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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