Like Mad Men, Boardwalk Empire locates itself at a very specific moment in America’s past. But the Prohibition era is far more distant than Mad Men’s 1960s setting. The world that Don and Peggy are trying to navigate is the world we still live in; Boardwalk Empire’s universe of silk cravats, servants, and segregation belongs in a Ken Burns documentary. We also know how the story will end: The fate of the noble experiment hardly requires a spoiler alert.
There’s something generally underwhelming about Boardwalk Empire—it’s a weekend at the Jersey shore, not a trip to Paris. The writing, the plot twists, and the scenes of violence are well-done, but they’re not the best, the most memorable, or the most shocking on television. While there are brilliant, even breathtaking, interludes—like the Memorial Day adventures of Jimmy’s closest associate, fellow World War I vet Richard Harrow, in this season’s fifth episode—there are also long stretches where my attention wanders. In the arc of even a premium-cable-length series, it’s inevitable that there will be postponed payoffs, as when Harrow and Sleater shared a moment of recognition in Episode 3. Each had a gun pointed at the other’s heart, but instead of squaring off as rivals, they realized they are both still soldiers, facing death on someone else’s behalf. It was a wonderful, understated beat, but there was no resolution—at least not yet.
Boardwalk Empire’s characters are as well-drawn as those populating its Sunday-night counterparts. Nucky Thompson reminds me of Breaking Bad’s Walter White, a man who uses his superior intelligence to get ahead, but all too often ends up battling loneliness and self-pity. The commodore is The Sopranos’ Uncle Junior, the rightful ruler who’s now too old and weak to preside over his kingdom. Jimmy Darmody, like Don Draper, remade himself when he returned from a faraway war. The trouble with Boardwalk Empire is that the stakes feel so low—all they’re doing is fighting over bootlegged liquor in a corrupt seaside town. When critics call those other shows Shakespearean, they’re thinking of Hamlet, King Lear, or Macbeth. If Boardwalk Empire were the work of the Bard, it would be a minor history play—a Richard II or Henry VIII.
More than anything else I’m currently watching, Boardwalk Empire reminds me of what William Goldman once dubbed “the snob hit.” In his Broadway chronicle The Season, he defined the snob hit as a play whose audience is “convinced that the ‘average’ theatergoer wouldn’t understand … or like it.” In other words, it must be good, even if nobody is particularly bowled over.
Boardwalk Empire won eight Emmys, Martin Scorsese directed the pilot, and it’s on HBO. And yet, it’s nothing more than a perfectly fine TV show with occasional great moments. Ultimately, the show’s defining problem isn’t that it’s inscrutable or difficult. It’s that Boardwalk Empire, for all its prestige, is thoroughly inessential.