what i watched last week
tv grid, 1968

by request: boardwalk empire, series finale

Usually, “by request” means I’m going to write about a movie. But I’ve gotten behind on TV writing, and a friend who just caught up with the end of Boardwalk Empire asked that I say a few words. I could blame the absence of a finale post when it aired a few weeks ago on the fact that the Giants were winning Game Five of the World Series that same night. But the truth is, I’ve been sliding on writing about television for some time, and it’s not just because the Giants won the World Series.

Nor is the problem that TV has gotten worse. If anything, it’s better than ever. Everyone from the most esteemed critics to lowly bloggers like me have thrown our hands in the air in despair at the utter impossibility of keeping up with every good show. There are just too many of them. I also find myself questioning my older patterns of writing about season premieres and finales … at least in the immediate aftermath … because there is hardly anyone left who watches TV shows “live” during their initial airing. I don’t actually recall the date I watched the Boardwalk finale, but it was at least a day after it aired, maybe as much as four days. We might be catching up … on Monday night, we watched three Sunday shows.

What have I said about Boardwalk Empire in the past? I gave the series premiere an A-, writing that “Boardwalk Empire has promise. The premiere was very good, and if the series maintains this level, we will indeed be sticking around.” I gave the same A- grade to the first season overall, saying “the production values have a film-like feel (it’s easy to see why movie buffs who don’t normally watch television are drawn to the show), the characters have depth, the narrative thrust is gradual but insistent, and the acting is excellent.” I quoted Nucky, “We all have to decide for ourselves how much sin we can live with,” and argued that this was the theme of the show.

The Season Two premiere elicited yet another A- … I was still hesitant to put it in the top rank. The season as a whole got an A-, but I gave the finale an A. It was one of the best episodes in the series’ history, and a core character was killed off. I was aware of the problem this created … as others have noted, Nucky Thompson is not the most interesting character on the show, and when one of those more interesting characters was gone, putting even more emphasis on Nucky, that was going to be hard to address without lowering the show’s appeal.

And on and on I went. I gave the Season Three premiere an A-, stating for the umpteenth time both that I liked the show quite a bit and that something kept it from the pantheon, even if I couldn’t name that something. I gave the season as a whole an A-, but all I really obsessed about was why I didn’t think it was great.

I could keep going. Perhaps I came closest to figured out the problem when Season Four began:

Last week, Tim Goodman asked the question, “Why Isn’t ‘Boardwalk Empire’ Compelling Even When It’s Really Good?” It’s a question I’ve often asked myself. It’s not that the show gets no love … it has won a dozen Emmys and been nominated for many more. It ranks high on the Metacritic site, which collates critical opinion. There are big names attached to it, most notably Martin Scorsese. The large cast is both solid and varied, and the recreation of 1920s America is excellent. You might argue that it is a flawless show … there’s a flaw in the excess of riches category, since there are so many great characters and actors that not all of them get their due, but it’s hard to call something that positive a flaw. (My wife points out that with each season, fewer characters actually care about anything real outside of their gangland lives, and she’s right. Whether that is a flaw is another question.)

But compelling? For many people, it is. For me, its quality doesn’t necessarily translate into a compelling series. Interesting things happen, there are more actors I love than practically any other show, I’m always glad to watch it … yet it’s not always the first thing I watch when the DVR begins to back up, and sometimes that backup includes an episode of Boardwalk Empire that I haven’t gotten to yet.

I kept doling out A- grades, and how bad is it, really, when it consistently ranks among the best that TV has to offer. But I finally accepted that I had nothing left to say, that in fact I’d said my piece by the end of the second season, and so I didn’t even mention the beginning of the fifth and final season. And, as noted above, I never wrote about the finale, either.

What can I say, Season Five was as good as all the others. Having lost Michael Pitt and Jack Huston over the years (they played the two most fascinating characters on the series), there wasn’t much left to distract us from Nucky. The great Michael K. Williams was able to close out his Chalky White … of all the show’s great characters, he lasted the longest. But Season Five played as if Terence Winter had finally realized that the man at the center of his show wasn’t all that interesting. So he did what he could to correct that, giving us lots of flashbacks during the season of the young Nucky. (Everything on Boardwalk Empire was so clinically perfect that it came as no surprise that the actors chosen to play Nucky, the Commodore, and Gillian in the past were great matches, right down to their voices.) The idea clearly was to give us a better feel for what made Nucky into Nucky. And that was a good story, I’m glad they told it. I don’t know how interesting they made him … Patricia Arquette stole every scene she was in, there was Chalky, and Jeffrey Wright’s Narcisse, and even Joe Kennedy turned up. In the series finale, they wrapped everything up effectively … it all made sense, in that way where once you saw it, you couldn’t imagine a more appropriate conclusion.

Throughout the run of Boardwalk Empire, I would hear from people who liked it more than I did. The usual refrain was that my standards were too high, if Boardwalk Empire was only worth an A-. And since I spent five seasons without clearly identifying what made it less than great for me, my opinion was and is suspect. It’s certain not fair to belittle the show because it was practically perfect. But maybe I wanted a little messiness to go with that perfection. Battlestar Galactica, now that show was a mess. It’s ambitions were so great, it was bound to fall short on a regular basis, and Ron Moore seemed intent on including the kitchen sink alongside everything else. But BSG was a great series, and Boardwalk Empire was only a very good one. It needed an occasional episode that went off the rails, and that wasn’t going to happen, because Boardwalk Empire was not intended to be a mess. The period recreations were superb, the acting was exemplary, and the overall plot arc was finished off with a bow tied neatly around it at the end (no one argued about that ending, compared to what happened to The Sopranos and Battlestar). I admired Boardwalk Empire, but I was usually more eager to watch The Walking Dead, the epitome of messy TV.

Need I say it? Grade for series: A-.