable’s heaviest Sunday night artillery, it doesn’t matter if you’re bad or just decent. You’ve got to be good (Game of Thrones) or popular (True Blood) or both, or you’re not long for Not TV. HBO announced this week that the next seasons of Boardwalk (its fifth) and Newsroom (third) will be their last.
Boardwalk got here because it never wavered in its attempt to be a profoundly important show. Winter wrote the script for Wolf of Wall Street, another tale of wealthy criminals, whores and heroin that, for better or worse, had no small measure of absurdist humor in the telling. Not so for Boardwalk, which deeply wanted to be prestige and not pulp. So we got a lot of Steve Buscemi frowning exasperatedly while guys like Michael Stuhlbarg and Jeffrey Wright spout vaguely menacing aphorisms. (Not coincidentally, the high-water mark fourth season spent more time than ever with Stephen Graham, playing Al Capone as a gleefully manic coke fiend who actually seemed to enjoy all this mob shit.) And the show found itself consigned to ratings purgatory, not smart enough to have a cultural moment a la Breaking Bad and not schlocky enough to draw Walking Dead ratings.
Newsroom got here because it simply abandoned any hope of an audience. Unlike Boardwalk, whose downfall was that it inspired indifference, Newsroom inspired animosity; aside from aggressive fan-trolling by higher-rated shows like The Killing, it’s hard to recall another series that drew so much ire from Twitter. It was basically unwatchable if you didn’t share Sorkin’s politics; if you did, you probably took issue with his writing of female characters as hysterical, shrewish, vulnerable or idiotic. Newsroom’s most annoying tic was the way it portrayed ACN as a uniquely virtuous provider of news without acknowledging that it had three years of hindsight to get things right. “A doctor pronounces her dead, not the news,” says a producer in reference to Gabby Giffords. This is a complete nonsense, but its also representative of the blend of silliness and sanctimony that plagued Newsroom’s hot takes on real life. Anyone with a grasp on reality was understandably confused by the part where executive producers at cable news magazines didn’t know how to use e-mail, or the part where this happens. For most of Newsroom’s run, Sorkin has basically relied on fan-service relationships and Jeff Daniels’ speechifying to make you feel some type of way.
It’s weird because Sorkin has been so much better in other places, especially West Wing and The Social Network. But Newsroom played to his worst tendencies. He wrote Mark Zuckerberg as a condescending asshole who couldn’t handle human relationships, and Jed Bartlet as a gracious but fervent middle-aged man of infinite wisdom. Will McAvoy was discussed in the hushed tones reserved for the latter but acted for all the world like the former. And the finish line can’t come soon enough: The Will-Mackenzie pairing the show had teased as one of its last remaining means of survival has ‘shipped, and ACN, as it catches up to real time, is about to lose the hindsight it needs to get sufficiently smug about news networks.
By contrast, Boardwalk will conclude just as it's starting to find a groove. The show basically rebooted after Michael Pitt’s prodigal son was written out at the end of Season 2. It reinvented itself as a season-by-season procedural, where Nuck dispatches villains (Bobby Cannavale, Jeffrey Wright) on an annual basis and intermittently at his brother. This is a model with increasing returns. Boardwalk smartly began to consolidate its cast of characters in Season 4, which gave viewers a puncher’s chance at telling one pomaded mean mug from another, and the show’s strictly-business bro-code-among-thieves means that the peripheral characters played by the likes of Stuhlbarg and Vincent Piazza can be friends one episode and enemies the next. At the same time, the show realized its fictional characters were also its best, and has rewarded viewers’ patience with increasing doses of Michael K. Williams as Chalky White and Michael Shannon as Nelson van Alden. Too little, too late, maybe, but a fifth season where Winter can pull out all the stops could be fun for all involved.
Both shows might serve as cautionary tales for the acclaim-seeking dramas of tomorrow. Don’t take yourself too seriously; write at least some of your female characters as something other than damsels in distress; don’t score your episode-ending montages with Coldplay. One, hopefully, goes out with a bang, the other most likely with a whimper; either way, Game of Thrones will be back in April to make you forget about both of them.
Ross Green is a freelance writer. Follow him on Twitter.