100 Pilots in 100 Days: Boardwalk Empire

When it was originally on: 2010-2014

Original network: HBO

Where you can stream it now: HBO or Amazon Prime (no HBO extension required)

Had I seen it before: No.

What IMDb says: An Atlantic City politician plays both sides of the law by conspiring with gangsters during the Prohibition era.

Why I picked it: Boardwalk Empire has an intriguing premise, and it’s also had an interesting level of success by HBO standards. It was never the cultural phenomenon of The Sopranos or Game of Thrones but with five seasons, it’s not exactly a flop either. Is Boardwalk Empire on the same level as HBO’s more successful programs and simply never got the credit it deserves? Or does it actually fall short of its HBO peers?

What I liked: I think prohibition is a fascinating era of American history and so I’m excited to see a tv show set in this period. The show also does a great job of making the time period come alive. But unlike other media that just focuses on people getting wasted in speak easys, Boardwalk Empire gives us a great idea of what it takes to be on the supply-side of alcohol during prohibition. Nucky is schmoozing temperance activists, mentoring younger gangsters, and wining and dining potential buyers. Despite the fact that prohibition only just went into effect, everything has a very business-as-usual feel to it. I also love how the show points out that prohibition is beneficial to gangsters.

What I didn’t like: This pilot is an interesting case study in the pros and cons of letting movie people direct television. The pilot is directed by Martin Scorsese. And in a lot of ways it feels more like Act 1 of a Martin Scorsese movie than it does a television episode. Despite being one of the longer pilots on The List (1 hour and 12 minutes long), it feels like there is surprisingly little story happening. While the show does a great job of bringing me into its world, I spent a fair amount of time asking “okay, but where are we going with all of this?”

The best pilots do a great job of telling stories while setting up other stories. It’s a delicate balance and I’m not saying that achieving that balance is easy, but The Boardwalk Empire pilot misses the mark for me. It feels like it’s setting up a lot of pins and knocking barely any of them down. And it’s also not specific enough for me to have clear visions of what those knocked-down pins will look like later. I don’t have that feeling of “oh, I can’t wait until ________ happens” or “I wonder if __________ is going to happen.” Instead it just feels like it takes over an hour to say “and this is what running liquor is like in 1920.”

That’s not to say NOTHING happens, the pilot does indeed try to build up to a proper climax. But the climax falls flat for me. Maybe it’s because I’m impatient and it feels like too little too late. Maybe it’s because I was not particularly invested in the fates of any of the people who die in this climax. But either way, when I look back on this one, I just kinda of think “wow, great world creation…. and not much else.”

Do I want to watch Ep. 2: Not really. I can see how this would potentially get really good after a few more episodes but the current pace isn’t working for me.

2 thoughts on “100 Pilots in 100 Days: Boardwalk Empire

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