The Problem With Boardwalk Empire

More than midway through season 3 of Boardwalk Empire I am still waiting for it to become the show I was hoping for. It has a consistent problem of moving at snail’s pace. It has forever danced around the concept of being a full on gangster show, but has never quite made the leap people hoped it would. Time and time again I traced this problem back to the fact that there are just too many characters.

Having a lot of deep characters is great, but having too many and be debilitating. HBO’s horse racing drama Luck was cancelled because of several accidental deaths to horses, but prior to that it was suffering from the exact same problem. Too many characters, which lead to the show being spread too thin, and story lines that just took way to long to develop, were going to come up to bite it eventually. Boardwalk Empire had a couple of things going for it, first the amazingly recreated set pieces of the 1920s, and the fact that it was first. Those people who watched both were doubling up their frustration.

Boardwalk Empire is centered around Nucky Thompson, played by Steve Buschemi. He is the main character. He is the guy in the credits. He is Tony Soprano. But when you start to take into account everyone else, Margaret, Jimmy, the Commodore, Eli, Chalky, Agent Van Alden, Owen, Gillian, Angela, Richard and all the real-life historical figures, Rothstein, Lucciano, Lansky, Torio, Cappone, etc., the list never stops. Characters come and go, for episodes at a time. Earlier in season 3 Chalky White had a couple of episodes that seemed to focus on him, and then he just disappeared.

This recurring problem doesn’t seem to be getting better, as new characters get added all the time. James Cromwell and Stephen Root popped in season 3 just to mix it up a bit. The effect of all of this seems to be fragmented storytelling at a snails pace. Even with time jumps mixed in sporadically it doesn’t seem like things are progressing at a natural pace. In the pilot episode, Jimmy famously says to Nucky, “you can’t be half a gangster”. That leads anyone to believe that this show is going a certain direction, and three years later it’s not where I thought it would be.

I enjoy Kelly Macdonald’s performance as Margaret Schroeder. She is much more compelling that Skyler White or Jessica Brody. But her relationship with Nucky isn’t as interesting or vital as those other wives. She wasn’t there from the beginning and she fully knew that she was giving involved with some shady people when she got with Nucky. The involvement of real-life historical figures is great, and the actors playing them are so good, but there is only so much leeway the writers have. Unless they are planning to re-write history, we know Capone, Lucciano and Lansky can’t die, and that limits the scope a bit.

So where the does the show go from here? Can it get better? It’s hard to say. Season three is about to wrap up, and by now most TV shows have peaked. A show that is this expensive to make can’t last forever, so I would be shocked if it had more than 2–3 seasons left. Focusing much more on Nucky’s business affairs would be a huge start for me. Cherry picking one other characters would help as well. But the group of characters that episodes focus on has to be narrowed a bit. This show is good, and will continue to be, but two years ago I thought we were looking at the next great drama we would be talking about for years, and it just hasn’t come to fruition. The next 25 episodes will tell us a lot about what it’s legacy will be.