In 1997 HBO, hitherto mostly a movie cable channel, launched its first original drama series Oz. This started its upward climb into being associated with quality, if not the best TV drama available. The Sopranos clinched this. Because of HBO, many other smaller channels started to invest in quality drama, and as a result we have never had so much great choice in wonderful entertainment on our television screens, with actors traditionally associated with cinematic productions queuing to audition for roles on television series.
This brings me to the show Boardwalk Empire. For any of my readers unfamiliar with this show, it is a fictionalised account of Prohibition Era America, concentrating on the character Enoch “Nucky” Thompson, his bootlegging enterprises in Atlantic City and New Jersey, and how this ties in with other well known characters of the period such as Al Rothstein, “Lucky” Luciano and a young, rising star of the Chicago bootlegging scene, Alphonse “Al” Capone. Much praise was garnered for the production quality, the attention to detail of the period and the costumes, design and general authentic feel of the sets. Also, the fact it has the production backing of Martin Scorcese, who directed the pilot episode, hasn’t hurt it, along with some wonderful writing and top notch actors, including Steve Buscemi and Kelly Macdonald, along with Michael Shannon. So, overall, a recipe for success, right? Well, actually, not really. Although it is in its third season and has been renewed for a fourth, the critics are starting to grow disenchanted and quite a few viewers are also. This viewer is one of those. So where has it all gone wrong?
I believe the problem is one of scope and ambition, which has led to a lack of focus. I appreciate that the story is complex and it is ambitious. Trying to tell the story of Prohibition, how it led to the bootlegging enterprise, which really saw the emergence of organised crime and drug smuggling and other criminal enterprises in a truly organised and nationwide manner, well that takes some effort. The problem is that as a result, we the viewers have been left confused and to some extent cheated. Nucky Thompson is allegedly the central character. Yet this season in particular he has been, at times, so sidelined, you might wonder is there any central pivot to this story. it tends to be a sprawling mess. Every minor historical character is brought into play, so I have lost track of who is important and how person A relates to person Y and what are they contributing to the story?
Therein lies the next problem. While The Sopranos always concentrated on Tony Soprano, you knew his story had an arc. We may have been frustrated by the pay off, but there was always a story. The story of Tony was a metaphor for many other things, but it didin’t try to tell the entire story of everything to do with The Mafia. Boardwalk Empire has so many threads, some tying in, some on a parallel course, I have no idea where, if anywhere, the story is heading. Yes, we can deduce some ideas from the history, but that is unsatisfactory. There should be a sense of progress along the episodes. I should feel by the end of a few episodes, “Ah, I can see where this is going”. While I enjoy being wrong-footed and surprised, at least tell a story. I don’t need the complete biography of every minor character, every politician, every corrupt federal agent of the period. Focus on one element and use that as the pivot.
While nobody expects to see an old style “shoot em up” series anymore, it is about prohibition, it is about gangsters and corruption, there was a lot of violence. The hint in the background of a major massacre is unsatisfactory, when you’ve spent about three episodes building the viewers’ expectations, then cheat them by showing one man on a dark road, listening to gun shots in the distance. I think we have earned the right to see some action. Constant character development and exposition without much action begins to wear thin. Especially when the genre calls for some action.
Character development has been the last main problem. Some characters have appeared to be central or at least very important to the overall story, only to be so sidelined as to practically disappear without a trace. Too many minor characters, who seem to have little to do, take up centre stage in too many episodes. Then the writers seem to be thoroughly confused about the central character of Nucky Thompson. One episode he is ruthless and dangerous. The next three episodes he seems to be completely ineffectual, constantly disappearing and leaving his business in the hands of subordinates, while he is detained by circumstances. Hardly the consistency or development one would expect of a crime boss. Other characters seem to be travelling in circles, development wise, either back where they started, or just wandering aimlessly. Frustrating for the viewers.
I have to admit, I have grown fatigued. When Sky Atlantic premiered Boardwalk Empire, it was appointment television, something I kept that time for. Now, I record it on the box, but watch it whenever I’m not doing something better. This is rather disappointing. I feel that watching it is almost a duty now, not something I’m looking forward to. I will finish the third season, just to see if there is any sign of improvement. However, I am no longer invested in this show, and if it hemorrhages viewers, I won’t be surprised. They need to scale back on their ambition and concentrate on a small but pivotal part of the story and move the characters and general story arc along, otherwise, people will lose all interest.