Commenting on the Critics with Simon Columb….
With the return of Boardwalk Empire in the last fortnight, it is worth reminding ourselves that it was ultimately cancelled. Ryan Leas writes for The Concourse:
“It’s something of an inglorious exit—a truncated eight-episode run, a rushed time jump from 1924 to 1931 … Boardwalk Empire’s extravagant sets and period details made it expensive to maintain, and there’s no way to argue that HBO was getting the best possible return on that investment … Boardwalk’s de facto cancellation inspired little grief, and little surprise.”
Read the full article here.
Losing The Sopranos in 2007 was graceful and poetic. The final minute alone has been the subject of intense debate regarding the consequence of Tony’s actions. But from The Sopranos spawned two top-notch television series: Boardwalk Empire and Mad Men. The former led by Sopranos-producer Terence Winter and the latter by writer Matthew Weiner. While Mad Men is enjoying a two-part final series with Weiner sewing up all the loose ends of Don Draper’s story, Boardwalk Empire has had to shut-up-shop earlier than expected. As noted, a time-jump has skipped out years of possible plot, including the moment A.R. Rothstein (Michael Stuhlbarg) is assassinated (it is possible theat A.R.’s death could be shown in flashback…). Instead, in one season, we now build towards a series finale whereby prohibition ends.
Of course, the Martin Scorsese pilot episode portrayed the beginning of prohibition. Anyone with a passing interest of the criminal underworld in 1920’s America appreciated what Boardwalk Empire intended to do. The interlocking and fascinating figures of the era were ripe for a re-enactment. By throwing in fictional characters, such as Jimmy Darmody (Michael Pitt), Chalky White (Michael Kenneth Williams) and Van Alden (Michael Shannon), stories could weave between social issues including post-traumatic stress (owing to World War I), race-relations and conservative Christianity. When Al Capone (Stephen Graham), Lucky Luciano (Vincent Piazza) and Meyer Lansky (Anatol Yusef) turned up, you knew stories had a connection to truth. However exaggerated, the plots were informed by historical nuance.
The shame laid in the decisions between series three and four that didn’t honour the time period. Rather than concentrate on the historically pertinent moments, plots were bogged down in soapy dramas. Fascinating characters, such as half-masked Richard Harrow (Jack Huston) and the towering detective Van Alden, were reduced to emotionally-stunted individuals. While Harrow was an expert marksman, we were rarely shown his skill as he was pining after a ‘normal’ life following his scarring in World War I. Van Alden, a Christian extremist who is dangerous in his crusade, mopes around in the same manner. He tries to live a ‘normal’ life, as he is reluctantly pulled into a life of crime. The tired tropes of unexpected pregnancies and illicit affairs dominate the narrative of female characters while the Fredo-brother-double-cross story was used at the end of both season 2 and season 4. Surely a different thread could utilise the dynamic between Nucky (Steve Buscemi) and Eli (Shea Whigham)?
Boardwalk Empire is back, and it is great to see the characters return. The clipped ending it will receive with season 5 is down to a lack of foresight on the writer’s part. The minor flaws within the first two seasons could’ve been glossed over if they developed characters thoughtfully in the later episodes. Instead, they opted for one-season arcs – Gyp Rosetti (Bobby Cannavale) in season 3, Dr. Narcisse (Jeffrey Wright) in season 4 – and repeated narratives. An unnecessary stretching-of-time to draw out events longer was noticed by the audience who, simply put, got bored. Clearly the executives at HBO realised this too, and what better way to gain pace, then by wrapping up a potential four seasons within eight episodes. A depressing end to a visual feast of a series, but the makers of Boardwalk Empire can only blame themselves.