Boardwalk Empire Review — You Can’t Be Half A Gangster

It just wouldn’t make engaging television.

Whilst I prefer stories about gangsters to stories about military, they’re not really much better when it comes to plot variety. Actually they have less, because you’ll be hard-pressed to find a gangster story that actually glorifies the trade considering, y’know, they’re gangsters. Even Guy Ritchie’s films end up with most of the gangsters deader than Bill Cosby’s career, and they pretty much personify how cool it is to be in the trade. I think Baccano is the only thing I’ve seen where one of the ultimate messages is that being a gangster is awesome, and I’m sure there are a few more examples under that “Damn It Feels Good to be a Gangster” page under TV Tropes if I could bother to go to that site, but my point is that whilst there are a lot of reasons to watch Boardwalk Empire, I don’t think there were any illusions that it wasn’t going to end in disaster for all the characters involved. I mean the show is based on real-life history, and we all know what happened to Al Capone and Lucky Luciano as the times ended up killing bootlegging and Youtube views as a viable source of income. Time is just not kind to some people.

But let’s stop this foreplay before I start telling you guys to find real jobs (or get really profitable off Patreon) and focus on the review subject. Yes it’s live-action drama. A form of entertainment that, as I’ve made very clear in the past, I’ve mostly neglected throughout my entire life. I never got into the medium mostly because they are long as fuck, and I side with the British when it comes to their hatred of filler and only having their shows be as long as they need to be. Hell, my main problem with most anime is that they can’t stretch their concepts to even fill a single cour, much less two, and Deadwood is considered a short-lived show despite the fact that it has three seasons, each consisting of twelve episodes that run on more than twice as long as the standard anime episode. If Legend of the Galactic Heroes was put into the live-action scene, it’d…be called Battlestar Galactica I guess. And it’d also be considered short.

I’ve been warming up to live-action stuff as of late though, partly due to my utter contempt for the excess of light-hearted crap I sit through in order to keep the reviews coming every week, but mostly so I can add another medium to make comparisons to when I say an anime is shit. Plus, it’s fun to make the same criticisms I do for anime in a scene where critical acclamations are aplenty and people can tell me that Arrested Development is laugh-out-loud hilarious with a straight face. Now I can’t stick with these sorts of shows the same way I do anime because of their lengths so don’t expect as many negative reviews from me whenever I do one of these things. Nevertheless, there will be times when I stick through shows that are heavily flawed despite my enjoyment of them, and Boardwalk Empire is definitely one of those shows.

Based on a novel centered on a historical crime lord named Enoch L. Johnson, Boardwalk Empire is the story of Enoch “Nucky” Thompson, the corrupt treasurer of Atlantic City, New Jersey, as he rises and falls in power throughout the Prohibition era and interacts with various famous figures who he’ll either have nice chats with or want to mow down with a tommy gun depending on his mood. Like most long-running character dramas, it’s basically a slice-of-life show focusing on various people throughout their daily lives except unlike most anime, said slice-of-life involves hiring prostitutes, killing your own men because they looked at you funny, or people betraying each other thirteen times apiece. Now I’m a guy who enjoys his Prohibition period pieces well enough, so I’m just going to get out of the way that yes, I love the show’s aesthetics. The music, the hats, the costumes, the dancing, the sleaze…I love it all and how it’s shot.

But love can be as caustic as hate, and I take great personal offense to any piece of fiction who thinks that just because I like the hats means you could put any kind of narrative you want and somehow it’ll be entertaining. You need to have strong characters who drive the narrative and Boardwalk Empire’s cast is certainly strong. It’s just that most of them happen to be driving different cars going down different roads. For the lion’s share of Boardwalk Empire’s five seasons, you’re watching Nucky grow from a guy who’s willing to compromise with money whilst putting on a polite face into a more ruthless sort who can’t make his marriages work, kills off people he personally raised as a kid because they betrayed him, and losing control over what was once so easy to handle, partly due to everyone else growing to realize that he’s full of shit. There’s his younger brother Eli, who has a much more successful family life than Nucky and yet can never get over his inferiority complex to his older sibling. There’s Margaret Schroeder, a woman Nucky takes pity on and tries to help from an abusive husband, only to end up setting off a chain of events that ends with her seeing him as a monster. There’s Gillian Darmondy, a woman who Nucky wronged in the past when he let her be taken in by a pedophile, causing her to give birth when she was thirteen, in order to get ahead in the world. And then there’s Richard Harrow, the most likable character in the group and yet despite that fact and his large amounts of screen time, he was nothing more than a convenient plot device.

One big thing I’ve noticed in these sorts of long-running TV shows is that in order to accommodate for their agonizingly long lengths, they always need to have large casts with multiple plot lines going on at the same time to the point that some of them don’t have anything to do with each other besides token relationships between characters. That’s generally fine if they all further the same theme, but even that can get strained at times, especially when the person running the theme (and consequently the show) is weak. Now Boardwalk Empire doesn’t have a Daenerys Targaryen – that dragon princess from Game of Thrones who has practically no relation with the Starks or the Lannisters (or at least none that really matters) and whose plot line of trying to take back her kingdom pretty much occurs two continents away from every other key character – but it does have Nucky himself. And until the fifth and final season occurs, he’s just not very interesting a character unless you’re the kind of person who can get off on every one of Steve Buscemi’s performances.

Most of the time we view Nucky, it’s through other characters and their perspective on him. We know that he never had a real family and we know that he wronged a lot of people to get to where he is today. But most of the time we see him, he’s a crooked sweet talker who likes kids and will do whatever non-violent thing it takes to get ahead in life whilst committing violence if you push him hard enough. It’s true that we see him grow more and more morally corrupt over time, turning into a more hardcore gangster and ruining his professional relationships in the process, but it’s all in service of the show’s rather dry message that being a gangster means being alone. This is character development that has been done many times in the past by Martin Scorsese himself, and exploring it a deeper level than usual doesn’t change the core of the story, especially if the start is just something we’re told. Al Capone’s plot line regarding his rise and fall, by contrast, is much more unique because not only do we see him starting off from a minor thug, but when he does eventually get arrested, he’s gotten so well-liked to the point that the public were cheering for him at his own trial. There aren’t many gangster stories I can think of where the ultimate message is that even though being a gangster ultimately sucks, it’s not all bad. And believe me, Capone is pretty much the only character to go out with a good amount of dignity once the final – and rather predictable if I’m being honest – scene occurs.

Not that I don’t like the other characters, but sometimes the show can be a little nonsensical in their growth. There are some moments where it feels like I missed certain scenes, particularly when a corrupt federal investigator named Van Alden hires a nanny to take care of his illegitimate child and then they’re married the next episode for some reason. And then said nanny has an affair with Eli due to Van Alden not paying enough attention to her, which just seemed unnecessary, especially since nothing really came out of it but drama that was mostly brushed under the rug. Speaking of Eli, he’s mostly scum for the first two seasons, but afterwards he’s one of the most sympathetic characters in the show and we’re never really made to understand how he could have grown up to have his initial character in the first place since flashbacks show he was pretty much raised a family man (with some questionable morals admittedly) prior to Nucky taking power. And then there’s everything having to do with the children in this show. Granted, the actors changed in-between seasons, but I don’t see how that turns the characters themselves into douches.

For all of Boardwalk Empire’s positive points from its great attention to detail to its take on racism, the show ultimately fails to be the evolution of the gangster story that the creators envisioned due to numerous side arcs that exist for their own sake rather than being important to the plot, along with the simple fact that the glue that holds everything together is a main character whose story regarding the “rise and fall of a gangster” is being worked on too basic a level to be really engaging. It was fun to watch, I won’t deny that. But at the end of the day, I’d probably watch Once Upon a Time in America again if I ever feel the need to indulge in some Prohibition fiction. It does a lot of what Boardwalk Empire accomplishes or wanted to accomplish, and in only four hours to boot. True it may not have Jack Huston going all one-man army on a bunch of gangsters, but I’ll live.

But hey, it does have this kickass opening.

2 responses to “Boardwalk Empire Review — You Can’t Be Half A Gangster

  1. I tried very hard to like Boardwalk Empire but just couldn’t get properly into it. Which is odd, because I don’t think it’s a bad show – on the contrary, what little I saw of it I thought was quite good. I just wasn’t /enjoying it.

    Peaky Blinders, on the other hand, I enjoyed the hell out of. Maybe it’s just that I tend to prefer British live-action TV material to American, but I found it a lot more engrossing. It probably also helps that it’s much shorter than Boardwalk Empire (12 episodes over 2 seasons), so I was able to polish the whole thing off pretty quickly.

    • I feel the same way about Breaking Bad. I watched the entire first season and yeah it’s a well-written show, but I can do without a soap opera about an initially well-intentioned man turning into a hard-boiled criminal.