“Boardwalk Empire” May Return HBO's Prestige

Nucky Thompson instead of Tony Soprano. Atlantic City during Prohibition rather than contemporary New Jersey’s northern suburbs. Irish stew in place of Italian pasta.

There are several other differences between “Boardwalk Empire” and “The Sopranos,” not the least of which is that the latter was a cultural phenomenon and television landmark, whereas the former has yet to air an episode, although that will happen the evening of Sept. 19.

But the common pinstriped thread between the two involves HBO and the gangster genre, which is enough to ratchet up anticipation for “Boardwalk Empire” and stir hopes that the new series will demand the kind of mandatory viewing its kneecap-smashing predecessor enjoyed.

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“Certainly, that’s the goal,” said Emmy-winner Terence Winter, creator and executive producer of “Boardwalk Empire,” who was also an executive producer on “The Sopranos.”

“Whether we achieve that remains to be seen,” he continued. “If I learned anything from (“The Sopranos” creator) David Chase, it’s to always be entertaining. We want to try to tell stories that are compelling and force people to watch. … I certainly think it’s the kind of show people will want to tune in to and feel like they have to see it.”

Top of the heap
With other cable networks claiming some of the prestige turf that HBO once owned, "Boardwalk Empire" may have just the mojo to return the network to the top of the programming heap. 

“HBO has certainly rebounded after its post-‘Sopranos’ rough patch,” said Maureen Ryan, who recently became television critic for AOL after serving in that position at the Chicago Tribune for the past six years.

“ ‘True Blood’ has been a massive hit for the network and has given HBO a lot of momentum,” Ryan said. “But shows like (AMC’s) ‘Mad Men’ and ‘Breaking Bad’ seem to be winning the prestige-drama sweepstakes of late, not just with awards-giving bodies, but with the culture at large.”

“ ‘True Blood’ has plenty of buzz but nobody would claim that it’s one of the most intellectually challenging shows on TV. ‘Boardwalk Empire’ gives HBO a real chance to take back the quality-TV crown from other networks and re-establish itself as the home of the very best one-hour dramas.”

The show, based on the nonfiction book “Boardwalk Empire: The Birth, High Times and Corruption of Atlantic City” by Nelson Johnson, revolves around one character, an Irishman named Nucky Thompson. Half local politician, half mobster, he does a continual jig between civic respectability and outright underhandedness.

The series is buttressed considerably by the presence of Martin Scorsese, who directed the pilot, serves as an executive producer and, said Winter, is further involved in reading scripts and watching cuts of each episode.

“For him, it bridges the gap between ‘Gangs of New York’ and ‘Goodfellas,’ which is a period he hadn’t been able to explore,” Winter explained. “Meeting Al Capone before he became powerful, it’s like watching gangster toddlers.”

A tougher sell?
But will it become must-see TV? The axiom “nobody knows anything” is probably more relevant in Hollywood than ever, yet some bets are safer than others.

In the case of “The Sopranos,” although Tony was played by a then-relatively unknown James Gandolfini, it was still a roll of loaded dice for HBO. It wasn’t difficult for fans to connect with the ordinary, everyday family issues of love and loyalty, yet live vicariously with each gruesome whack of an enemy gangster.

“Boardwalk Empire” has the prestige and the pedigree, but it might be a slightly tougher sell in some ways.

“Unlike ‘The Sopranos,’ while it has the theme of crime, it’s a period drama with a lot of costumes and elaborate sets,” noted Ken Tucker, television critic for Entertainment Weekly. “Usually, period dramas don’t do as well as contemporary stories.

“I think ‘The Sopranos’ benefited from being set in the present day. People identify quickly and immediately with those characters, as violent as they were. ‘Boardwalk Empire’ might have a tough time becoming appointment TV because it’s not as immediately arresting, and the characters are a bit more difficult to recognize as either heroes or anti-heroes. Nucky Thompson isn’t as immediately charming as Tony Soprano.”

But Tucker, who has seen early episodes of “Boardwalk Empire,” said the series benefits mightily from the presence of Steve Buscemi, who plays Nucky. “It’s very unusual for HBO to take a chance and put a character actor like Steve Buscemi in a lead role in a key Sunday night slot. That said, I think he does a really good job.

“Nucky as a character is a very complicated guy. He’s ruthless, but you don’t realize at first that he also has a sense of humor.”

'It looks wonderful'
Recognizable character actor aside, “('Boardwalk Empire') looks like a Martin Scorsese film,” Ryan said. “The pilot is about an hour and a half long, so it’s almost filmic length. It has the signature camera moves and signature setups that put me in mind of a Scorsese film. … It looks wonderful. I think he really brought attention to detail, and that makes it seem like a feature film.”

While “Boardwalk Empire” is a period drama, Ryan said in some ways that setting works to its favor. “It’s very much a panorama of America at that time,” she said. “‘The Sopranos’ was a commentary on America as well, but it was more about well-to-do people in the suburbs and the ennui of their lives. ‘Boardwalk Empire’ has more of an epic feel. It doesn’t cover every single segment of society, but there is an attempt to look at the criminal overlords, the politicians, the working people, the struggling immigrants.”

And although the 1920s might seem like ancient history to some, show creator Winter explained that viewers might detect a resemblance to today’s events.

“One of the things that struck me while doing research is the more things change, the more they stay the same,” he said. “There are amazing similarities. Even though it was almost a century ago, people had automobiles, they flew in planes, they went to the movies, they spoke on the telephone.

“Prohibition, too, overlaps perfectly to the drug business of today. Essentially, they were young drug dealers.”

“Boardwalk Empire” could end up feeling as if it had been gunned down by the expectations set by “The Sopranos.” Or it could ascend to the very top of HBO’s crime family.

“Remember, ‘The Sopranos’ caught fire in the public consciousness in seasons two and three,” Ryan pointed out. “That’s when it came into the forefront of popular culture. So I think we’ll have to wait and see. But all the pieces are in place. (‘Boardwalk Empire’) has the potential for sure.”

Michael Ventre is a frequent contributor to TODAYshow.com.

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