Construction Literary Magazine

Fall 2020

The Expanding Boardwalk Empire

The Expanding Boardwalk Empire

Image via HBO

Editor’s note: This article contains no spoilers of any kind.

Yesterday marked the premiere of the third season of HBO’s costume crime drama Boardwalk Empire. Judging by the relatively small audience that this program attracts, you may or may not even know or care that this premiere took place. Given the budget, the time slot (Sunday nights are now the designated space for Important TV Shows), and the star power associated with this production, it is surprising that Boardwalk Empire is not better known or better praised. In fairness, it does attract a couple million viewers and has been nominated for a few Emmys during its first two seasons. But when Martin Scorsese descends from the Mount Olympus of American Cinema to produce a show about gangsters for the leading premium cable network, it definitely should be a bigger deal. It definitely would have been a decade ago, anyway.

The reason why there’s a collective meh in response to Boardwalk Empire has nothing to do with the show itself or the performances of its underrated principle players. At first, there was some resistance to the idea of long-time oddball Steve Buscemi playing a straight criminal and smarmy politician, but that line of thinking is so 2010. Buscemi has proven that he has the required dramatic chops to carry this show, and the story arc itself is certainly compelling enough to keep the ship afloat for at least a few more seasons. So why is the general public so tepid in its response? Well, if you haven’t noticed, these days it’s getting harder and harder to claim your spot on the block of Good Television: every major broadcast or cable network has taken a victory lap or two with at least one artsy, critically-acclaimed program, or the network is CBS and therefore has more money (and viewers) than God.

Good Television is both an art and a business. This, obviously, is the case with pretty much every artistic medium in existence. (Don’t believe me? Just remember, Michelangelo viewed the Sistine Chapel as a day job so that he could pay his bills while pursuing his real passion for sculpting.) TV execs that cut their teeth before the reign of The Sopranos probably didn’t look at the medium in quite this way. Matters of taste were mostly limited to matching up advertisers to demographics and using sitcoms and dramas as the conduit that simply connected the two. This is not to say that there wasn’t anything of quality appearing on the airwaves before 1999; instead, it’s simply important to remember that everything came down to ratings. If something was good, well, that’s a bonus, but “goodness” was more of a matter of weekly or nightly performance against a competitive set of programs rather than a subjective measurement of the content itself.

[pullquote_right]Before 1999, Good Television came down to ratings.[/pullquote_right]

Boardwalk Empire is not the victim of bad timing. There are other forces at play that affect the ways that this program gets interpreted: the ongoing, near-epic battle being waged between the Goliath of premium, non-ad-supported network and the little, independent basic cable channel that could has a lot to do with why this show exists and, possibly, why it functions the way it does. To better understand why this is or might be the case, it’s important to first look back to the steep learning curve for Best Drama and why the plucky upstarts might still have the edge.  

While television critics and other interested parties have spent several years debating which drama deserves the title of best program of all time, there is basically a complete consensus around the idea that we are currently living in the Golden Age of television. Every great epoch begins with a single noteworthy achievement, and so it should come as no surprise that the era of quality television began in the late 1990s when HBO debuted the scripted drama The Sopranos. A few years later, the addition of superlative crime drama The Wire offered the sort of one-two punch that gave the premium cable channel an aura of invincibility. For the first half of the aughts (or whatever we will one day decided to call the first decade of the 21st century), HBO had the veritable Midas Touch in a medium that only a few years before had seemed gauche and irredeemably low brow. Programs like NYPD Blue, Sports Night, The West Wing, and Law & Order were all quality programs that featured compelling storylines, decent-to-good acting and topical themes, but the production quality was not as strong as their rivals on the silver screen, and they were limited by their networks’ restraints of profanity and nudity. HBO changed the rules of the game on all of this by green-lighting a program that was basically a movie in serial form. In the eyes of many consumers, the premium cable network elevated the entire medium itself.  

And it passed on the David Chase-endorsed pilot for a program called Mad Men.

Created by former Sopranos writer Matthew Weiner, Mad Men took the cinematic scope of the HBO’s signature shows, added the sheen of a costume drama, and found that a deconstruction of the American Dream could be as powerful in the workplace of a 1960s advertising agency as it was in a modern-day American family. Mad Men is literary in its painstaking attention to detail and character development; it is anthropological (or at least it pretends to be) in the way that it portrays a bygone era without obscuring, avoiding, or rewriting the truth and it’s good in all the ways that a masterpiece has that certain je ne sais quoi about it.

Four Best Drama Emmys later, we can look back and see what a mistake it was for HBO to pass on this program. One mistake should pale in comparison to the body of work that the Home Box Office put together during its near-decade dominance, of course, but when AMC—the network previously known for airing Western movies and Godfather marathons—followed up the critical (if not commercial) success of Mad Men with the crime drama Breaking Bad, it was hard to avoid the narrative that the basic cable channel had staged an outright coup d’état.

[pullquote_right]Breaking Bad and Mad Men have become battles of egos and ambition, but their starting points and tones are as different as freeform jazz and speed metal.[/pullquote_right]

One of the most surprising outcomes of AMC debuting Breaking Bad on the heels of its Mad Men success was that it proved that the network would defy a type. Even if lately it has been rolling out genre-based programs like the one-and-done conspiracy program Rubicon, the zombie show The Walking Dead, the murder mystery show The Killing, and the western Hell on Wheels, the difference between Mad Men and Breaking Bad was especially stark. At the center of one, you have a midcentury executive who is beloved, successful and exceptionally good-looking; at the other, there is a chemistry teacher who has to work a part-time job to pay the bills, who looks beaten down by middle age, and whose life seems to be quickly getting worse (a lung cancer diagnosis has something to do with that, obviously). Thematically, these programs both become battles of egos and ambition, but their starting points and their respective tones are as different as freeform jazz and speed metal. Because of the quality and surprising diversity of the fare on AMC, HBO saw its mantle being stripped not by premium cable rival Showtime but by a basic-cable network, which was just a small property owned by the corporation formerly known as Rainbow Networks (they’re now known as AMC Networks).

Here’s where things get interesting. When you break down Mad Men to its bare bones, you’re left with a duplicitous main character whose skill at manipulation and creativity has not only launched his career from very humble origins to the upper echelon of his industry, but also fundamentally changed the person he is along the way. Likewise, Breaking Bad features a chemist whose brilliance has long been submerged and whatever latent talent has been buried beneath layers of middle class problems until the black, bituminous clusters of shit that made up his life coalesced into the diamond in the rough that he’d been all along. If you take the qualities of the lead characters in both of those compelling shows, find a different time period than the 1960s and mix in the struggle between public and private personas when dealing with illegal substances (alcohol in this case, rather than crystal meth) you end up with something pretty close to Nucky Thompson, antihero of the big-budget program Boardwalk Empire.

In television, ripping off another network is nothing new. In fact, it’s pretty much standard practice. When American Idol becomes a huge hit, all of the other broadcast networks follow suit with some other kind of cheaply made contest program in prime time; when some weird subculture is exploited examined on a basic cable show, that same group of hoarders people end up on a completely different network with only a slight twist to the documentarial tactics. So it should come as no surprise that when artsy networks do battle, they use a lot of the same methods.

To say that HBO copped the formula that made Mad Men and Breaking Bad strike such a chord with the viewers they used to attract doesn’t quite explain why Boardwalk Empire lacks the obsessive following of the previous two shows (it lacks the subtlety and dramatic depth of Mad Men and the episode-by-episode tension of Breaking Bad, for instance), and it certainly doesn’t speak to the program’s quality one way or the other. However, what this might explain is why a viewer has been slow to warm up to something that looks and feels a little too much like something he’s already seen. This is unfortunate: Terence Winter, the showrunner, has given a yeoman-like effort to create a dramatic, compelling program set in a pivotal time in our country’s history. But for so many apathetic would-be fans, transcendent television can’t simply be the sum of its parts.