Like Mad Men, but Boring

The trouble with HBO’s Boardwalk Empire.

Steve Buscemi in Boardwalk Empire
Steve Buscemi in Boardwalk Empire

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When I moved to New York, I met several people who insisted that the only television worth watching aired Sunday nights on HBO. This attitude reflected a combination of laziness and snobbishness, as well as a sincere belief that premium cable was the only place to find shows worthy of a metropolitan intellectual’s attention. And since that was the era of The Sopranos and The Wire, it was hard for even this basic-cable lover to argue.

Since those golden days, HBO has achieved genre success with True Blood and Game of Thrones, but it lacks a prestige drama—a Sunday-night powerhouse that dominates Monday-morning elevator chatter. Those conversations now center around Mad Men or Breaking Bad, depending on the season, but very rarely on the show that holds down HBO’s prime slot, Boardwalk Empire. The only time I heard anyone discuss Boardwalk Empire in its first season was when a disappointed co-worker sent an email asking if anyone at Slate had stuck with it past the first few episodes. (I think I was the only one who answered in the affirmative.)

Considering the series’ lack of buzz, it’s surprising to learn that the most-recent season premieres of Boardwalk Empire and Mad Men drew 2.91 million and 2.92 million viewers, respectively. For HBO’s showcase drama, though, those numbers represented a steep decline. Boardwalk Empire’s viewership decreased 31 percent from the first-season debut to the season finale, and it has dipped still further this year. Nevertheless, HBO recently green-lighted a third season. In these post-Sex and the City days, the place is like a no-kill animal shelter: No matter how unloved the show, it will be given a place on the schedule.

With no indication that Boardwalk Empire will go off the air anytime soon, those who’ve abandoned the show have plenty of time to catch up. If you stopped watching many episodes ago, you should know that Season 2 has a completely different tone. The accoutrements remain the same, especially the sumptuous interiors and gorgeous costumes (Gossip Girl’s Chuck Bass is Nucky Thompson’s only rival for the title of best-dressed man on television), but the mood has shifted from exhilaration over Prohibition’s glorious business opportunities to gloominess induced by bitter internecine schisms. Whereas Season 1 was a string of delirious booze-fueled evenings at Babette’s Supper Club, Season 2’s drinking is depressing and often solitary. When one character says of the show’s central figure, “Say what you want about Nucky, at least he was fun,” she might have been referring to the faraway pleasures of the show’s early episodes.

Like all the HBO Sunday-night dramas, Boardwalk Empire is about power—fighting for it, scheming to hold onto it, and figuring out who to share it with. Most of the characters have survived from Season 1, but the quest for control of the booze trade, and the money it brings, has transformed their relationships.

Nucky Thompson (Steve Buscemi) is still the treasurer of New Jersey’s Atlantic County, but his re-election is being contested. More problematically, several ward bosses have switched their allegiance to Nucky’s former mentor Commodore Louis Kaestner (Dabney Coleman), who is using his influence with the Coast Guard to prevent Nucky from landing his liquor-laden boats in Atlantic City. Nucky’s not completely alone—his lover Margaret Schroeder (played brilliantly by Kelly Macdonald) has a cannier sense of strategy than anyone in Warren Harding’s administration, and one-time IRA foot-soldier Owen Sleater (Charlie Cox) is an able replacement for Nucky’s old right-hand man Jimmy Darmody (Michael Pitt)—but his coffers are considerably lighter, and former allies (like Jimmy) have become formidable rivals. Nucky was never as colorful as his suits, but the stress of self-reliance is leaving him even paler and harder to read.

Like Mad Men, Boardwalk Empire locates itself at a very specific moment in America’s past. But the Prohibition era is far more distant than Mad Men’s 1960s setting. The world that Don and Peggy are trying to navigate is the world we still live in; Boardwalk Empire’s universe of silk cravats, servants, and segregation belongs in a Ken Burns documentary. We also know how the story will end: The fate of the noble experiment hardly requires a spoiler alert.

There’s something generally underwhelming about Boardwalk Empire—it’s a weekend at the Jersey shore, not a trip to Paris. The writing, the plot twists, and the scenes of violence are well-done, but they’re not the best, the most memorable, or the most shocking on television. While there are brilliant, even breathtaking, interludes—like the Memorial Day adventures of Jimmy’s closest associate, fellow World War I vet Richard Harrow, in this season’s fifth episode—there are also long stretches where my attention wanders. In the arc of even a premium-cable-length series, it’s inevitable that there will be postponed payoffs, as when Harrow and Sleater shared a moment of recognition in Episode 3. Each had a gun pointed at the other’s heart, but instead of squaring off as rivals, they realized they are both still soldiers, facing death on someone else’s behalf. It was a wonderful, understated beat, but there was no resolution—at least not yet.

Boardwalk Empire’s characters are as well-drawn as those populating its Sunday-night counterparts. Nucky Thompson reminds me of Breaking Bad’s Walter White, a man who uses his superior intelligence to get ahead, but all too often ends up battling loneliness and self-pity. The commodore is The Sopranos’ Uncle Junior, the rightful ruler who’s now too old and weak to preside over his kingdom. Jimmy Darmody, like Don Draper, remade himself when he returned from a faraway war. The trouble with Boardwalk Empire is that the stakes feel so low—all they’re doing is fighting over bootlegged liquor in a corrupt seaside town. When critics call those other shows Shakespearean, they’re thinking of Hamlet, King Lear, or Macbeth. If Boardwalk Empire were the work of the Bard, it would be a minor history play—a Richard II or Henry VIII.

More than anything else I’m currently watching, Boardwalk Empire reminds me of what William Goldman once dubbed “the snob hit.” In his Broadway chronicle The Season, he defined the snob hit as a play whose audience is “convinced that the ‘average’ theatergoer wouldn’t understand … or like it.” In other words, it must be good, even if nobody is particularly bowled over.

Boardwalk Empire won eight Emmys, Martin Scorsese directed the pilot, and it’s on HBO. And yet, it’s nothing more than a perfectly fine TV show with occasional great moments. Ultimately, the show’s defining problem isn’t that it’s inscrutable or difficult. It’s that Boardwalk Empire, for all its prestige, is thoroughly inessential.