Continuing the series I started last week, I’m attempting to identify shows that have the potential to take over the throne left vacant by Breaking Bad, to try and prove that the golden age of TV is not yet at an end. Certainly, there are many good shows left, but how good are they, exactly?
Last week, I made arguments for and against Sons of Anarchy filling Breaking Bad’s shoes, and now I turn to the bastion of TV quality that is HBO for my next candidate. I’m talking of course about Boardwalk Empire, though I will likely be making a case for Game of Thrones in a later edition of the column.
Boardwalk Empire debuted with a lot of fanfare many years back as it was great director Martin Scorsese getting involved with television, and great film actor Steve Buscemi joining up as well, back before many film actors moved to TV. This sort of thing is happening at greater frequency now, but Boardwalk Empire was a pretty big deal when it premiered, as it aimed to replace the immortal Sopranos which drew to a close around that time.
The show is now in its fourth season, though it feels like it’s been around for a lot longer to me. It tells the story of Nucky Thompson, a real life Atlantic City gangster during prohibition who made his fortune from booze smuggling and eliminating those who opposed him, though he usually fought with his mind instead of bullets. Spoilers for the series to date will now follow.
The show used to split its main character duties between Buscemi’s Thompson and Michael Pitt’s Jimmy Darmondy, a young man back from the war and eager to help with “Uncle Nucky’s” business. But in season two, the pair were turned against each other, and the conflict left Jimmy dead at Nucky’s hand. We’re talking Game of Thrones Ned Stark-level shock here in terms of major character deaths. Yes, it was talked about, but not nearly as much as it would have been had Boardwalk Empire been a more talked about show itself.
So, what’s the problem? Well, to refer back to the Breaking Bad comparison, out of every show I’m probably going to examine here, I think Boardwalk Empire has the highest threshold of quality from an acting and directing perspective. The show is gorgeously shot and full of incredibly memorable characters. It’s intelligent, and really does seem like the world’s longest Scorsese movie at times. The twisting, turning, incredibly bloodsoaked plots are among the best on TV.
I do think the show is underrated, and doesn’t get the attention it deserves. It may not be The Sopranos, but it’s still excellent, and there’s a reason HBO keeps picking it up year after year. I suspect it has a fairly big fanbase, but not a very vocal one.
That said, for all its outward shine, Boardwalk Empire has always felt hollow. It’s a show without anything resembling a moral center. Yes, you may expect that to some degree from a show about bloodthirsty gangsters murdering to each other, but sometimes, that’s all that it feels like it is, and endless cycle of murders and power plays with no real emotional core.
Even early on, it never felt like there was anyone to root for. Yes, Nucky and Jimmy were the main characters, but both were pretty terrible people with few redeeming qualities. Jimmy died because he more or less deserved it after turning to a life of crime after being a war hero. Nucky goes out of his way to be nice to some people sometimes (usually women), but he’s never really someone you’re driven to root for. But nor is he the complex good guy turned monster that Walter White was either. There’s almost less depth to his character as time goes on, and now in season four, he feels like one of the subplots in his own show, with Michael K. Williams’ Chalky White and Michael Shannon’s Nelson Van Alden given more interesting stories.
And even with other side characters, it’s hard to tell who the show wants you to root for. Do you want Jimmy’s heroin addicted mother to get custody of her grandson or not? Are you supposed to be cheering on Al Capone’s rise to power, or be scared of him? I’m not saying characters have to be black and white good and bad, but when nearly every line is blurred and you have no vested interest in any of them, that’s a problem.
Take Jesse Pinkman, for example. He’s a pretty awful dude with all his meth-making and murdering, but you cheered for him. You wanted him to make it out alive in the end. But with Boardwalk Empire? There are few characters where you really care if they live or die. The closest thing the show has to a hero is war veteran/assassin Richard Harrow, who gets about two dozen lines a season.
Boardwalk Empire is an incredibly well made and acted show, but just because the lines are clever and the actors do a great job with their roles, that doesn’t mean that the characters the show has created are in and of themselves worthwhile or memorable. And the show almost overdoses on brutal violence to the point where it isn’t shocking anymore. The Sopranos having two kills a season was more effective and impactful than Boardwalk lining the streets with bodies.
It’s a good show, and I’ll see it to the end, but it’s not on the same playing field as its predecessors.