5 Reasons Why ‘Boardwalk Empire’ Might (Not) Be Bigger Than ‘The Sopranos’

Published 3 years ago by , Updated March 3rd, 2014 at 6:44 am,

Boardwalk Empire The Sopranos 5 Reasons Why Boardwalk Empire Might (Not) Be Bigger Than The Sopranos

Without a doubt, my most anticipated new show of the fall 2010 TV season is Boardwalk Empire, HBO’s semi-fictionalized series about crime and corruption in Atlantic City during the Prohibition Era.

Boardwalk Empire has everything: great actors, an interesting premise, and, most important of all, an outstanding creative team. (Not only is Martin Scorsese an executive producer, he also directed the pilot episode – it doesn’t get much better than that.) Of course, the thing that intrigues me the most about Boardwalk Empire isn’t Martin Scorsese, it’s the show’s creator, Terence Winter.

Winter is best known as one of the lead writers of HBO’s most famous hit show, The Sopranos. Winter wrote 25 episodes of The Sopranos, second only to Sopranos creator David Chase, and was responsible for some of the show’s most compelling episodes, including a personal favorite: “Pine Barrens” which he co-wrote with Tim Van Patten.

Given Winter’s involvement with both shows, many TV analysts have been wondering whether Boardwalk Empire could become an even bigger hit than The Sopranos. Today at Screen Rant, we’re going to do our scientific best to answer that question from both the “yes” and “no”  perspectives. Read on to see our five reasons why Boardwalk Empire might (or might not) be bigger than The Sopranos.

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1) It’s Fiction (But is it the Right Kind of Fiction?)

Boardwalk Empire 3 5 Reasons Why Boardwalk Empire Might (Not) Be Bigger Than The Sopranos

Unlike The Sopranos, Boardwalk Empire is based, at least partially, on real-life events. For instance, the lead character in the show, “Nucky” Thompson (played by Steve Buscemi) is based on an actual Atlantic City politician, “Nucky” Johnson. Similarly, the basis of the show’s plot is rooted in historical events, namely the passing of prohibition and the rise of organized crime in the United States.

While Winter has said that Boardwalk Empire will fictionalize aspects of Johnson’s life, as well as other characters and events, the fact that it takes place in a very specific period in American history could either help or hinder the show.

YES: HBO has already shown that it knows how to do historical fiction well with its critically-acclaimed western series Deadwood. Plus, it doesn’t hurt that Boardwalk Empire is set during Prohibition, a time period with which most audiences are at least partially familiar. Add in the lavish costumes and sets typical of a period drama, and you’ve got the makings of a guaranteed hit.

NO: Even if the events and personalities in Boardwalk Empire are fictionalized, the historical setting still somewhat limits the show’s writers. David Chase created The Sopranos from scratch. This liberated him to take his characters in any direction he wanted and provided an organic flow to the show’s plot. The Sopranos has gone down in history as one of the greatest shows of all time because of its superb writing and direction. If the show were limited to a particular time and particular place, would it have found as much success?

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2) It’s Gotten Lots of Hype (But Will it Live Up to it?)

Boardwalk Empire 2 5 Reasons Why Boardwalk Empire Might (Not) Be Bigger Than The Sopranos

As I said at the top of the article, Boardwalk Empire is my most anticipated new show of the year, and I know I am not the only one looking forward to it. Given the high-profile talent attached to the project, expectations for the show are at an almost unreasonably high level. Along with this hype comes a built-in audience, but also a lot of potential for disappointment.

YES: Boardwalk Empire isn’t being built up without good reason – there are dozens of reasons to be excited for the show (Do I need to mention Scorsese again?) and HBO’s long track record of success with original programming is also worth noting. The media attention and fan expectations surrounding Boardwalk Empire could propel the show to high initial ratings, meaning bigger audiences and, more than likely, a commitment from HBO for more seasons.

NO: You may not remember, but when The Sopranos first came out, it didn’t do all that well in the ratings. Despite terrific reviews from critics, the show garnered an average Nielsen rating of only 3.46 percent in its first season. Eventually, this number climbed as more and more people were turned on to the show through DVD sales. The nice thing about The Sopranos flying under the radar in its first two seasons was the creative freedom it gave the show’s writers. David Chase took the show in the direction he wanted without having to worry about meeting anyone’s expectations. The Sopranos became a hit over time, a luxury that Boardwalk Empire‘s creative team will not enjoy.

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The final 3 reasons Boardwalk Empire might (not) be bigger than The Sopranos

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3) It’s a Crime Drama (But is it Also Something More?)

boardwalk Empire criminals 5 Reasons Why Boardwalk Empire Might (Not) Be Bigger Than The Sopranos

TV viewers like watching crime dramas. If that weren’t true, there wouldn’t be 9,000 variations of Law and Order and CSI on network TV. I don’t know if people get a vicarious thrill from watching criminals in action, or if they’re simply interested in how things work on the other side of the law, but centering a show around criminal activity is a sure way to get noticed.

YES: Because it deals with bootlegging and corruption during the Prohibition Era, Boardwalk Empire will focus a lot of attention on the beginnings of organized crime in the United States. This will undoubtedly appeal to HBO’s many subscribers who are tired of vampires (sorry True Blood) and want to get back to dirty deals, murder, and extortion. HBO knows what its viewers want, which is why they have been featuring Martin Scorsese’s name so prominently in advertisements.

NO: The Sopranos attracted mass viewership because of the show’s deft understanding of the mafia lifestyle and the inner workings of a criminal organization. Where the show won its critical acclaim and long-lasting success, however, was in its introspective insights into philosophy, psychology, family, and other larger subjects. I’m not saying that Boardwalk Empire won’t have deeper themes too, but so far all of the promotional materials for the series focus on the slam-bang criminal aspects of the show. That may get viewers, but without something more, it will not elevate the show to the level of The Sopranos.

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4) It Has a Great Cast (But Does it have Memorable Characters?)

boardwalk empire 5 5 Reasons Why Boardwalk Empire Might (Not) Be Bigger Than The Sopranos

There are some truly terrific actors in Boardwalk Empire: Steve Buscemi, Michael Pitt (Funny Games), Stephen Graham (Public Enemies), Michael Shannon (Bug), Michael K. Williams (The Wire), but actors are only as good as the characters they portray. Will Boardwalk Empire‘s characters leave a mark on television history?

YES: With time, Buscemi’s “Nucky” Thompson character could become as significant in popular culture as Tony Soprano. For one thing, he’s based on a real guy who actually ran Atlantic City during the 1920s. Tony Soprano may have run North Jersey, but “Nucky” Thompson was responsible for making sure an entire major American city had access to booze, prostitution, gambling, and anything else they wanted. The actual man behind Buscemi’s character, “Nucky” Johnson, is said to have earned $500,000 a year just from his criminal activities. In 2010 dollars, that’s over $5 million a year. Something tells me TV viewers can get behind a character like that. The fact that you have guys like Stephen Graham and Vincent Piazza playing real-life gangsters in their formative years – Al Capone and Lucky Luciano, respectively – is also going to lure viewers in.

NO: From his violent temper to his endearing love of animals to his deep emotional baggage from his twisted relationship with his mother, Tony Soprano is the most complex and engaging character ever to appear on television. Over the show’s six seasons, James Gandolfini turned in a simply incredible performance that would be hard for anyone to match. When you factor in all of the secondary characters, including Tony’s family, his therapist, and his crew, and it goes from hard to impossible to imagine a show with as many memorable characters. (In my opinion, the only show with better characters than The Sopranos is The Wire, which I think is the best show in TV history.)

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5) It’s a Big Show (But is it Too Big?)

Boardwalk Empire period drama 5 Reasons Why Boardwalk Empire Might (Not) Be Bigger Than The Sopranos

As I mentioned before, Boardwalk Empire essentially chronicles the birth of organized crime in America. It does so through the lens of one city, but it’s still a BIG topic. The ramifications of the Prohibition movement are still being felt in our social policies today. Can Boardwalk Empire handle the scope of its subject matter?

YES: The last five years of TV have been focused on big shows and big events. Heck, they even have a show coming out called The Event. TV viewers want to be pulled into a sprawling epic and HBO has given Terence Winter the resources to make that happen. Just consider the fact that the show has its own special set in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. It costs a lot of money to bring a 90-year-old version of Atlantic City back to life, but Boardwalk Empire has done it. I think that viewers will get sucked into the show for its history and, assuming the writing is as good as everyone says, will be able to relate the show’s subject matter to modern society.

NO: More than any other show in TV history, The Sopranos lived on the small moments. Tony feeding ducks in his swimming pool. Carmela cooking in the kitchen. The crew playing cards at the Bing. It was a show about organized crime, but it was decidedly disorganized when it came to over-arching narratives. Things happened, but they weren’t necessarily big things. The Sopranos was all about that existential threat – at any time, Tony or any of his friends and family could go to jail or get killed. That tension, coupled with strong philosophical underpinnings, is a big reason why the show became as successful as it did. Sometimes bigger is better, but not always. The Sopranos proved that to be true.

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The Verdict

Because of the show’s subject matter, actors, and creative team (plus the fact that it’s on HBO) Boardwalk Empire will undoubtedly be a hit with critics and viewers alike. Whether or not the show reaches Sopranos levels of success won’t be known for years to come. It has a lot of things working in its favor, but its strengths could just as easily turn out to be its weaknesses.

If you want to see more for yourself, check out the trailer for Boardwalk Empire below:

Boardwalk Empire premieres this Sunday, September 19th. Check back on Screen Rant Monday morning for our review of the show, where we can begin the Sopranos comparisons in earnest.

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  1. I don’t think that Boardwalk Empire should be compared to the Sopranos. While they’re both about organized crime, the Sopranos were about the modern day mafia, which is substantially different from the formation of the mafia during Prohibition, something much more drastic and interesting because it was something that hadn’t been done before. Comparing the two just makes viewers expect the Sopranos, and when those expectations aren’t met, they leave the show.

  2. Soooooo negative Screen Rant!!! HBO very rarely has a miss. I don’t see this being a miss in any way. This show is already building up to more seasons by introducing Luciano and Capone. This won’t be like The Tudors (a historical show I absolutely loved), it won’t end with Steve Buscemi’s character. The acting and the story will be enough to bring people in. If people can flock to Showtime to watch a serial killer and actually come out LIKING him then I believe this show will do just fine. Again, very rarely does HBO completely miss. Occasionally their shows won’t be perfect but they never have just a BAD show. I’m gonna stay positive on this one until I see it.

    • Hey Jess, I wasn’t being negative. I think Boardwalk Empire is going to be awesome. Note my enthusiasm in the first paragraph: “Boardwalk Empire has everything: great actors, an interesting premise, and, most important of all, an outstanding creative team.”

      I was just wondering whether or not it could be bigger than The Sopranos. Since Terence Winter is so intimately involved with both shows, and they’re both on HBO, the comparison has been coming up a lot lately.

    • @ Jess

      Did you actually read the article? We look at both sides of this question – pretty fair and balanced way to do it, IMHO.

  3. This show sounds cool. It sounds like millers crossing in tv format, and that had bushemi too!

  4. As much as I’m looking forward to Boardwalk Empire (my most anticipated too, Rob F:), I don’t think it will reach the same level of success as The Sopranos. Even if that show wasn’t an immediate hit (which I didn’t know before BTW), it was the recognizable, familiar mob/gangster aspect from movies like Goodfellas and Mean Streets that “roped in” audiences (at least a huge portion) and then they saw how good it was.

    The crime portrayed in Boardwalk Empire is less recognizable to the average viewer and even if it’s as good as The Sopranos, I don’t think it will reach the same level in audience numbers specifically.

    As I said, absolutely can’t wait for the show but it being as big as The Sopranos? Nah.

    • You have heard that Boardwalk Empire pilot’s rating have not only surpassed the Sopranos’ but all HBO’s other series as well right?

  5. What else you gonna watch? Football?

  6. Just to be clear I certainly enjoyed the Sopranos, and it blew away any other non HBO series. Regardless as popular as it was it still didn’t come close to surpassing the quality of shows like Deadwood(I’m still rather pissed HBO lied about making two films to give the series its’ deserved closure), Carnivale, and Rome in my opinion. As for Boardwalk Empire after 3 episodes it is already poised to earn classic status. Even after taking into consideration that episode 2 was a bit slow in comparison to the pilot doesn’t change the show already being a grand slam for HBO.

  7. Boardwalk Empire so far (ep4) is very poor, dropping rating fast, Premiere with 5mil, ep 4 had 3.4mil.

    The show is too wooden, there is not much charisma, its actually a bit boring.

  8. Easily turned into the best show on tv along with SOA.
    Guess you were terribly wrong.
    Might have different rating but quality far surpasses The Sopranos.

  9. JUST BRING BACK THE SOPRANO’S FFS. ENOUGH OF THIS RUBBISH

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