From the beginning, I had my doubts about HBO’s Boardwalk Empire. Still, the show had an undeniable curb appeal: The premiere was directed by Martin Scorsese (who won an Emmy for it last week) and written by people I admired, including Terence Winter from The Sopranos. It had those pretty credits with the bootleg bottles rolling in from the surf, that Ragtime-ish air of intellectual credibility, and a cast that was uniformly excellent, especially Michael Stuhlbarg as the icy real-life gangster Arnold Rothstein and Kelly Macdonald, who brought surprising layers to the savvy-saintly Margaret Schroeder. And so what if every episode was lined with retro boobs, like some Entourage spinoff sponsored by Agent Provocateur? Those giggling hussies were probably there for a reason—you know, to demonstrate the misogyny of the period.
So I tried to bury my misgivings. Television right now is not exactly stocked with great dramas, with very few exceptions (Breaking Bad on cable, The Good Wife on network). Colleagues of mine were enthusiastic about the series. And yet my doubts kept pace with my pleasure, most of them centered on the major players, so beautifully portrayed and yet so mysteriously grating. Instead of deepening, the characters had begun to seem suspiciously contrived, a violent twist on what Internet discussion groups call a “Mary Sue”: the character who is better than everyone else—more sensitive, more traumatized, more brilliant. There was canny political operator Nucky Thompson (Steve Buscemi), with his abusive childhood and wife who died in childbirth, his tenderness for women in peril; and his protégé Jimmy (Michael Pitt), a Princeton student turned war hero turned mob prodigy, capable of both ultraviolence and nursing scarred prostitutes with laudanum. There was Chalky White (Michael Kenneth Williams), the righteous black bootlegger, pursued by the Klan; and Richard Harrow (Jack Huston), the mutilated sharpshooter, so sweet with women and understandably concerned about his tendency to scare little children. There was Margaret (Macdonald), Nucky’s motherly mistress, who was made of finer stuff than the whores, gold diggers, and prigs around her, and who attracted the adoration of both Nucky and his nemesis. And on the flip side, there was that nemesis, G-man Nelson Van Alden, whose desire to blot out sin reflected his own monstrous appetites (between tense meals with his pious wife, Nelson indulged in liquor, self-flagellation, and, in a twist at the end of last season, murder-by-baptism). Only Michael Shannon’s grim intensity made this character anything less than a cartoon of hypocrisy, the priggish mirror to all those bad-boy Mary Sues.
Is it any wonder my secret favorite character was the shrieking charisma monster played by Paz de la Huerta? She alone is not brilliant at anything, just pure comic id, with her slit red eyes and baby talk and generously displayed pudenda. (This season, she’s also got a secret, one anyone could’ve guessed from the events of last year’s finale—and by the third episode, she’s back to stealing scenes with sheer slack-jawed perversity.)
Boardwalk Empire seems like it ought to be a peer to The Sopranos and Breaking Bad, inspiring its own set of deep-dish thoughts on morality. And yet here I am, rolling my eyes again, watching this season’s first few episodes: Nucky refuses to spank Margaret’s son; Chalky reads Dickens in jail; and there’s a gentle sequence in which the half-faced assassin cuts out magazine photos to create a collage of sweet domestic images, of mothers serving breakfast to their adorable children. So much sensitivity! So many sad-eyed killers trapped in their lies, longing for the Angel in the House. Dr. Melfi (at least her earliest iteration, before she’d read the definition of a sociopath) could make a killing in Atlantic City. There’s a limit to how many old-timey songs can be used for ironic purposes, as piquant scoring for a bloodbath or an orgy. And the historical reveals (a few episodes in, someone says, “This is Eddie, Eddie Cantor!”) have begun to feel like highbrow pop-up video.
Some television shows are empty because they are built that way, like the easy-bake procedurals and gimcrack sitcoms on network television. The fact that they’re repetitive isn’t a criticism; it’s half their appeal. Boardwalk Empire’s emptiness is something else, the crest of a troubling trend of shows throughout cable television, seemingly ambitious series whose lacquered looks crack apart when you apply the slightest pressure. These are shows that are designed to take advantage of a modern audience that knows TV transcendence is possible, an audience primed to give a well-made series like this one the benefit of the doubt, to trust that some shows just take patience, and that after hours of devotion, the narrative might truly kick in. But if there are rare moments in Boardwalk Empire that do pay off (the story of Jimmy’s mother has some sick kick this season), it’s hard to feel the stakes, beyond the catharsis of the show’s bi-weekly throat slashings. A high thread count might feel good, but it’s not enough if the bed is broken.