HBO had a slogan that it used extensively to promote how transcendently good their programming was: “It’s not TV, it’s HBO.” Audiences responded with “Yeah?” Nonetheless, HBO has a reputation for awesome television. From The Sopranos to Game Of Thrones, they’ve always tended to put out quality work. One of those more recent quality works has been Boardwalk Empire. However, Boardwalk tends to get lost in discussions about modern television.
It’s an awesome period piece with a good cast and direction. The sets are top notch and the writing always leans toward better-than-average. However, it hasn’t achieved the greatest amount of popularity.
First of all, any dramatic show airing during what I like to call “The Breaking Bad Era” is going to have to either have an amazing hook or be spectacular in order to be recognized. There are shows that tend to be mediocre, with flashes of greatness, like The Walking Dead, which hooks viewers in because it’s the only show of its kind right now, (at least until The CW premieres Under Dead* in Fall 2013). And there are shows like the aforementioned Breaking Bad, which are astoundingly good, hitting all the right notes and becoming lightning in a bottle.
Boardwalk Empire has the hook of being a period piece. However, that period is so closely related to the themes and concepts presented in an earlier HBO show, The Sopranos, that many dismiss Boardwalk as a rip-off that was just set eighty years prior. Plus, a few of the people involved with The Sopranos, like Terence Winter, who was a writer and producer on Sopranos, are heavily involved in the creation of Boardwalk. If you view Boardwalk with short-sightedness, only looking at it for signs of suits and guns, you could see it as a lot like Sopranos.
Another thing that Boardwalk has going against it is the plotting and characters. One of the reasons Breaking Bad is so popular is that it’s simple. Sure, the characters’ motivations are deep and often in grey areas, but Breaking Bad never forces you to feel as if you have to devote more time to keep up with it than the running time of an episode. As great as Breaking Bad is, you can watch it with a kind of comfortable laziness.
Boardwalk, like other HBO shows such as Deadwood and The Wire, required heavy attention in order to understand what was going on. This isn’t saying that the plotting and characterization of Boardwalk is hurt because it takes a few more twists and turns, but it makes it a less desirable show, especially if you’re just starting it or haven’t really been exposed to shows of its type.
Game Of Thrones is similarly complicated, but Game Of Thrones has the fantasy hook and a large, built-in audience carrying over from another medium that Boardwalk doesn’t have. The fantasy hook draws in more general curiosity than Boardwalk. There are more people clamoring for something they can call a “weekly Lord of the Rings” than another show about crime on a channel that you have to buy specially.
Also, Boardwalk suffers from poor word-of-mouth. It’s hard to describe it to people in a way that doesn’t seem too general. You could say that it’s about politician Nucky Thompson’s attempts to balance his criminal life with his career and personal business, but that doesn’t do the plot of the show justice. Also, it’s a boring description. Nothing jumps out at you from it.
On the other hand, a show like Breaking Bad can be described as a cancer patient starts to make meth on order to pay for his treatment, which sounds absolutely ridiculous, but is enticing in its simplicity. Sure, there is more to it than that, but describing it simply doesn’t hurt Breaking Bad’s appeal. On the other hand, it does detract from Boardwalk’s.
I’m not saying that audiences have poor attention spans and that’s the reason that Boardwalk isn’t as talked about or “noticed” by the general public. Less people have HBO than they do AMC and that’s a major reason for its relative lack of appeal. I am saying though, that without the shock and awe premise that describes the show so shortly and adequately, it’s always going to be hard to attract new fans.
Steve Buscemi, who plays the primary protagonist (if you can even call him that) on the show, is a star, but not a celebrity presence. There is no stunt-casting or name-casting involved on Boardwalk, so there’s no surprise associated with his or any other player’s involvement. He fits in the show, and while it doesn’t hurt the general popularity of Boardwalk, it doesn’t strengthen it either. The other actors involved are in a similar state of being very talented, but not being huge draws.
In conclusion, Boardwalk Empire is a successful show, but not quite popular enough to enter the stratosphere of popularity, filled with the likes of Breaking Bad, Walking Dead or that show about Cee Lo Green’s outfits. However, when The CW premieres Prohibited*, then we’ll know for certain that Boardwalk Empire has truly made it.
*Not real shows, but they totally could be.