Friday, November 4, 2011

TV Review: Boardwalk Empire (2010-????)

HBO has another hit on its hands: Boardwalk Empire. It’s a really good drama with a lot to love. It does have flaws, but they’re easy to overlook -- except they do hold the series back from being truly addictive. Interestingly, most people compare this to Sopranos, but it’s actually very different in some key ways, and I think that’s where the flaws lie.
The Story
Created by Terrence Winter, who wrote 25 episodes of The Sopranos. Boardwalk Empire is an hour-long series on HBO centered around historical crime kingpin Enoch “Nucky” Johnson (renamed “Thompson” for the series). Nucky (Steve Buscemi) is the boss of Atlantic City when Prohibition becomes the law of the land. He controls the local government. He controls the police. And now he control the liquor industry in the city.

As of the middle of season two, the story has been primarily about the struggle between Nucky and a group led by “the Commodore” (Dabney Coleman), who are fighting to wrestle control of Atlantic City from Nucky. Meanwhile, Nucky is fending off outside gangsters including a young Al Capone, Lucky Luciano, Arnold Rothstein and more, while dodging Federal Prohibition Agents led by religious extremist Nelson Van Alden (Michael Shannon). Interestingly, neither Lucky nor the Commodore’s group had resorted to violence until recently, so this isn’t a traditional mob story.

Where Empire Fails
I’m enjoying Empire a lot, but I do have some criticisms. For one thing, there are too many characters. There are 16 characters listed in the cast and another 13 listed as recurring characters, with more coming all the time. In and of itself, a large number of characters isn’t a problem, but Empire tries to touch upon each of these characters at least once per episode. That means too much is tossed at you in any one episode and it’s typically treated too shallowly because there just isn’t enough time to go into depth with that much competing for screen time. Also, some of these subplots add little to the story. Often, minor characters get lengthy contemplative scenes, such as disfigured WWI sniper Harrow spending five minutes getting his picture painted and later spending another ten minutes contemplating suicide. But these add nothing to the plot and the characters are too minor for us to care about their inner thoughts.

At the same time, this many-short-scenes approach leaves us with too little insight in Nucky himself. This is where the Sopranos comparison comes in. It’s clear that Empire is structured like Sopranos. But there are key differences and it’s those key differences that keep Empire from being as addictive as Sopranos. For one thing, you liked Tony Soprano. You couldn’t help but like him. He was a bumbler who wasn’t well-equipped to handle the problems he encountered. He desperately wanted to be the good guy but he didn’t know how. His decisions, while made from his heart, always came across as dictatorial and stupid and blew up in his face time and again. But you liked him because you knew how hard he struggled to be good, even when he ordered the murder of close friends.

Nucky is not Tony. Like Tony, Nucky has serious flaws which blind him to what is going on around him and his decision-making process is flawed. But unlike Tony, Nucky is cocky, arrogant and competent. Tony’s failures came from not knowing how to act, Nucky’s failures come from being a jerk. That makes him hard to like.

Also, whereas the Sopranos was really the story of how Tony dealt with his family, Empire all but ignores this part of Nucky. Yes, we see his home life in each episode, but he never leaves the office, so to speak. Indeed, the only times we see him at home is when he rushes home to explain what he’s doing before he rushes off to another meeting. Moreover, even though Nucky is in most scenes, we are never privy to his thoughts. So we never really get a chance to know Nucky the person.

To me, these are significant flaws which keep the story from reaching its potential. Nucky is too hard to like. Thus, it’s hard to care about what happens to him. There are too many subplots and characters to give us the chance to care about anyone else either. Also, the plot itself is pretty obvious and the surprises are not surprising. At the same time, too much remains vague and goes unexplained.
Where Empire Succeeds
With all that being said, I am really enjoying this show very much. The sets and costumes are great. The acting is stellar. The story is solid and unpredictable enough scene-to-scene to keep your interest. The characters are interesting, if not likable, and there’s a real sense the story is building to something much more interesting with each passing episode. The writing is fantastic too. Each line is beautifully written and the show is packed with great lines, yet these lines never feel forced. Also, the characters are all unique and deep. This isn’t simply Goodfellas or The Godfather or The Untouchables transferred to the 1920s.

Finally, the story is historically smart. Most shows like this give you one or two cliché moments to let you know they looked up the era on Wikipedia, e.g. they introduce a famous boxer from the period. This show goes way beyond that. You meet famous entertainers, sports figures and politicians, some of whom get wrapped into the plot. Historical events like Prohibition, World War I, and the influx of the Irish are constantly in the background. Even day to day life is portrayed accurately. Indeed, every scene is deeply ensconced in things that make you believe this is really the 1920s.

All in all, I highly recommend Boardwalk Empire. It might take a couple episodes to get you interested, but when it does, it’s well worth the time.


Tennessee Jed said...

Sadly, I may never see this. After years, I gave up my HBO/SHO/Cinemax package on Directtv. They do have some great series or mini-series but still nail you huge on the blu-ray or dvd versions. I do like gangster movies, and had heard good things about this.

Ed said...

Andrew, Thanks for the review. I haven't seen this yet, but I've been curious and you've made me even more curious. It sounds like a good show, though it also sounds like it could be an even better show.

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, It's worth seeing. The do eventually come out on DVD/BluRay, so maybe you can rent them?

AndrewPrice said...

Ed, You're welcome. I think that describes it perfectly -- it's a very good show, though it could be better. But the fact it could be better doesn't mean it's not really good. In fact, I'd count this among some of the best shows on television right now.

CrispyRice said...

Sounds like it might be interesting, Andrew, thanks for the heads up!

AndrewPrice said...

You're welcome Crispy! It is definitely worth seeing. As I say, it might take a couple episodes to get into it, but it's worth the time.

DUQ said...


Andrew, Where do you think this is going with the Commodore's group? I think Darmedy isn't capable of running that group, though he's very violent. I suspect he'll end up killing a lot of people, but won't beat Nucky in the end?

AndrewPrice said...

DUQ, Good question. In many ways, he's the Michael Corleone character -- he believes he's opposed to violence, but once he starts down this path, he easily becomes the most violent character on screen. If he's following the Godfather formula, then he will be a tragic figure.

But on the other hand, he's also bright and he learns. But then he's also being taught by his mother who may be pretty messed up.

Either way though, I don't think he's a match for Nucky yet (and possibly never). I think the bigger problem for Nucky is Chicago and New York.

Ed said...

While we're on the topic, what do you think happened to Tony Soprano at the end of the series? Did he die?

AndrewPrice said...

Ed, In my opinion, nothing happened to him. I know a lot of people think he was killed, but I think nothing at all happened him.

And for the record, I think the ending was brilliant because you watched the whole series for ten years without ever really grasping how Tony sees the world. Then, in this five minutes, you totally see how paranoid his world is as you assume that anyone in the diner could be there to kill him. After that, you have a whole new way to judge Tony's life because you've literally for the first time been put in his shoes. Suddenly you see why he makes the decisions he does.

LawHawkRFD said...

Tennessee: As Andrew says, the show is well worth watching. Like you, I eliminated all those premium channels on DirecTV. But if you a similar basic lineup to mine, I get to watch the show on Audience, which is part of my package. They're the repeats of the HBO shows, but since it's the first time I see them, it's like being new.

tryanmax said...

I enjoyed the first half-season of this show, but I had to kill my cable package for financial reasons. I'm glad to hear that the show has stayed interesting. I'll probably pick it up on DVD at some point. Some HBO shows even make it to Netflix.

That said, I hope this doesn't turn into one of those interminable series that never reaches that point that it seems to be building toward. It seems that series which limit themselves to a particular run at the outset always maintain a better story.

AndrewPrice said...

Lawhawk, I didn't know they were showing these on other channels. That's great! So everyone should look for that too.

I think this are well worth watching. Like I say, they aren't as addictive as The Sopranos was, but they are well-worth the time and I look forward to seeing what will happen next.

AndrewPrice said...

tryanmax, I have wondered that myself. Right now it seems like they are building toward something, but there is definitely a danger that all of that will just sort of fall away and it just turns into "a day in the life of Nucky Thompson."

One thing that does concern me in that regard, is that while the story is building, it's not as coherent as I would like. It seems like we're just supposed to take a lot on faith in terms of how the organizations works, and why they all want to interact. I fear that if they aren't focused on these aspects, then they don't have a master plan of how to build the story and it will just start to wander.

At this point though, I am happy to give it the benefit of the doubt and just accept that everything makes sense.

LawHawkRFD said...

Andrew: I have the second tier package ("bonus") DirecTV. The Audience Channel is included, but you have to search for what's on. I also get the new series Boss with Kelsey Grammer, but I have to check every night from about 6 PM to 10 PM to see what's on. I've missed episodes because I forgot to check. And I'm not sure they're going to show every episode. It may just be a way of getting you to subscribe to HBO and the other premium channels. "Teasers" as it were.

LL said...

I agree with you completely, there are far too many character arcs to make it 'The Sopranos'. The problem they have is that the writers are bound by history in a way that they weren't with The Sopranos.

I've watched each episode, but the best grade that I can give it is a (generous) B.

AndrewPrice said...

Lawhawk, I've got DirecTV too and I know there are several channels they run that have either original programming or things from other channels. I keep meaning to check out some of those, but never get around too it. There is an ad for something called "Call Me Fitzy" right now on that channel, which I'd like to see, but I never remember to look for it.

AndrewPrice said...

LL, I know exactly what you're saying. It's a show that I do truly enjoy, but it also feels to me like it should be better. And I think if they cut down on the character numbers and irrelevant subplots and focused more on tightening the story, then it has a lot of potential to be a much better show.

T-Rav said...

Interesting review, Andrew. I have watched a few snippets of Boardwalk here and there, and I'll try to remember to watch a whole episode next time it's on. Maybe it's a bit odd for me, being a history person, but I wasn't quickly hooked, despite the material.

This might be a weird example, but I didn't like the fact (I read this somewhere; didn't watch it) that they brought in stuff like black bootleggers and the Klan. Obviously that happened, but it seemed a bit like pandering to me on the surface. Thoughts?

T-Rav said...

Also, on the "Sopranos" finale, I have heard evidence both ways. There is, of course, the argument that this is simply what Tony Soprano's life will be like forever; however, some have pointed out a remark he had made a few episodes back. Something to the effect of getting whacked wouldn't be all that dramatic for the victim: everything would just instantly go to black, without pain or noise. So...I don't know.

AndrewPrice said...

T-Rav, It took me a couple episodes too to get into it. It's not the kind of show that grabs you right away -- it takes time because it takes a long time to know who all the characters are and understand how they relate.

The black bootleggers and the KKK are actually relevant to the plot -- though both are minor characters in the story.

They fit into the story because Nucky gets support from both groups. He controls the blacks through a couple of black bosses, who vote the way he tells them in exchange for favors. He simultaneously gets the white vote by promising to keep the blacks down and protecting the Klan. He also deals with the IRA and the anti-Irish. Basically, it's all part of his political machine and how he manipulates each class to get the votes he needs to control the city.

In terms of the inclusion of these particular groups, keep in mind that this was fairly accurate at the time. New Jersey does have a large number of blacks in the cities, and the KKK was active at that time -- in fact, Colorado had an open KKK governor around that time. And there was a lot of race/ethnic tension -- even "white" only meant "WASP" back then and groups like the Irish and the Jews weren't considered "white."

Finally, it's important to note that the KKK isn't introduced to say "look how bad we were," they are used to show how society was split into ethnic/race groups.

So I would say that this is not a PC thing, it's an historical thing that works quite well in the story. I have not been offended at all. In fact, I haven't seen anything that strikes me as inherently liberal.

AndrewPrice said...

T-Rav, On The Sopranos, there is a lot of evidence that Tony was killed. I don't recall it all right now, but there are lots of little things that suggest he was.

I don't think he was. But the thing is, it doesn't matter. The point to the ending is that you are sitting there on the edge of your seat for five minutes going "Tony, watch that guy! Don't let him get behind you! Look he's moving his hand into his coat! He could have a gun! etc."

And when it's over, you suddenly realize, "wow, I felt so paranoid!" And then you realize, this is what Tony's life is like every second of the day. That's when you realize that all the times you sat there thinking "why the heck did Tony kill that guy, he wasn't a danger?" you had no idea how Tony really perceived these things because you didn't have enough paranoia to understand him.

It throws a whole new complexion on the story and that's why I think it's brilliant. Suddenly, after 10 years, you're told a whole new way to see the series.

In many ways, I see that like the ending of Seinfeld, when they suddenly tell you "these people you've laughed with and enjoyed for X years and who you think are your friends and their adventures are so funny... they're rotten human beings and you shouldn't have liked them."

T-Rav said...

Thanks for putting that in context, Andrew. I was aware of a lot of that, of course--it's no secret how widespread the Klan was in the '20s--but I wasn't sure that the producers were aware of that, and including it on those grounds, or if they were just doing it to be, you know, topical or whatever.

That's reassuring to know. Anyway, I'll give it another shot the next time I see it.

T-Rav said...

So, if I read you right on "Sopranos," the ultimate point isn't whether Tony died or not at the end, it's to get us to rethink everything we've seen of him up to that point. That's interesting.

I never could stand "Seinfeld," and I've never seen the finale. I probably wouldn't like those people from the beginning.

AndrewPrice said...

You're welcome. I think it is very much in context and it doesn't come across like a smear at all. Plus, the race stuff is minor at this point -- the real issue is the rival bootleggers.

On their historical knowledge, it's actually very impressive. Everything from product names to historical events are accurate. And they have a lot of knowledge of specific events/things of the time, e.g. the formation of the IRA, the Irish Rebellion, what Ellis Island documents looked like, Prohibition, how the federal government was structured, the Harding administration, a guy smoking in a hospital, the new-fangled record player, the evolution of explosives, the WWI sniper wears a prosthetic mask to cover half his face -- which is what the Army did for you back then if you were wounded -- etc.

It really feels like they knew a LOT about the era and included all of it to be genuine, rather than just using cars and costumes from the time to make a modern show seem old.

AndrewPrice said...

T-Rav, That's exactly the point. Whether he died or not is an interesting question, but it wasn't the point to the scene. They could have just shot him or let him have a quick dinner and roll credits if that's all it was.

The point was that you spend the last 5+ minutes of the film, watching Tony sit in the restaurant eating with his family as the camera dashes around the room to anyone who reaches into their pockets or gets up and walks past Tony or at the door everytime someone comes in. The point is to show you how "on guard" Tony is for every second of his life and how he literally needs to see everyone around him as a potential killer.

That teaches you the one thing you never realized about Tony -- how miserably paranoid his life really was. And it tells you that if you go back and rewatch the series, now you understand why he seemed to irrational -- because literally everyone he sees could be there to kill him.

I didn't care for Seinfeld either because I saw these people as not very nice from the get-go. But a lot of people never got that. And I think the ending was Jerry Seinfeld's "f-you" to the audience, telling them "you were never supposed to like these people.... what's wrong with you?"

Tennessee Jed said...

Hawk - what channel is audience? I do have a step down from the original "every channel on the face of the earth" package, but it was costing me a buck and a half a month, and I didn't feel like I was getting my money's worth. There is a nice little package with three or four movie channels (HDNet Movies, Sony and a couple of others for about ten bucks that has great under theradar movies from the early 90's and late 80's.

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, It's their former "101" Channel. It's apparently available on 239, 101, 334 and 500.

Tennessee Jed said...

thanks, Andrew. The old HDNET channel that ran Friday Night Lights, for sure.

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