Is Boardwalk Empire destined to be great?

My friend Steven Rubio offered an interesting couple of blog posts on the premiere of HBO’s Boardwalk Empire. You can read his first review of Sunday’s episode here, and his addendum to that post here.

What interests me most about what he wrote (so much so that I’m writing this post instead of a wordy comment on his own blog) is contained in the intro to his addendum:

There is no denying the impressive potential of Boardwalk Empire, but the way it is being trumpeted as the bellwether of HBO’s return to greatness has a tinge of sexism to it. The idea is that since the end of The Sopranos, HBO hasn’t been the same, but that Empire is just the thing to take the network back to the top.

He elaborates briefly (if you need it) by explaining the undertone of this hype is that the post-Sopranos offerings from HBO weren’t manly enough to rival the earlier phenomenon. I don’t disagree with hi analysis, but I was thinking about it differently.

I will admit, I’m in the “hype camp.” While I’m not saying Boardwalk Empire *is* the greatest show on TV after one episode, it remains in the running. More than anything else, that fact alone, placed within the larger context surrounding the hype, means it is competing in a contest where it is the sole contender.

Let me explain.

I think The Sopranos was, for HBO, the first time it seemed “pertinent” at all levels of popular culture. The Sopranos was simultaneously loved by mainstream critics and awards shows, the watercooler public, and the elite cultural analysts. It’s rare thing, historically speaking, to be widely considered the “best” show on TV as well as be the cultural phenom everyone is talking about. Right now, that post is vacant. However critically well-received shows like Mad Men are, they don’t rise to the phenomenal level of The Sopranos. Heck, more people are certainly watching and talking about Glee and a short list of other bubble-gum-for-the-brain shows ahead of Mad Men and Breaking Bad combined.

Some of the hype surrounding Boardwalk was unavoidable when you consider the last time a show held the position I describe above was probably The Sopranos. The void of a reigning champ and the recent history of HBO as the title’s home further fan the flames. Now add to that the similarity to Sopranos and the talent behind Boardwalk Empire and you get a better picture of why so much attention is being paid to it.

In many ways, at this, the first evaluative stage, the contender status is Boardwalk Empire’s to lose. Once it showed it can compete–and I think yesterday’s premiere established that–it has a much harder road of having to prove itself on its own merits. But that road is also made easier with the kind of hype the show carries.

Steven and Robert Lloyd (of the LA Times) have a lot of similar things to say about the show, with Lloyd having the advantage over us in that he has already seen six episodes. In his review he wrote:

It’s not the greatest thing since sliced bread but rather a well-made sort of sliced bread, a thing you have had before but prepared with quality ingredients by bakers who know their business. If it doesn’t seem as fresh or new or gripping as the Scorsese-Winter brand might suggest, it’s in part because it’s rooted not only in the conventions and obsessions of the director’s own canon but in a decade’s worth of “Sopranos”-influenced cable television as well.

I think this familiarity and skill is going to give Boardwalk Empire an easier time of reaching the crown than other shows. We want a show to talk about like the days of The Sopranos. We want to watch a show that we all think is the best and have little to make us think otherwise. And we want a common cultural experience, events that are so much rarer in a world of 200 channels.

Boardwalk Empire fits our assumptions about what makes a good show and then sprinkles on that names like Buscemi and Scorsese, conforming to our assumptions about what makes something great. Even the hesitation coming from the real critics (most of whom seem to be calling it really good but not great) helps set the stage for the popular opinion push we so love because it makes us think that this is a show of the people.

Again, I’m not disagreeing with Steven, or even Lloyd. I guess I am saying that I liked the show and I think it has about as right a combination of timing and ingredients to establish itself as a huge hit. Like the rest, however, I am still waiting for that to happen.

2 thoughts on “Is Boardwalk Empire destined to be great?

  1. Excellent comments! I can’t really argue with your description of The Sopranos as the show that was the best AND the most talked about. Many would agree. I think it was only the best until The Wire came along, but The Wire was only water-cooler worthy amongst a cult few. Oz came before Sopranos, and is usually forgotten when folks talk about the rise of HBO, but it was never super popular. Six Feet Under was assumed to be classy, although the erratic nature of the show kept it from the pantheon (kinda like Big Love, I guess). Deadwood, which is perhaps the real father of Boardwalk Empire, was, like The Wire, more loved by critics than by the public at large.

    Still, True Blood’s audience has grown, and in terms of audience size, it is the “next Sopranos.” I don’t think it’s as good as Sopranos, but it rivals Sopranos for water-cooler status, and is the show that has really brought HBO “back” (as if a network that gave us The Wire and Deadwood and Rome and Treme was ever gone in the first place).

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