Long before the golden age of television began, police procedurals and legal dramas were the bread and butter of network TV. Over the years, though, these shows became increasingly repetitive and tedious. That’s when you turned to Law & Order, a combo meal of a show that packed in all of the whodunnit thrills and chills of a procedural with all of the lawyerly grandstanding and unlikely courtroom confessions of a legal drama. By fast-forwarding through the basic plot points of a procedural and a legal drama without delving into too much detail, Law & Order offered a relaxing, passive TV-viewing experience. You didn’t have to work too hard or follow too closely. Like a McDonald’s drive-thru customer looking for the same french fries in every town, you sat down to another episode of Law & Order precisely for its soothing predictability. You were there to watch Jerry Orbach grimace in disgust at another gruesome murder, or to hear Sam Waterston click his tongue over another criminal poised to escape justice.
In some ways, HBO’s Boardwalk Empire fills the same role in the golden age of premium cable dramas that Law & Order did in the hey-day of procedural and legal dramas. Instead of breaking new ground (like Mad Men, Breaking Bad, The Sopranos, The Wire, and Six Feet Under), Terrence Winter’s gorgeous portrait of prohibition-era gangsters in Atlantic City seems content to float comfortably in the wake of its predecessors. Just as Law & Order boiled procedurals like Homicide: Life on the Street and NYPD Blue down to their most basic building blocks, Boardwalk Empire takes the core elements of most popular cable dramas (antihero as lead, criminal milieu, rival gangs) and converts them into a series of vignettes: Young Hero Returns From War A Changed Man. Abused Immigrant Wife Seeks Help From Corrupt Official. Manipulative Aging Showgirl Leads Men, Self To Ruin. Forget that the descriptions here might double nicely as headlines in a 1920s era version of The Onion. The recipe is easy: Bring a bunch of bullies to a slow boil, sprinkle in some beautiful images of violence, and then segue to the next breathtaking scene – tap dancers in a smoky club, creaky old trucks lurching down snowy roads, tourists milling around on the boardwalk – all set to the plinkedy plonking of ragtime jazz.
Various odd choices on Boardwalk Empire would amount to major plotting missteps on any other show: The sudden exit of Jimmy Darmody (Michael Pitt) at the end of season two. The steady transformation of Nucky Thompson (Steve Buscemi) from quirky, vaguely tortured pragmatist to unflinching embodiment of evil. The cartoonish revelation that Jimmy’s mother Gillian (Gretchen Mol) was quite literally in love with him. The total absence of Margaret (Kelly MacDonald) throughout the first half of season four. More than anything else, these moves reflect Winter’s willful thwarting of viewer expectations and lack of faith in the elements that keep viewers invested in the overall narrative arc of the series. Instead, there is an episode-by-episode focus, an effort to serve up pretty little Scorsesian nuggets without fail each week. Just as the criminals and victims and witnesses of Law & Order only stick around for a single episode, each season of Boardwalk Empire is really more like its own miniseries. Characters like Nucky’s rival Gyp Rosetti (Bobby Cannavale), Nucky’s girlfriend Billie Kent (Meg Chambers Steedle) and Margaret’s lover Owen Sleater (Charlie Cox) spring up, but from the start you know they’ll be gone by the end of the season. Each episode has less to do with any season-long arc and more to do with a predictable rise and fall of bully troubles: A problem arises, a bully gets out of hand, an ego clash ensues. Nucky has an opportunity to help someone, and he refuses. Gillian spirals downward. Richard (Jack Huston) kills someone, then feels melancholy about it.
Boardwalk Empire isn’t exactly plot-driven and it’s not really character-driven. It’s scenery-driven and history-driven. It’s a beautiful postcard from a strange time in American history. But if you expect it to keep you engaged with its characters, the way Six Feet Under or The Sopranos did, you’ll be sorely disappointed. If you expect to be entertained as you might be with Mad Men, you’ll feel let down. If you want to be kept on the edge of your seat like you are with Breaking Bad, you’ll be bored instead. In pursuit of photogenic poignance, Boardwalk Empire forsakes plenty.
That’s not to say that in its finest moments, Winter’s drama doesn’t rise to greatness. But these moments tend to come at the end of each season: Jimmy’s wife Angela (Aleksa Palladino) tries to leave for Paris with the Diitrichs at the end of the first season, but discovers that they’re already gone. A humbled Nucky shows up to beg Chalky White (Michael K. Williams) for help at the end of season three, and Chalky reluctantly agrees. Gillian discovers how to control Gyp by demeaning him. (“I’m way down below [you],” Gyp tells her, “like a little bug crawling around on your toe.”) This sense of humor is always lingering at the edge of the frame, but unlike on The Sopranos or Mad Men, humor defines Boardwalk Empire less and less with each new season.
And Nucky Thompson grows less and less colorful and engaging as well. While it’s irresistible to watch an actor like Cannavale take on Gyp’s spitty rage and humiliation, or to see the simmering anger behind Chalky White’s compromises in Williams’ face, Buscemi has much less to work with in Nucky. In this role, Buscemi falls more in line with a steady but unexciting bread-and-butter actor like Orbach or Waterston. Nucky purses his lips and blinks his watery eyes and not much inner conflict or regret are evoked. Nucky has become so rigid and cold as the show has progressed that he doesn’t have a lot of vulnerable or merciful moments to connect with. Remember how Nucky spent most of the first season tolerating a shrill girlfriend, indulging his egocentric brother, worrying about abusive husbands or mooning over sick babies? That Nucky has been replaced by a resigned, mumbly stoic in the mold of Detective Lennie Briscoe or Jack McCoy.
Considering how amazing Boardwalk Empire has the potential to be, it’s disappointing when the show seems to mark time instead. But maybe the trouble lies in our inflated expectations of The Very Good Cable Drama. Can every single premium cable show with an intriguing premise, a great cast, and a pedigreed showrunner blow our minds week after week? Maybe it’s reasonable for some shows to be consistently good, and that’s all. Mistakes are made. A lovely shot or an elaborately designed set upstages the story. Such a show may never change the landscape of television, but it will never fail spectacularly, either.
Once you accept that Boardwalk Empire will rarely rise beyond a certain level of quality, you can see it for what it is: A series of smart, artistic glimpses at prohibition-era America, dished up in palatable, single-serving-size chunks week after week. A bully will smash something – a vase or a skull. Blood will flow across the floor. That old-timey piano will plinkedy plonk, or scratchy records will crackle to life. Ancient cars will roll majestically by. And Nucky will sigh deeply, like he’s seen it all before.
He has seen it before, and so have we. But we’ll still tune in week after week, to see it again.
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