A Stroll Down Boardwalk Empire

Many of you asked me why I wasn’t doing weekly reviews of Boardwalk Empire, as the combination of HBO and Martin Scorsese was likely to be too good to pass up. Well, that wasn’t a dismissal of the program by me, but rather a reflection of my not believing in paying $8 a month for one show, and also that the company has a propensity to threaten lawsuits for downloading said show.

But now that the series has wrapped, I’ve managed to get my hands on it, and I recently tore through the entire season in about two days, and now I’m ready to share my thoughts on it all.

I think the golden age of HBO might be over. Gone are the days where The Sopranos, Oz, Six Feet Under, Deadwood and Entourage ruled television. All of those shows have now wrapped, save Entourage, but it’s clear the its novelty wore off some time ago.

Rather other premium channels are creating the hits now, with Dexter a smashing success, and even channels like Starz cranking out excellent TV like Spartacus. HBO’s Boardwalk Empire is a good effort, but in season one, I just don’t think it has the staying power of its other past series.

I hope the female hairstyles on this show never make a resurgence.

The concept is a good one. It’s the tale of a corrupt group of politicians and mob members running the booze racket in the months following prohibition at the beginning of the roaring twenties. At the center of the game is Enoch “Nucky” Thompson, Atlantic City’s treasurer who, because of his scams, “lives like a Pharaoh” with his brother covering for him as the chief of police. He’s played by the indomitable Steve Buscemi, who really does shine in the role, but unfortunately the rest of the show doesn’t live up to his performance.

The secondary lead is Jimmy Darmondy, a WWI vet who gave up Princeton to go fight the war, but now that he’s back and he’s killed a bunch of people, he’s a shell of his former self, and neglects his wife and child to start killing for nefarious characters, including his dear old uncle Nucky.

Michael Pitt has this role, and he looks like he should win third place in his town’s Leonardo DiCaprio look-a-like contest. With Scorsese as producer, it’s no surprise a Leo role exists, but you kept wishing it was actually him instead of this dead-eyed stand-in. Everyone in the show is always saying how smart he’s meant to be, but other than organize one successful whack job in Chicago, he’s done nothing to earn that title, and routinely f*cks up at every turn.

“OK, how about we go in, shoot people, and leave?” “Genius!”

Nucky is perhaps meant to be the most morally complex character on the show. He’s not as brutal as Tony Soprano, but has no problem ordering men killed to further his business enterprises. But he’s just so schizophrenic about his decisions. One day he’s donating money to orphanages, the next he’s having men executed in front of him. I guess it’s supposed to show him paying “penance,” and the show doesn’t seem to know whether it wants him to be the hero or the villain.

The main problem with this show is just that these characters aren’t very interesting. Yes, the Sopranos had no real moral center among the group, but it had a wide range of colorful characters that you grew to know and love, and all were acted and written to perfection. But that’s not the case here, as all we have is a bunch of small-time mobsters, and crooked politicians who all blur together over time. Even Al Capone, who is a supporting character as an up and coming Chicago hitman isn’t put to use effectively.

The show does do a good job of painting a picture of what life was like in this era, and spotlighting how much of a joke prohibition actually was. It created a huge black market almost instantly, and law enforcement devoted an endless amount of money and manpower toward shutting it down, despite the fact it was clearly impossible. Makes you wonder about certain laws in place today…

There’s also less murder here than in The Sopranos, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and it is kind of cool to see the political games the characters play with each other. It’s a very interesting time, with prohibition being the central focus, but other issues like racial and gender rights issues crop up frequently.

We need more of this guy.

The show’s biggest issue other than unmemorable characters are the plotlines which these characters follow. They often just seem random and elaborately created for drama’s sake alone. For example, Jimmy returns home to his wife,but once he leaves again it’s revealed she’s got a lesbian crush on a local photographer’s wife, and the two of them scheme to run away to Paris together. But the couple goes off without her, with no explanation given and the entire story leads to nowhere.

Or how about the prohibition agent, religious to the point of being psychotic, falling off his high horse one day and randomly bedding Nucky’s ex-girlfriend whom he finds in a bar? I thought this might be a device where he purposefully did this to get info on the man himself, but no, in a city of a few hundred thousand, this was just a random coincidence, and he had no idea who she was. Oh, and she’s pregnant, surprise!

The central plotline of the entire season could be the worst offender.. Nucky and his Atlantic City crew find themselves in a deadly feud with a corrupt New York boss and gambler, Arnold Rothstein that involves the two making attempts on each other’s lives. But in the end, the big showdown that’s been brewing all season is negated by a simple handshake and a briefcase of cash.


The season ends with Jimmy, his father and Nucky’s brother all plotting against Nucky, who they believe has betrayed them in various ways. But all the ways they’ve been slighted are either way way in the past, very minor, or their own fault, and if this is the plot of season two, it’s going to be as satisfying as this past one, which is not very satisfying at all.

It’s not a bad show, and I did want to keep watching, but it is on the same level as HBO’s other classics?  I don’t think so, and it’s going to take a lot of work to get it there if it wants to be counted among them.

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  1. I agree with most of what is said. Ill hold judgement on HBO’s golden age until A Game of Thrones hits the channel. Loved the books and the series seems promising!

  2. actually it is on a higher level than most other HBO shows. So much more goes into detail of creating the 1920’s environment, and honestly Michael Pitt did seem like a poor mans Dicaprio, but I honestly think he set himself apart in this role. I just get bored with Nucky honestly and think he is the worst/most uninteresting part of the show. Him and Shroeder are so annoying. If the show was about Jimmy’s rise to power and had more Al Capone it would be better, but honestly its already better than most HBO shows.

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