Because of its storied history of quality programs, I give every show that airs on HBO a chance. But after nine episodes it's time to pass judgment on the network's lavish Prohibition-era drama Boardwalk Empire: It's just not good.
The story of Nucky Thompson, the Atlantic City mobster who runs the city from the town treasurer's office, has managed to neither wow, unsettle, enlighten, or engross me. Like any new HBO series, I really wanted it to work. After the first few episodes dragged, I had faith that it would get better, that the drama would reveal itself as we got deeper into the characters. After all, recent TV greats like The Wire and Mad Men seem painfully slow until you settle in. But the problem with Boardwalk Empire is that it's not boring in as deeply as those shows. In fact, it's just boring.
The problem seems to be Nucky Thompson himself. As others (including my colleague Richard Lawson) have pointed out, Steve Buscemi doesn't seem cut out for the part. He doesn't have the menace, ambiguity, or general magnetism to turn the character into a great anti-hero in the vein of Tony Soprano or Deadwood's Al Swearengen. But it's not entirely Buscemi's fault. Nucky is a poorly-drawn character. He is nothing but a functionary, going through the town making sure the right people get paid, the right people get their booze, the right people get elected, and the right people get killed. He has a bit of a personal life and a few demons from his childhood, but he is nowhere near as psychologically complex or mysterious as the aforementioned Tony Soprano or Don Draper. Heck, even True Blood's conflicted fairy Sookie Stackhouse is more interesting.
Nucky isn't the only one in this sprawling, ambitious series who is a snore. Michael Pitt's Jimmy Darmody is nothing but a smart-guy-gone-bad cliche and his bisexual bohemian girlfriend whose name I can't even remember is more of a concept than an actual flesh and blood person. Nucky's doltish younger brother Eli has nothing going for him but misplaced ambition and Gretchen Mol's Gillian is a blank-faced snore. Even the gangsters, usually rife for colorful interpretations, seem like nothing but parodies of characters from other costume dramas of the '20s. The only characters that show any real development or complex motivations are Nucky's reluctant concubine Margaret Schroeder, a Temperance League widow enjoying her first bit of power, and wacko prohibition agent Nelson Van Alden, who seems to have a complex relationship with religion and his sterile wife. But we don't get nearly enough of either of them.
If a series can't be full of interesting characters, at least it could feature some intriguing action. It doesn't matter so much who the people are, provided they're doing something interesting. Yet for a show about bootlegging and gangsters, Boardwalk Empire doesn't have that going for it either. Nucky just goes from one petty drama to the next, fixing things easily and covering up for his and his cohorts' mistakes. There's no great plan, there's no formidable adversary, there's little complex, behind-the-scenes politics. All there really seems to be is a big bunch of impressive sets and some excellent wardrobe choices.
That the show hasn't impressed me is disappointing, especially since Boardwalk Empire had so much buzz before its debut. Executive produced by Martin Scorsese—who also directed the lavish pilot (so far the series' best episode, and a lackluster one at that)—a period drama about gangsters on HBO seemed like a surefire success. After the highly-rated premiere, the network quickly renewed the expensive show for a second season. Initially I thought it was a vote of confidence in the show, but now it appears they were just doubling down on an expensive gamble in order to make it work. If viewers know that a second season is on the horizon, perhaps they'll be less likely to tune out as the first season limps towards its finale. HBO has a ton of money riding on this show's success. Maybe they should spend a little less making the antique cars, flapper dresses, and flashy facades look great and more on crafting a show with a little bit of depth.