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Boardwalk Empire, 12 Episodes Later


 

So what did you think of the first season of Boardwalk Empire? Reaction to the show seems to have gone through several cycles in only one twelve episode season: from immense hype, to backlash (including a big drop in viewership from the inflated levels of the pilot) to renewed critical respectability. It now almost seems to be a show that is respected rather than loved; Emily Nussbaum put it on her list of the top 10 shows of 2010, even though she finds the violence and nudity “gratuitous” and the Sopranos-clone elements to be too blatant.

The show certainly has improved after hitting a rough patch soon after the pilot, but I don’t think it’s a show I feel compelled to return to very often. First, the Sopranos imitations are just too much to take sometimes; if you put some of the scenes in modern dress, they would seem really similar to HBO’s flagship show, but as it is, the formula seems to show through at times. Over a decade after The Sopranos, the time is long past when a show can seem unusual for being about scummy criminals, or having minimal music, or being morally ambiguous. These are all formula elements by now, and while there’s nothing wrong with formula in TV, I think Boardwalk Empire seems a bit by-the-numbers HBO, at least sometimes.

Second, I don’t feel a great sense of momentum from the show, even now. As I noted soon after it began, Boardwalk Empire is constructed a lot like a soap opera, where many episodes are built out of a bunch of scenes that might not be directly connected to one another. The structure and pace of the episode comes from alternating different types of scenes with different characters. This is fine if the scenes are good, but at some points I find myself drumming my fingers and waiting for the scenes to be over. Maybe it’s because the themes of the scenes can be a bit repetitive; maybe it’s a downside of a show trying to convey its chosen themes, that eventually you see one too many scenes where the underlying issues are similar.

But mostly it’s the guy at the centre. The Sopranos worked because Tony Soprano dominated the show; even when he wasn’t in a scene, you felt his presence and wondered what he was going to think about this. Just knowing that Tony was such a dominant figure gave momentum to any episode or season. Nucky, at least to me, is not like that — when he’s not on screen, I barely think about him. This is partly because Michael Pitt as Jimmy has become the closest thing to a breakout character, and it’s partly because the issues that Nucky’s life revolves around are more conventional and familiar than the funnier, weirder problems that Tony had. Being based on a real person, Nucky has to be more serious than Tony, just as the show has to take itself more seriously than The Sopranos did, but Deadwood has shown that reality-based characters can have more quirky individuality than I’m getting from this guy.

But I think some of it may be Steve Buscemi. As a character actor, we all know he’s good, but there’s a difference between a character actor and a lead. And the difference has nothing to do with good looks, or James Gandolfini would not be a star. It’s about presence. Physically, vocally and just in terms of acting style, Buscemi seems (to me) to have trouble dominating even the scenes he’s in — and if he can’t do that consistently, he sure can’t be an unseen presence in other people’s scenes.


 
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Boardwalk Empire, 12 Episodes Later

  1. Great article. I admit there were times when I thought the show was slow and at times boring but in my opinion it always seemed to redeem itself. I learned to enjoy the pacing of the show much in the same way I did with Mad Men. As far as Nookie Thompson's screen presence I actually preferred that he didn't dominate the show because it allows the show to shift focus to James Darmady and his trials and tribulations. In my opinion I think that the show has 2 main characters rather than just one, Nookie and James, whereas the Soprano's was all about Tony. I think it would be unfair to consider Boardwalk Empire as the successor to The Soprano's because of the impact the Soprano's had on television. But one thing HBO seems great at doing is making the setting a character of the show (The Wire, True Blood, Soprano's, Deadwood, Rome). It's really interesting to see how two of the best shows on TV, Boardwalk Empire and Mad Men, have the setting play such an important role.

  2. I think I wanted to enjoy the show more than I really did, but for all its unevenness, I think it still produced some excellent television. I can't fault the show's scope and ambition, and while there were some episodes that dragged on for me, I did like how Buscemi grew into the role as the series progressed. I tend to agree he lacks a certain leading man gravitas, but I think in some ways it makes for a more interesting story, and allows some of the fantastic supporting characters and the actors portraying them (Margaret, Jimmy, Richard, Gillian, Rothstein, the Commodore, and Chalky, to name just a few) to have the chance to be very well constructed and extremely compelling characters in their own right, and I think the show was much better for it.

    I think the season ended on a strong note, and sets the stage for a second season where I think the show will really hit its stride.

  3. I was really interested in this show, but after the 2nd episode I began losing interest. Good concept, not so thrilled with the execution. Watched most of the last few episodes "on demand" rather than when they actually aired. I found the character of Margaret the most interesting & thought they should have given Michael K. Williams (Chalky) much more screen time. I also found the violence & sex scenes to be gratuitous in many cases & often did little to advance the various plot-lines. I will watch the 2nd season, but it's by no means "must see TV" for me.

  4. Let Boardwalk Empire stand on its own merits, quit comparing it to The Soprano's or even Deadwood, just because it's broadcast by HBO. That in itself is by-the-numbers journalistic review. If anything, the fictional Tony Soprano owes a debt of gratitude to the actual Nucky Thompson. I think it's more realistic to show that modern organized crime wasn't/isn't dominated by one person. After all, It starts at the beginning of the Prohibition era. For example they show how Al Capone started out as an errand boy and the origins of the FBI, then offshoot of the IRS. The term "the mob" didn't even exist. Has the show been uneven at times? Yes. But overall I think it has been very entertaining and I'm eager to see how it will develop in the future.

  5. Donnie, you're out of your element.

  6. First you say, this is so much like the sopranos and then you say it's not like sopranos and Steve B is not James G. Make up your mind. Just as you say Steve B cannot dominate a scene, you can't make a compelling argument and should not be working for Macleans.

    For Tony in the Sopranos, it was about the mob and family. For Nucky, it's more about the writers take on his interaction with political and historical mob figures. Nucky is interesting on his own but layers are added with the uprising and seldom told STORY about Al Capone, Lucky, Lansky, etc. The story arc of Al alone is worth the price of admission. His transition to his grown up gangster hat, etc. I don't see why you need to think of Steve B in that scene for example. Jimmy, Nelson, and Margaret adds immensely to the story.

    The couple of criticism I have about the show would be that they spend too much time on a few side stories (Jimmy's wife's lover) and that there are too many characters that would confuse a regular viewer that just wants to sit down, have a good time and not think. Here is where sopranos is different as well. The sopranos had lots of characters but they are introduced (and whacked) at a good pace so the regular viewer can follow the show even if they have missed one or two episodes. The first episode of Empire Boardwalk was excellent but so many things happened and so many interaction with various characters that you would definitely have to watch it a few times to truly appreciate what happens in the show later on.

    Empire Board walk season 1: 8/10
    Sopranos 7 seasons: 9/10

    • First you say, this is so much like the sopranos and then you say it's not like sopranos and Steve B is not James G. Make up your mind.

      Two different things. It's too much like The Sopranos in the formula it uses, but it's not enough like The Sopranos in terms of having a strong lead character. I could just as easily say it's not enough like [fill in name of hit shows that have really strong lead characters, namely most of them].

      • If by your definition, a show is defined by the lead character and the lead characters are different (Tony vs. Nucky),

        – in terms of the story (as explained previously)
        – the way the supporting cast interact with them
        – the name recognition of the characters in the show and thus your interest in finding more about them (Al Capone, Lucky, etc.)
        – the setting
        – the way they act
        etc.

        THEN WE ARE TALKING ABOUT DIFFERENT SHOWS! So just leave it at that.

  7. Only thing worth watching that doesn't have commercials. Really like the show

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