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

November 21, 2010 | 10:00 pm

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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