‘Boardwalk Empire’ takes on ‘Mad Men’

HBO is hoping its new period drama can beat the one it turned down


HBO has lost some of its prestige lately: none of its continuing series won major Emmys last month. So Boardwalk Empire, the Prohibition-era crime drama premiering this Sunday on HBO Canada, isn’t just a new series with big names (like star Steve Buscemi and pilot director Martin Scorsese). It’s HBO’s chance to beat the period drama it turned down, Mad Men; when that show won its third consecutive Emmy for best drama series, San Francisco Chronicle critic Tim Goodman wrote that “maybe next year HBO can get up there for Boardwalk Empire.” Creator Terence Winter describes the show as “a history of Atlantic City from when it was a mosquito-infested swamp until today”—it may prove that the only way to outdo Mad Men is to go back 40 years earlier.

Not that Boardwalk Empire is a Mad Men clone. With Buscemi playing Nucky Thompson, a man who helps the bootleg alcohol industry flourish as long as he gets a cut, the show has all the crime and violence the more sedate Mad Men never offers. But Winter is a colleague of Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner (they both wrote for The Sopranos), and they both love using TV to recreate a whole era of U.S. history. Winter told Maclean’s that “the success of Mad Men makes me happy because I know there’s an audience” for a drama that “assumes a level of knowledge about history,” and he’s trying to live up to Weiner’s example in “making it as true to the period as I can possibly do it.”

The year 1920 gives Boardwalk Empire “a very large canvas,” Winter enthuses, not just because of the lavish costumes and sets, but because of what we know about the period. “The show begins on the day Prohibition was enacted; women got the right to vote, World War I had just ended.” The Sopranos had to stick to drab fictional crime; a show like this can use real stories—and real people like the young Al Capone—for a more sweeping feel.

Winter is also using a TV device that’s familiar from shows like M*A*S*H: using history to comment on our own time. “The alcohol business then is basically the drug business now,” Winter explains. “Young people who became rum runners are people today who want to deal drugs to drive flashy cars.” Even the First World War gets a contemporary spin: one of Nucky’s henchmen, Jimmy (Michael Pitt), is a veteran whose troubles—and the cluelessness of people who weren’t in the war—parallel the issues of modern veterans.

There are drawbacks to bringing the past into present-day TV, though, and the biggest one is predictability. Winter saw this happen with Deadwood, where he did a Google search for the real people portrayed on the show and wound up spoiling the ending for himself. “I got ahead of the story. Whenever I saw Al Swearengen on the show, I said, ‘Well, I know he’s not going to die yet.’ ” So though Boardwalk Empire is based on a non-fiction book, Winter has decided to replace the main characters with renamed versions: Nuckie Johnson, the man who, Winter says, “had a lock on the political side of Atlantic City,” becomes Buscemi’s “Nuckie Thompson” here, allowing Winter to sacrifice some accuracy for dramatic effect.

But the biggest pitfall for a historical drama is the cost. “You find a period street but it takes two days of prep to fix it up,” Winter explains. “If we have 100 extras in a scene, every one of them has to be dressed right, with the right haircut. We had clothing break apart on people while they’re wearing it.” HBO spent a reported $18 million on the pilot, a huge budget for a TV episode, while Mad Men’s attention to detail is costing AMC more than it can make back from viewership. Cable networks never had these problems with Tony Soprano’s short-sleeved shirts.

Still, the positive buzz for the show may be worth the money HBO is spending on it. Some of the scenes, like a bar proprietor getting beaten up by a gangster, might play as Sopranos rehashes were they in modern dress, but they seem fresh and new in a 1920s speakeasy. Winter says that one of the show’s themes is, “the more things change the more they stay the same.” HBO is hoping that its Emmy drought is the one thing that doesn’t stay the same.