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'Boardwalk Empire' recap: The long shadow of Tony Soprano

At my other job, one of my recent projects has been working my way back through "The Sopranos," episode by episode. I'm early into the third season now, and I'm reminded of both why I enjoyed the series so much and why it became such a television legend. At the same time, "Boardwalk Empire" is approaching the end of its first season, and while the critical opinion of the series remains high, I get the sense that there are quite a few audience members who remain unconvinced, who compare the show to its most obvious ancestor and find it  wanting. To a degree, I agree with these people. "Boardwalk Empire" is not as good as "The Sopranos" was, not yet. But that's just the thing: FEW TV shows are as good as "The Sopranos" was, and ultimately, "Boardwalk Empire" and "The Sopranos" have very different aims, even if they're both about gangsters. The story of Tony and the gang was a collection of short stories that slowly cohered to tell a story about the end of something. "Boardwalk" is more novelistic in its approach, putting a bunch of pieces on the board, then seeing how they all come into conflict. Plus, it's about the beginning of something. A better comparison point, as I've said before, is probably "Deadwood" or "The Wire." ("Boardwalk" falls short of those two series, too, but, then, almost everything on TV does, so it's not a big deal.)

On the other hand, I do think that a comparison between "Boardwalk" and "The Sopranos" is instructive in a few senses. It helps explain why a lot of people have been let down by the first season of this show, even as they've enjoyed bits and pieces of it or individual storylines and episodes, but it also helps show just what this show is trying to do and how that's different from what "The Sopranos" was trying to do. Creator Terence Winter, who worked on the earlier show, clearly learned much of what he knows from working on that series, but he also seems to be skewing away from copying the earlier series intentionally and in ways that may have hurt his narrative here and there. I still think "Boardwalk Empire" is one of the best shows on TV, but I can understand the complaints leveled against it, and looking at three major comparison points -- particularly in light of tonight's episode, where a bunch of storylines finally collided in unexpected and often thrilling ways, in very "Sopranos"-esque fashion -- might be illustrative.

1.) "The Sopranos" was legitimately like nothing else that had come before. When it arrived, it caused such a sensation among critics and the slowly growing audience it attracted because it was intelligent, thoughtful television for adults that acted as though viewers had a certain amount of intelligence. It didn't talk down to anyone, and it told its stories through visuals as often as it did through dialogue. Now, of course, the model pioneered by "The Sopranos" is everywhere on cable television. While that show could stand alone, "Boardwalk Empire" has to go up against (conservatively) "Mad Men," "Breaking Bad," "Sons of Anarchy," "Terriers," and a host of other terrific programs that all have very similar mission statements. "The Sopranos" was unexpected; "Boardwalk Empire" is very much expected. Getting exactly what you wanted for Christmas is fun, yes, but getting something you didn't know you wanted is almost always more exciting, and I think it's that sense of the visceral that a lot of the show's detractors are missing.

2.) "The Sopranos" hurried its initial narrative to a close. If you think back to the show's first season, the major conflict initially seemed to be between Tony and his uncle, Junior. The two were at odds over who would take over the family in the wake of the death of its leader, and neither seemed to have a firm upper hand. It seemed almost inevitable that everything would end in bloodshed, and there were a few minor skirmishes. Had the first season played this plot out over its entire length, it would still have been one of the most influential seasons in television; it just might have been a little slower-paced. Instead, the first season brought this conflict to a close in episode four, where Tony and Junior sat down to come to a peace agreement, one that shut down conflicts. The story wasn't entirely gone -- indeed, much of the final three episodes of that season dealt with it -- but it was placed on the back burner in favor of more standalone stories like Tony taking his daughter on a college visit (one of the series' best episodes), Tony's nephew Christopher fighting depression and Tony's wife Carmela considering dallying with a friendly priest.

Compare this to "Boardwalk Empire," where much of the middle section of the season was, again, devoted to less ambitious tales. We got to see Nucky deal with his decrepit father and revisit his childhood home. We saw Margaret slowly realize the power she really had. We spent an inordinate amount of time chilling with Jimmy in Chicago, before he realized his potential as a gangster. But the major storyline of the pilot -- the conflict developing between Nucky and Arnold Rothstein, the conflict that boiled over in blood in that late-night massacre in the middle of the woods -- has also been placed on the back burner, despite receiving little to no resolution. I admire the choice to have it overhang everything that happens this season, to get little glimpses of the forces aligning against Nucky as he's doing his own thing, but it does give the entire season a bit of the sense of feeling like it's not dealing with what's really important. Tonight, finally, we begin to get the fallout, as Van Alden is kicked off his case and Chalky goes off book to take out the D'Alessios and Jimmy turns unexpectedly ruthless. But at the same time, it's been so long since some of this stuff happened that it's hard to feel the momentum underpinning the episodes. (I suspect one reason critics have been so friendly to the show -- including myself -- is because we all get to see it on DVD, which is a format generally better suited to shows of this type. It becomes easier to see the connections developing between stories.)

3.) "The Sopranos" had a gigantic cast, but it was very tightly focused. In general, everything on that show revolved around a member of the Soprano family or Christopher. It was rare to see scenes or long, drawn-out storylines that didn't involve one of those characters, and the outside characters (like the family from New York) really only entered the story as they came into contact with Tony and his crew. "Boardwalk Empire," by contrast, has a gigantic cast of characters, but it treats every single one as the lead of his or her own series. This approach is usually extremely rewarding in the end. (As an example, look at how "Mad Men" gives all of its characters their own, very important storylines that then come together in the season finale.) But it can be enormously difficult to stomach when watched one episode at a time, particularly in the first season of a show, where we're just getting to know everybody.

"Boardwalk" has been good enough to set up a clear hierarchy of characters, starting with Nucky, then going down to Jimmy and Margaret, then going along to a whole bunch of supporting characters, but it also tends to never leave anyone behind. With Jimmy gone from Chicago, there's not an immediate reason to return there, yet we still get tonight's storyline featuring Al Capone attending a bar mitzvah. Is it entertaining? Sure. Does it provide oblique commentary on the rest of the story? Absolutely. But is it an absolute necessity? Not really, and it has a tendency to ramp down the momentum, just as it's getting turned up back in Atlantic City. Similarly, Angela's dalliances with her friend Mary are heartfelt and moving, but they have a little trouble competing with Jimmy shooting one of the D'Alessios in the head (after saying the sure to become a classic line, "I wasn't going to, but you kinda talked me into it," in response to the brother asking if Jimmy's going to shoot him after mouthing off). The way things are boiling over carries such impact that checking in on everybody else, while admirable, can't help but sap some of the episode's momentum.

But what do I know? "The Emerald City" is still an absolutely terrific episode of television, complete with at least four or five scenes that should go on to become classics of their kind. What's more, it sets one of its most thrilling and tautly paced scenes not out on the mob battlefields but inside a political meeting, where Margaret talks up the new Republican candidate for mayor to the newly minted women voters of Atlantic City, then has hammered home to her that no matter who's in charge, the same people (the ones with the money) will pull the strings. It pulls all of the show's characters, in every location, back onto the playing field, and it sets them in conflict in interesting ways. (There's an early scene where Mickey Doyle tells Nucky everything he knows, and even though WE know it all already, it's still exciting to watch Nucky figure out exactly how big the problem facing him is. This is not to mention that the scene works well as a refresher course for all of us at home.) And there are plenty of scenes that offer a foreboding sense of what's to come, like Van Alden ordering a whiskey and having rough sex with Lucy. If the next two episodes contain as many payoffs and exciting moments as this one did, then it will make the whole season come together in a satisfying way and hopefully convince the naysayers they were too quick to judge. But if it doesn't, maybe Winter and his writers will look back at the ways they've strayed from a previous series' template and reconsider for Season 2.

--Todd VanDerWerff (follow me on Twitter at @tvoti)

Photo: Lucy Danziger (Paz de la Huerta) finds comfort in the arms of Van Alden in tonight's "Boardwalk Empire." (Credit: HBO)

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Comments () | Archives (14)

Actually, I think the show is much stronger for its digressions in how they reveal social elements of the period. It's a much richer tale for it, even if what one considers dramatic momentum is slowed as a result. We get to luxuriate in the details, which is fine enough for an enriching hour of television we barely ever see anymore.

I wish this recap didn't spend so much time talking about the Sopranos. I came to read about Boardwalk Empire, not the Sopranos. I have never watched The Sopranos, so most of this 'recap' meant nothing to me. They are two totally different shows, that just happen to share Terrence Winter.

But anyway, great episode! I loved the finale, and I loved seeing Chalky and Harrow back and featured! The two best characters on the show! I've always been intrigued by the Van Alden character, but I really do not understand his motives any more. One thing's for sure, he is one bad supposedly hard core Christian.

Some random comments on "The Emerald City."

*Beautiful episode. Wonderfully shot.

*Nucky's facial expression after Jimmy shoots the smart-mouthed D'Alessio was perfect.

*I couldn't help but think of Carmela Soprano when Margaret was giving her speech of endorsement for the new Republican candidate.

*I'm anxious to see just how Capone will fit in now that Jimmy's in A.C. As written in the recap, the bar mitzvah scene was done very well, but it didn't seem necessary.

*Though Jimmy targeted the wrong person, I wasn't expecting Jimmy to discover he'd been cuckolded yet; I thought for sure that might be one of those things that is left to boil for several more episodes.

*If it wasn't for Michael Shannon, the Van Alden scenes wouldn't have worked. A menacing character. It was downright scary when he confronted Margaret.

On an unrelated note:

I had no idea you'd been writing about The Sopranos (surprise surprise - my favorite show [second to, surprise surprise, Deadwood]). I look forward to catching up with your recaps. I too am always watching the show chronologically; I'm back to season 1 again.

Boardwalk Empire is the best drama on TV right now. What's the point of comparing it to The Sopranos or anything else?

I usually enjoy your write-ups, but since I never watched The Sopranos (by choice) this week's post, for me, missed the mark.

So what's next weeks recap going to be a dissertation about Todd? Are you going to recap six seasons of Lost and blab about how great you thought that crap show was?

One thing you didn't mention: I don't think you're giving Steve Buscemi enough credit for pulling off his take on Nucky. I initially winced when I found out he was the lead in this new show. He's pulled it off and then some.

Did anyone else feel this episode to be a bit stiffer and more disjointed than the previous three? They were certainly the strongest so far, but with only two more to go, I expected a lot more sureness in the writing and direction here. Most disappointingly, the Chalky scenes seemed particularly thrown-together.

I think if you are going to compare it to any show, I think The Wire would be a good one. It is not as good as The Wire, but I think the pace, story and character developments are comparable for sure.

The Wire is the best show ever :). I loved seeing Omar/Chalky choke the hell out of that guy!

love this blog...and its funny that you wrote so much about the sopranos, because I was thinking about it, albeit in a different way this entire episode. Buscemi doesnt have that swagger, or that aura, that Tony Soprano did. his delivery seems stiff, he doesnt really seem like he fits in. Just take each scene with him, imagine gandolfini in it, and you can get the picture. its hard to get on his side and like him.

Even after last weeks shooting, when we should all be worried and feeling bad. Hes a good actor, but when you see the performances of margaret, richard, jimmy, al, torio, it just stands out.

The scene where margaret is giving her speech, and they cut to him joking, backslapping, i couldnt help but think of how much funnier/ironic/hurtful it would have been to see tony sitting there backslapping and joking around. buscemi just seems like hes acting.

maybe thats the point, that he's a fish out of water...but im not buying it just yet. he just seems miscast.

Why bother comparing this show to the Sopranos? Yes they are both about organized crime but BWE is so much more than that. It's an exploration into the decade of the 1920s--the greed, the explosion of consumerism, Prohibition, and changing gender relations. The world is on the cusp of modernity and some may be left behind. I wish reviewers could just leave the Sopranos behind and view the show as its own entity. This isn't the only review that cited the Sopranos.

a major factor on peoples criticism, and why the comparisons arent fair, is that the sopranos was a relatively modern era setting, while boardwalk empire is clearly not. its a different era/period, and its done amazingly well. Still being a new show, people don't connect with the characters as fast, due to them not being as "cartoonish" and easy to read, as they were in the sopranos.

Boardwalk Empire: HBO Series
Robenalt, James David, The Harding Affair, Love and Espionage During The Great War (Palgrave/Macmillan, 2009).
Cleveland, Ohio. While skillfully written and engaging, the new HBO series Boardwalk Empire creates a highly flawed view of our 29th President, Warren G. Harding, and his alleged relationship with Nan Britton. The caricature of Harding continues a long-series of smears that date back to the 1920s.
Harding's relationship with Nan Britton is questionable. His relationship with a woman named Carrie Phillips is not. My book, The Harding Affair, discloses Harding's complex relationship with Mrs. Phillips through the use of over 900 pages of letters Harding wrote to Phillips from 1910 though 1920, when he was elected President of the United States. Phillips and Harding were caught in an age when divorce was unthinkable and there were multifaceted reasons for their long-term (15 year) affair. The affair was much too complicated to caulk it up sheer womanizing.
The Britton allegations are subject to real doubt, as I point out in my book. Ms. Britton lived directly behind Carrie Phillips's home in Marion, and there is good reason to believe her book, The President's Daughter, came from her familiarity with the Harding/Phillips correspondence and not because of any real relationship between then-Senator Harding and Ms. Britton.
The HBO series relies on biographies that falsely used the Phillips correspondence. Worse, letters Mr. Harding wrote to Mrs. Phillips are used to manufacture dialogue for Ms. Britton's character.
But sadly for history, these smears of President Harding distort what he did as President and as a U. S. Senator. Harding was no "imbecile," as Nucky Thompson, the main character in the HBO series, calls him. As a Senator, Harding courageously stood against Woodrow Wilson's call for America to go to war to "make the world safe for democracy," though he did vote for war. In a lesson America never learned, Harding warned that it is not the business of the United States to engage in regime change through the violence of war.
During his presidency, Harding pardoned Socialist Eugene Debs, who was rotting in an Atlanta prison, sent there by the Wilson Administration for violating the Espionage and Sedition Act.
Debs' crime? He spoke out against the war—that is, he exercised his right of free speech. Wilson denied a pardon even after the war ended. Harding granted it.
Who is the "imbecile"?
Entertainment is entertainment. But playing fast and loose with serious historical figures only diminishes our true understanding of history's lessons.
For a more, see http://thehardingaffair.com.
Jim Robenalt
Thanksgiving, November 25, 2010

Comparing Boardwalk to Sopranos is a boondoggle other than the gangster/New Hersey coincidence. Boardwalk to me feels often times like Goodfellas... Or even Miller's Crossing

Unlike a lot of the comments here, I have never seen Boardwalk Empire but have watched The Sopranos - The Sopranos Review. Intrigued by the thought of Boardwalk Empire being potentially as good. I'll have a look at IMDB now - thanks for the advice!


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