It has a gifted cast and a conflicted central character. It has outstanding production values, a high-class pedigree and it spins out multiple narratives depicting people involved in questionable, if not nefarious, activities. It's an expensive period drama that airs on HBO, for goodness' sake.
And it should be to 'Boardwalk Empire's' credit that it does its utmost to lay out a meticulous panorama of Atlantic City in the '20s. We critics are always complaining about shows that drop plots, lose focus or go down blind alleys, but 'Boardwalk Empire' has a certain relentlessness when it comes to building the world of bootlegger and politician Nucky Thompson (Steve Buscemi).
But there's a problem here. Despite all the attention to detail, or maybe because of it, 'Boardwalk Empire' is a slog. For long periods of time, it's boring, glum, bloodless slog.
It's a Frankenstein's monster built from elements that are supposed to work when placed in proximity to each other, but, aside from moments when certain supporting characters are on screen, this enterprise fails to come alive with any consistency. For 'Boardwalk Empire,' the structure of the story appears to be more important than the people moving through it. How can this drama get under my skin when it frequently fails to do just that with its own characters?
The creeping suspicion that 'Boardwalk Empire' suffers from too-much-of-a-good-thing-itis began in the second half of the show's first season, which didn't really conclude as much as it rolled to a stately stop. At some point, you want a show to ratchet down the world-building and start raising the stakes for the characters, and when a season ends, the audience should be deeply invested in where things go next.
But I've seen half of the second season of 'Boardwalk Empire,' and though it features occasional confrontations or bursts of action, I'm no more interested in Nucky's fate than I was last year (and that's not saying a lot).
On occasion, especially when it spends time on disfigured World War 1 veteran Richard Harrow (Jack Huston) and gangster Chalky White (Michael K. Williams), 'Boardwalk Empire' perks up and becomes truly compelling for a scene or two, but those moments don't come as regularly as they should. And soon enough, as the show methodically depicts rival groups attempting to control the flow of illegal liquor in and around Atlantic City, the show subsides into its preferred pace -- the metronomic rhythm of items being checked off a grocery list.
The show's lack of passionate engagement with its characters is deeply frustrating, given that Kelly Macdonald has a steely spark as the redoubtable Margaret Schroeder, Nucky's girlfriend, Michael Stuhlbarg is effortlessly charismatic as gangster Arnold Rothstein and Stephen Graham is endlessly watchable as Al Capone -- the list goes on and on. The truth is, for all its Quality Drama trappings, there's a superficial quality to 'Boardwalk Empire' -- character moments are rarely unexpected, illuminating or moving. The show gives us a light gloss on who each character is and what they want, and things tend to remain at that glancing level for long periods of time, and the story line of Michael Shannon's federal agent, Nelson Van Alden, is truly glacial this season. He doesn't even get to be entertainingly weird.
Some will love the deliberateness of 'Boardwalk Empire,' and the painstaking work that has gone into a story structure that, this season, depicts young Jimmy Darmody's attempts to wrest power from his mentor, Nucky. But the show doesn't do nearly enough to make viewers invest in Nucky's cause, or Jimmy's. I'm not one of those who doubts Buscemi's leading man possibilities, but Nucky's never really the center of this elaborate machine. I'm not sure it even has a center.
Nucky, whose two main modes are tired and annoyed, is just another character in a vast sea of them. We don't get to know many people in this world well, but maybe it's a supposed to be a consolation that there are so many of them.
And though Michael Pitt has had his moments as Jimmy, he's mostly a gloomy enigma this season. The relationship between Jimmy and his wife, Angela (Aleksa Palladino), is a perfect example what 'Boardwalk Empire' gets wrong. There's supposed to be pathos in the way these damaged people try and fail to connect, but we see so little of the pair that it's hard to care about their relationship.
To make a novel "worthy of attention, the canvas should be crowded with real portraits, not of individuals known to the world or to the author, but of created personages impregnated with traits of character which are known," Anthony Trollope wrote in his 'Autobiography.' "To my thinking, the plot is but the vehicle for all this; and when you have the vehicle without the passengers, a story of mystery in which the agents never spring to life, you have but a wooden show."
I'm not arguing that 'Boardwalk Empire' never springs to life, but it does so only fitfully, and that "wooden show" line is too often an apt description of Nucky's richly appointed surroundings. 'Boardwalk Empire' looks like a million bucks (more like tens of millions, if HBO's lavish budgets are anything to go by), but it never approaches the liveliness of 'Downtown Abbey,' which is set about a decade earlier, or the tautness of 'Breaking Bad,' which manages to inject addictive suspense into a story about the trade in illicit substances. 'Boardwalk Empire' appears to be most interested in creating a map of Nucky's world, and when tries to make a thematic point, it frequently does so with large servings of overkill (if a particular sentiment is being expressed in a scene, there's a good chance a song on the soundtrack, a book held by a character or a glimpse of a film clip will reinforce that sentiment with all the subtlety of an anvil to the head).
It brings me no joy to bail out on 'Boardwalk Empire.' I thought the start of its first season was stylish and promising, but for me to stay interested in a group of people, I need to feel that the show itself is deeply intrigued by them. The problem is, long stretches of 'Boardwalk Empire' feel like a PowerPoint presentation come to life. The information is there, the aesthetic approach is "correct," but too frequently, I remained unmoved and uninvolved.
Watching the show's second season, I kept thinking back to Nancy Franklin's cogent review of the first season in the New Yorker. "Even if its point is to show you the ugly side of fun, 'Boardwalk Empire' should be much more fun to watch," Franklin wrote.
That's so true. Aren't gangster movies usually kind of thrilling (or trying to be)? And in the show's pilot, executive producer Martin Scorcese gave the show a visual pop that made it seem like Nucky was really going places. But these days, he's still in that suite in the Ritz, making deals, looking wan and tired of the high life. It may be the Roaring '20s, but he gets no kick from Champagne.
And it doesn't just have to be about fun: I wouldn't mind being moved to tears, being shocked, being surprised, even being ticked off by 'Boardwalk Empire.' Another HBO drama, 'Game of Thrones,' was clunky when it was first putting the pieces of its story in motion. But by focusing on a manageable number of people in that world and delving deep into their emotional and political quandaries, it managed to create an exciting moral and visual feast. I was gripped, even though I knew where that story is going.
I don't know exactly where 'Boardwalk Empire' is going, but I'm fairly sure the journey will be... organized.
Note: Ryan McGee and I also discussed 'Boardwalk Empire' in this podcast.
Follow @MoRyan on Twitter.