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.
1) It’s Fiction (But is it the Right Kind of Fiction?)
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?
2) It’s Gotten Lots of Hype (But Will it Live Up to it?)
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.
3) It’s a Crime Drama (But is it Also Something More?)
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.
4) It Has a Great Cast (But Does it have Memorable Characters?)
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.)
5) It’s a Big Show (But is it Too Big?)
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.
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.