The Prohibition era has inspired plenty of books and movies but as far as I know, it hasn’t inspired that many television shows. Boardwalk Empire is a welcome addition in that respect and the critical success of HBO’s show is just another example of how historical fiction is finally coming into its own as a genre. While it will probably be a while until book stores carve out a specific section for historical novels, I think shows like Boardwalk Empire help broaden the fan base for historical fiction and I hope more outlets start putting out content for history buffs. Having said that, I do think Boardwalk Empire leaves a bit to be desired in terms of entertainment value.
When it comes to production design, the show gets everything right. The costumes are stunning and the attention to detail is impeccable. From an acting standpoint, there’s really not much to criticize either. Michael Pitt, Michael Shannon, Michael K. Williams, and crew all turn in great performances. Even late entrants like Jeremy Wright and Erik Harvey hold their own. In some cases, they steal the show. Unfortunately, the show lacks a compelling protagonist. Boardwalk Empire is filled with a vast assortment of fascinating characters–Richard Harrow, Chalky White, Dr. Narcisse–but none of them get nearly as much screentime as Nucky Thompson and that’s a shame because Nucky is by and large an unrealized character.
Steve Buscemi does a great job portraying Nucky, nobody who has seen Fargo can deny that Buscemi is a talented actor, but the character just never gets fleshed out. Towards the end of the first season, Nucky does have a revealing heart to heart with a love interest but moments like this are few and far between. By and large, when Nucky is on screen he is barking commands or negotiating illicit deals. This is interesting every now and then, but it gets a bit dry after a while. Nucky’s remarks aren’t especially witty and he’s not all that charming either. Most of the time, he comes off as rude or selfish or both. The great lines in the show belong to other characters, I ain’t buildin’ no bookcase for example, and Nucky really doesn’t have much of an arc. He starts out as a gangster who always delegates the killing to others and then becomes a ganger who often delegates the killing to others. If that shows growth as a character, it’s not the kind that especially interesting.
When it comes to plot, the show doesn’t really grow much either. For the most part, the plot of season 1 revolves around a failed hit on Nucky. As for season two? Another failed hit. Season three? Another failed hit. Season 4 is the only entrant to diverge from that pattern but by the time we get to season 5, we’re back to another failed hit.
The funny thing is, Boardwalk Empire doesn’t lack for compelling characters or interesting arcs and it’s a very creative show when it comes to characters other than Nucky. Agent Nelson, Richard Harrow, and Dunn Purnsley all have great character arcs. Certain characters don’t change much, Al Capone and Eli Rothstein for example, but they have great screen presence and take part in some really interesting scenes. Unfortunately, they’re all bit characters and they play second fiddle to Nucky in most cases. It’s frustrating just as much as it’s puzzling. Everybody who works on the show is incredibly talented, and the show could have been so much stronger if Nucky was a supporting character rather than the main character. Then again, just giving him more backstory and making him less abrasive might have done the trick also. In any case, the show is still worth watching and I recommend it to anyone interested in the Prohibition era.