HBO’s "Boardwalk Empire
" is a hit. Many people are comparing it to "The Sopranos" in terms of style, substance and effect. And there is no doubt that in many ways, it is similar to "The Sopranos." But there is one key difference which keeps "Boardwalk Empire" from being truly addictive.
Created by Terrence Winter, who wrote 25 episodes of "The Sopranos," "Boardwalk Empire" is an hour-long series 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 controls 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-gone-astray Nelson Van Alden (Michael Shannon).
Where 'Empire' Succeeds
Let me say up front that I really enjoy watching this show. The sets and costumes are great. The acting is stellar. The story is solid and unpredictable enough scene-to-scene to keep your interest, and there’s a sense the narrative is building to something much greater with each passing episode. The writing is fantastic, too. The dialog 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" reprised.
The story is also historically shrewd. 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. "Empire" goes way beyond that. You meet famous entertainers, sports figures and politicians, some of whom get wrapped into the plot. Historical events like the 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. If you love history, this is a heck of a treat.
Where 'Empire' Fails
But there are problems with the show. For one thing, there are too many characters. There are 16 main characters listed in the cast and another 13 dubbed recurring characters, with more arriving all the time. In and of itself, a large number of characters isn’t a problem, but "Empire" tries to touch upon each of them typically at least once per episode. That means too many ideas get shallow treatment, because there just isn’t enough time to go into depth with that many characters 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. These scenes add nothing to the plot and the characters are too minor for us to care about their inner thoughts.
At the same time, this approach leaves us with too little insight into Nucky himself. This is where the "Sopranos" comparison comes in. It’s clear "Empire" is structured like "Sopranos." But there is one key difference which keeps "Empire" from being as addictive: Nucky is no Tony.
You couldn’t help but like Tony Soprano. 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.
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 selfishness. That makes him hard to like.
Also, whereas "Sopranos" really was 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 time 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.
All of this combined makes it hard to care about Nucky like we cared about Tony. His story interests us, but we aren't pulling for him to succeed. Nor is there anyone else we can pull for. To me, this is the flaw which keeps "Boardwalk Empire" from reaching its potential. Don’t get me wrong, I highly recommend this show and I enjoy it immensely ... but I lament the fact it could be so much better.
"Boardwalk Empire" airs at 9 p.m. EST Sunday nights on HBO.