Why Isn't 'Boardwalk Empire' Compelling Even When It's Really Good?

The Hollywood Reporter

One of the elements I’m most fascinated about while witnessing the explosion of quality television across the bandwidth, is this burden of luxury notion. Well, at least it’s a notion that I have and that’s what I’m calling it as it pertains to what I watch.

You may have noticed that there is now more great television available than most people can easily consume. Networks. Cable. There’s Netflix and Hulu and other online platforms (some of them offering foreign series that you’ve never seen which are also incredible).

Everybody got something pretty great to offer.

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And that’s not even factoring in the “good” stuff or even the kind of embarrassing but entertaining series that qualify as guilty pleasures that we all refuse to give up. It’s not even considering watching Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert on a nightly basis – and now Keith Olbermann, whose nightly sports talk show has become essential. It’s not considering news (if that’s your thing – I’ve long since given up). It’s not factoring in sports highlight shows, whether you watch the all-encompassing versions on ESPN or Fox Sports 1, or the sport-centric versions on the NFL or MLB channels, or the Tennis Channel, or auto racing or off-season NHL stuff, etc., etc., etc.

And obviously, for you, it’s not taking into account the new fall series that critics have been watching. But it sure does take into consideration all the returning series that you’ll stick with when they return.

This burden of luxury, this albatross of entertainment, is creating an enormous time problem. In short – we don’t have time for all the shows we want to consume.

And – no facetious intent here – this notion is not taking into account all the time you spend online or with actual people -- like your family – or reading books, for instance.

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What it is doing is forcing people – critics included – to make a lot of tough decisions about what to watch (and how to catch up on what we miss in real time, as series stack up and clog our DVRs). Hell, people have asked when The Power Rankings! will return. And my answer to that is, “Whenever I have the chance to catch up on losing 22 days in Los Angeles during the month of July.” It’s in times like these – trying to find focus on what’s essential as the avalanche comes down around you – where our truest feeling about series are revealed.

For example, no matter how busy, I would never miss watching Breaking Bad live. However, there’s a different example to study come Sunday. That’s when HBO will premiere the fourth season of Boardwalk Empire.

My feelings about Boardwalk Empire are complicated, but mostly positive. I think it’s an excellent series. It’s beautifully shot, superbly written and acted. It can be dense and difficult in its structure – but novelistic-like ambition is always applauded around here.

My biggest issue – and this is damning as we talk about time-constraints and decision-making – is that Boardwalk Empire just isn’t very compelling. A caveat to that: it’s not compelling for large chunks of each season, then ends up going off like a Roman Candle in the last few episodes.

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Part of what contributes to Boardwalk Empire not being compelling is that the plot tends to meander as it unfurls strands of the ever-expanding story. When those strands begin to coalesce – hours and episodes later – it serves as a reminder of what Boardwalk Empire can be at its best.

But now, with three seasons under its belt, I’m not sure there’s much more for Boardwalk Empire to reveal about itself. It’s a series that seems oddly populated. The characters that I most like – Richard Harrow (Jack Huston) and Chalky White (Kenneth Michael Williams) – have essentially been supporting players. Steve Buscemi does a superb job as Nucky Thompson, the main character in Boardwalk Empire, but he’s never been really likable. I adore Kelly Macdonald as an actress, but her character, Margaret, lost much of her intrigue (and likability) after the first season. I’ll watch Michael Shannon (who plays former agent Nelson Van Alden) in anything, but Van Alden as a character on the series is all over the map and a struggle to believe or appreciate.

Two of the Boardwalk Empire characters I’ve been most interested in – Jimmy Darmody (Michael Pitt) and Owen (Charlie Cox) are dead.

Because Boardwalk Empire is now so sprawling, it can bring in character actors (like Bobby Cannavale last season and Jeffrey Wright this season) and pump some vigor into the episodes, but often that’s at too great a cost for side players I already don’t see enough of, like Stephen Graham as Al Capone.

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I find all of that maddening about Boardwalk Empire, but there's little doubt I'll watch the entire season. At some point.

Every critic has shows like these that end up losing their sense of urgency while retaining a need (and a desire, let’s not lessen that aspect too much) to watch. This same thing happened to me with Treme. Hell, it’s happened with a lot of shows – even the ones that fall just under the top tier of television’s finest. Meaning, they may not be in the Top 5, but they’re damned close.

It happens. It just seems to be happening more frequently now. And one of the casualties is likely to be, for a lot of critics, a lessening of late-season reviews. By that I mean when a good show is entering its third, fourth or eighth season. Whereas certain top tier shows always got a review from me as their new seasons opened, I do that less frequently now because there’s on overwhelming abundance of new, quality programs that need that attention.

Which is why this isn’t really a review of the fourth season of Boardwalk Empire. I’ll watch it, but there’s no real rush. And maybe that comes back directly to the notion of it not being compelling. Because I’m definitely going to review the fourth season of The Walking Dead when it comes out in October. Does that make Boardwalk Empire qualitatively worse? I’m not sure I’d make that argument, no. I had no problem taking my time with Rectify, a series I really loved. But I couldn’t wait to watch the next episode of Broadchurch – often staying up deep into the night burning through the screeners.

I want to know what’s happening with Nucky on the boardwalk. No doubt about that. Just not this very minute.

Email: Tim.Goodman@THR.com
Twitter: @BastardMachine
  

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