By Darren Franich
Updated September 05, 2014 at 08:57 PM EDT
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Credit: Jesse Cowell/My Damn Channel
type
  • TV Show

Boardwalk Empire begins in 1920. Its lead character, Nucky Thompson, is on top of the world. History is bending in his direction. He has established an elaborate criminal conspiracy that will funnel an addictive drug (alcohol) directly into the mouths of its consumers (most of America), all of it untaxed. What could go wrong?

Boardwalk Empire began in 2010. Its network, HBO, was on top of the world. It was coming off a decade which you could, with only a bit of hyperbole, refer to as the HBO decade. The Sopranos redefined what television could be; so did Sex and the City, although in 2010 that show’s reputation had suffered from a pair of horrible movies and a natural cultural bias against sitcoms in favor of dude-drama.

Actually, in 2010, you could argue that HBO’s most influential show was The Wire. Even people who hadn’t seen it yet understood that The Wire was supposed to be The Greatest Ever. And whereas The Sopranos was at least a recognizable TV format–a show about a family, splintered into individual episodes–The Wire was the show with the cast-of-dozens and the aggressively serialized uber-plot. (Put it this way: The Sopranos was more popular among TV viewers, but The Wire was more popular among the people who make television.)

The glory days were already over, but we didn’t know that. HBO certainly didn’t. The pilot episode for Boardwalk Empire is one of the great gilded jewels in TV history. Made for a reported $18 million–the most expensive pilot in history to that point, by some estimates. Directed by Martin Scorsese–a real genuine film legend! So perhaps 2010 is the moment when it became decisively clear to a certain kind of movie director that the real exciting work was happening in television. 2010 is the year Rian Johnson directed his first episode of Breaking Bad; four years later, Cary Fukunaga kickstarted his career out of True Detective and Steven Soderbergh has rebooted his career with The Knick and Neil Marshall has now made a career out of being the man who directs gigantic episodes of Game of Thrones.

Boardwalk Empire was supposed to be a huge hit–that’s the general read on the show. HBO will demur that their shows don’t necessarily have to be hits. They’re in the subscriber business; they don’t need ratings the way that, say, Chuck Lorre needs ratings. But you don’t spend $18 million on a pilot episode in the hopes that you can create a beautiful-looking interior melodrama that loses viewers every year. And that’s what Boardwalk Empire became. This weekend, it begins a fifth and final season. The episode order is down, from 12 to eight –and HBO kremlinologists know that a reduced episode order for a final season is HBO code for “didn’t get the ratings we wanted.” (See also: The Newsroom, In Treatment, Rome, TV shows produced by David Simon.)

Boardwalk Empire always seemed to live in the weird shadow of expectation. The budget; the presence of Sopranos writer Terence Winter; the sense that the show was a built-in-a-laboratory Frankenstein of HBO Golden Age tropes:

Designed by Jef Castro[/caption]

Weirdly, I actually liked the show more once the zeitgeist moved on. The show has so many lived-in pleasures. The camerawork is steady; the mise-en-scene is classical; the dialogue is impeccable. No other show is so good in micro yet so disappointing in macro. The costumes are beautiful; the sets are gorgeous; the acting is across-the-board fine; and as the show begins its final season, it’s hard to say precisely what it’s all been about, or why.

But I come to praise Boardwalk, not bury it. Because, in a weird way, the story of Boardwalk Empire is the story of television in the post-television era. Boardwalk arrived at the dawn of a new decade, at a moment when it was clear to everyone that TV was ascendant. But I don’t think anyone could have imagined exactly how TV would ascend. It was possible to assume that HBO would soon be back on top. The first season of Boardwalk Empire is all about how Nucky Thompson looks out on his kingdom–a tiny boardwalk in a relatively small city on the eastern seaboard–and runs the world.

Problems start immediately. New York and Chicago get ornery; young upstarts seek to steal what is rightfully his. And if the story of Boardwalk Empire is Nucky Thompson struggling for power, the story of Boardwalk Empire is also the story of the writers struggling to give Nucky Thompson screen time. The first season established the central structural problem with the show–the Boardwalk was the least interesting place. The first season wanted to be a portrait of a Great Troubled Dude, in the spirit of The Sopranos. It wanted to answer the question: Who is Nucky Thompson? (A variation of question gets repeated in the final season’s third episode: What does Nucky want?)

But the best parts of the show were always along the margins. No other show in the last five years was better at introducing a brand new character and immediately making them seem like the most interesting character on the show. (Witness Richard Harrow, the Half-Faced Man, introduced in the seventh episode of the first season and almost immediately promoted to a season 2 regular.) And yet no other show was worse at developing those interesting characters in anything that would suggest a direction. (Witness Richard Harrow, doomed to spend three seasons as an enforcer for one crime boss or another, ultimately killed by a subplot that was far, far removed from his own character arc–by comparison, imagine if the season 4 finale of Game of Thrones ended with Jon Snow getting burned alive by one of Dany’s dragons, who just happened to be passing by.)

And 2010 was the year that that, in television, the young upstarts emerged, when it became clear that HBO was no longer the center of the Good television universe. Consider: 2010 saw the debut of Justified and Louie, two shows that came to define FX as the basic-cable heir apparent to to the HBO tradition of gritty-fun drama and auteurist experimentation. (In 2010, the third season of Sons of Anarchy became the highest-rated FX show in history.)

While Boardwalk Empire aired its first season, The Walking Dead debuted on AMC–and it’s possible to look past the show’s ratings success and see how The Walking Dead established a new type of TV drama every bit as influential as The Sopranos. (David Chase seemed to actively despise the fans of Sopranos; The Walking Dead made a whole other show for them.)

You could argue that Boardwalk Empire is the last great glimmering remnant of what is already being termed the Difficult Men era–the HBO Renaissance, memorialized with maybe a touch too much hagiography in Brett Martin’s book. Difficult Men posits a theory of TV history that focuses on dudes and dramas. But 2010 is the year that Parks and Recreation capped off a second season that saw it transform from a weird Office non-spinoff into a ribald world-building ensemble comedy that abstracted the politics of the Bush era into the protean Leslie Knope/Ron Swanson relationship (love/hate, lazy boss/overdelivering employee, mentor/mentee, idealist/cynic, Great Old American Male and Great New American Female).

Parks and Rec aired on the same day as 30 Rock, which was still going strong. Four years later, are there TV auteurs more beloved than Tina Fey and Amy Poehler? (Matthew Weiner never hosted the Golden Globes.) Maybe Shonda Rhimes–and 2010 was the year that Rhimes rebooted Grey’s Anatomy with the cataclysmic blunt force trauma of a season finale death orgy, launching a shooting spree inside the hospital with the bullets pointed specifically at the boring characters.

Is it weird to point out that Boardwalk Empire actually got better as it embraced its inner Shonda–as it freely killed off one lead character in its season 2 finale, as it finally built up to an orgy of bloodshed in season 3? Is there a counter-history of television that focuses exclusively on sitcoms and soap operas–on TV genres that get weirdly gendered as “female”? (History will record that the year that Boardwalk Empire ended, the best drama on television with a largely female cast was declared a comedy by its own network. Sure, this was an awards gambit–but is anything on Orange is the New Black funnier than Kevin Spacey’s House of Cards accent?)

Talk about difficult men: 2010 was the year of the great Tonight Show Scandal, what the Westerosi might term the War of the Five (or so) Kings. For a few weeks, late-night shows were appointment viewing. What would Conan say? What would Jay say? What does Dave think? Jesus, now Kimmel’s in the mix, too? (Jimmy Kimmel = Dorne.) Almost half a decade later, the Late Night survivors know that the TV audience isn’t the real audience–and so the Jimmy-Jimmy Late Night era depends on viral stunts.

Did TV end in 2010? It started to. Friday Night Lights moved to DirectTV, cementing a new model in which low-rated-but-fervently-loved TV shows would be picked up by emerging content providers looking for an engaged fanbase. (Arrested Development and Netflix, Community and Yahoo, Cougar Town and TBS.) It was a refined version of the rerun model–a tweak on, say, how FX gets so many viewers from Two and a Half Men reruns.

Four years later, I’m not sure Friday Night Lights‘ reputation has ever been better. It’s just a click away, on Netflix. And 2010 was the year that Party Down ended and began. Ended, in the sense that Starz stopped airing it; began, in the sense that you started to hear people discovering it on Netflix. (In the last decade, Netflix was primarily a thing you used to watch movies; in this decade, who even pays attention to Netflix’s shoddy movie selection?)

In the last decade, you could separate television into cable and broadcast. Cable: Shorter seasons, more adult content, generally higher quality. Broadcast: Long seasons, mainstream content, generally lower quality. After 2010, did those Church and State separations even make sense anymore? Where do you fit in something like Childrens Hospital, a web series that transitioned into a TV show in 2010, a meta-“show” starring a fluid ensemble of Whoever’s Around That Day? (Upstarts can react faster to the changing times, and so a place like Adult Swim can release their most high-profile new show on YouTube, commercial-free, weeks before it plays on television–and wind up with a genuine hit.)

Imagine Nucky Thompson, looking over this changing landscape with confusion; imagine HBO, having built an $18 million tower in the sky, hearing chanting from far below. What are they saying? “Benedict Cumberbatch” isn’t a word! Yet 2010 is the year that Sherlock began, the year that Matt Smith began his run as The Doctor. Throw in Downton Abbey, which aired in the UK in 2010 before arriving here in early 2011, and you have the dawn of a new era of Anglophilia–helped along by Netflix, where Sherlock and Downton Abbey lived.Who had a better 2011, a better 2012: Anyone on Boardwalk Empire, or Laura Linney?

Boardwalk Empire is great TV history because, in both the content of the story and its style, it seemed to reflect all these changes without ever quite getting a handle on them. 2010 was the year that Mad Men executed its mid-run transformation, rebooting the show in a new office and with a new glittery style. And 2010 was the year that Breaking Bad began to really become Breaking Bad: The year of Gus Fring, the year Walt stopped teaching. 2010 was the year of “The Suitcase” and “The Fly,” the two great bottle episodes of our time, and a demonstration of how much more those shows could do with less.

Boardwalk Empire never opted for less. In its second season, there was an Incest Episode–was it chasing Game of Thrones? Its third season was the wildest, the most over-the-top, and my personal favorite–Bobby Cannavale played Al Pacino in The Devil’s Advocate playing Wile E. Coyote. The show seemed to be rebooting itself towards a Seasonal Big Bad model. (Did they think they needed a Gus Fring?) But then season 4 went in the opposite direction, becoming a sprawling tone poem with the characters circling in beautiful stasis.

This weekend’s season premiere is all sprawl. The characters are in Havana, and in Chicago, and in New York, and in a forest somewhere, and generally everywhere besides the Boardwalk. HBO’s future is uncertain. Game of Thrones is a big hit, but it’s starting to run out of story–characters are being banished into the limbo of George R. R. Martin’s brain. Its buzziest hit is a TV show that’s not really a TV show, starring actors who won’t be returning for season 2. (The True Detective model was pioneered in 2011 with FX’s American Horror Story, a TV show that’s like a stylistic rebuke to the Difficult Men era.)

The most exciting announcement that HBO’s had in months was about The Wire. The new season of Boardwalk Empire leaps forward in time, but it begins with a flashback, following Young Nucky Thompson. It’s a shadow of Mad Men season 6’s Young Don Draper storyline. Boardwalk‘s flashbacks are better-acted; unfortunately, there are many more of them. Nucky Thompson is looking backwards, to a simpler time, in the days before the boardwalk was an empire.

But Boardwalk Empire isn’t just HBO. It’s Broadcast television; it’s cable; it’s TV-on-DVD; it’s our whole post-millennial understanding of what TV is, and whether it’s even TV anymore.The problem with building an empire: Once it rises, it has to fall.

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Got any geeky thoughts or questions? Email them to me at darren_franich@ew.com or tweet me @DarrenFranich, and I’ll respond in a future edition of my Entertainment Geekly column.

Episode Recaps

Boardwalk Empire

Steve Buscemi stars in HBO’s sprawling Prohibition drama set in Atlantic City.
type
  • TV Show
seasons
  • 5
rating
status
  • On Hiatus

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