HBO’s Boardwalk Empire ended it’s run (and it’s 5th season) earlier this week. It came onto the scene in 2010 packed with star talent both in front of and behind the camera. Martin Scorsese directed the pilot and was listed as an Executive Producer on the show, as was Mark Wahlberg. The showrunner/creator/writer was Terence Winter, who had been a writer on The Sopranos. He wrote 25 episodes of the hit HBO mafia drama, including a couple of the most remembered episodes (Pine Barrens1 and Long Term Parking2). Boardwalk Empire starred longtime character actor Steve Buscemi, as well as recognizable talents like Michael Shannon and Michael K. Williams.
It came in with big names, a specific time period (1920s prohibition), a monster budget, a full boardwalk set and HBO guiding it. It should have been a smash hit. It was Mad Men meets The Sopranos. But when it was all said and done, it was merely “good” instead of “great”.
There are definitely a few items that contributed to preventing its greatness. Part of the issue was undoubtedly that Nucky Thompson (Buscemi) wasn’t as charismatic as Tony Soprano or Don Draper. And as talented as Buscemi is, it was often side characters like Chalky White (Williams) or Richard Harrow who were far more interesting. The real-life criminals and lawmen that were interweaved with the story made it especially great, but some parts of the Charlie Luciano and Al Capone stories were so good that at times it felt like that would have been the better show. Buscemi is no doubt talented, and it seems like he should be able to carry a show on his own, so perhaps the material is to blame, but something never felt right with him.
Another issue was that the show moved a bit slow at times. Well most of the storylines almost always paid off, there were so many characters (much like Game of Thrones) that sometimes the best stories took entire seasons to pay off while time was spent on smaller, less interesting stuff. Whereas a show like Breaking Bad might almost be too intense to binge watch all at once, Boardwalk Empire always seemed like it would be much more enjoyable in a House of Cards-style marathon.
Despite all of that, the 56 episodes were an enjoyable experience. There were plenty of great characters, and the tie-ins to historical events made it even more fun. Viewers certainly spent time on Wikipedia learning more about the historical figures that showed up3. The show essentially showed the rise and fall of a gangster, and did a great job of depicting the mostly bad that went along with it.
The last season was solid, and the flashback scenes were great. Not only were the actors picked just perfect to represent their grown-up counterparts, but they did an excellent job of showing how the Nucky Thompson character (right down to the nickname Nucky) got to be the person he was. The decision to only make 8 episodes made some parts of the story feel rushed, but ultimately Nucky’s story felt like it had closure beyond the ultimate closure. The return of Tommy Darmody, and his subsequent murder of Nucky was spoiled for some people in the weeks leading up the finale as smart people started to figure out that is who the mystery teenager was. But it was a fitting ending to a story that most people had figured long ago would end with Nucky’s demise.
The show is entertaining enough that it should be somewhat re-watchable, but it’s hard to pinpoint specific episodes that super memorable. All of the all-time great dramas of the last decade, with the possible exception of The Wire, have individual episodes that are always re-watchable. Like The Wire, Boardwalk Empire seems like one of those shows that needs the sum of it’s parts to be appreciated again and again, and that is definitely going to hamper it’s ability to be in the same conversation as those other shows down the road.
But one positive is that Terence Winter has shown in two different places that he knows how to make quality television. And although David Simon disappointed some4 with his first post-Wire dalliance, Winter hopefully won’t.