By Chantel Delulio
A few years back HBO gave a, “Thanks but no thanks,” to Matthew Weiner and a little show called Mad Men. The period drama about the men and women of the 1960s advertising world and their Scotch induced misadventures went on to be picked up by AMC, a network that was known more for its John Wayne marathons than for its original programming. The show garnered record ratings for AMC and showers of accolades from critics and fans alike.
And you know HBO has been kicking themselves ever since.
So when the premium network announced Boardwalk Empire people couldn’t help but think they were trying to fill the Mad Men void. And there are some (superficial) similarities. It’s a period piece with high production values and prides itself on its historical details. As for credentials it boasts Martin Scorcese as an executive producer and as the director of the show’s pilot. Not to mention an impressive cast fronted by Steve Buscemi.
But after just two episodes Boardwalk Empire has informed its audience what kind of show it is. And if this really was HBO’s attempt to create another Mad Men it’s not necessarily the type of show that it wants to be.
Perhaps the most distinctive thing about Mad Men is how it depicts the reality of life. This has nothing to do with how accurately they depict the time period (although that is an exceptional aspect of the show) but how its storytelling reflects how, in real life, nothing is in black and white. It’s a rare thing to see on TV and it’s even rarer to see it on a show that has survived this long.
On Mad Men the “good guys” can’t really be called good. They’re complex. And not in the cheap Daddy-issues-for-everyone! approach shows like Lost have taken. Don Draper (Jon Hamm), the show’s main character, is not a good guy. He’s a deserter, the worst kind of cad and he’s not exactly winning any Father of the Year awards. But he has his moments where he’s not a total bastard and it becomes hard to hate him. (Someone who takes their daughter to see The Beatles in concert simply can’t be all bad.)
On Boardwalk Empire, however, the good guys wear the proverbial white hats just as the hats of the bad guys maintain a stately shade of black. Enoch “Nucky” Thompson (Steve Buscemi) may be a brutal gangster and an anti-hero but we know that he’s got a heart of gold.
At the end of the pilot episode Nucky hears that a young Irish woman (Kelly Macdonald) who he earlier loaned money too was beaten by her husband who then went on to gamble said money away. So not only does Nucky bring her flowers and visit her in the hospital he has her husband murdered.
What a teddy bear.
The approach on Boardwalk Empire is more, well, Hollywood. For all its grit and its Scorcese-brand ruthlessness we still know what to expect of it because it fits in neatly with tried and true tropes of contemporary storytelling. There’s nothing wrong with this approach and it does not make Empire a bad show, not by a long shot.
But it’s not Mad Men. Not that it has to or should be. But if this really was HBO’s attempt to make up for passing on the gang over at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce it’s missing that key element.