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Boardwalk Empire Finale Appreciation

Abbot Genser/HBOBoardwalk Empire, you confounding little gem. Even as you end, you're not making it easy to send you off. Through its five season run - this current and final season had a truncated eight episodes, the last of which airs tonight - I've thought a lot about and written a little about the issues I've always struggled with when it comes to Terence Winter's prohibition/power/mobster epic set in Atlantic City and starring Steve Buscemi. I think the crux of the issue is that Boardwalk Empire had everything it took to be great, but often suffered under the weight of that potential. It reached greatness numerous times; sustaining it was always the problem. Read more 'Boardwalk Empire': Steve Buscemi, Terence Winter Share How They Ended the Final SeasonIt would be easy to just say, sure, Boardwalk Empire was often more brilliant than anything else on TV, even though it didn't capture the country like, say, Mad Men or Breaking Bad did. Or, for that matter, The Sopranos, which was the show where Winters made his reputation. It's easy to get nostalgic or softly appreciative of really strong series when they bow out, and it might be seen as pointless nitpicking to express frustration at what wasn't achieved. Again, that goes back to expectations. And if it seems unfair to say that Boardwalk Empire could have or should have been better, it's only because it was held to the highest of standards with a real desire to have the series grab its place in the pantheon of excellent television. Few series get saddled with any expectations at all. They are not in the conversation about legacy. As Boardwalk Empire departs, with a season that has been a snapshot of previous creative hits and misses, I find myself wanting to amend my one long-held, fiercely defended position on it: that the show was not compelling. I still believe that's the greatest weakness of Boardwalk Empire. I would never miss a live episode of Breaking Bad or Mad Men or even The Walking Dead - they were (and in the latter case, are) shows that compelled you to watch the moment they aired. In contrast, I could let two or three episodes of Boardwalk Empire pile up on the DVR with little or no compulsion to find out what happened. The amendment I'd make is this - the show wasn't immediately compelling. Watching it in a Netflix-ish binge like I did much of this season, makes that clear. The storytelling and the characters and the dialogue have always been fantastic, but it's always a slow roll with this show. The series even managed, with only eight episodes this season, to keep up one of its most frustrating elements - structuring the season as a slow burn where it all blows up (entertainingly, sometimes majestically) in the last three or four episodes. That's a classic, old-school way to make television and could only be done on a premium channel like HBO where you pay for your own patience. Previous seasons were maddening (and yes, not compelling) in the early going, building as the episodes did to that last-four-episode fireworks display. By the third season, I was pretty much done with that tease. Only a creative return to form in season four kept me on the bandwagon, and that season was an exclamation point on one of the main problems with Boardwalk Empire:The supporting characters - or the short-lived ones that were either written into a season or elevated to major players - were all more interesting than Buscemi's Nucky Thompson. Read more Steve Buscemi Makes Documentary Debut with HBO Firefighter Film 'A Good Job'Note that I'm talking about the character, not the actor. While a lot of chatter through the years was made of whether Buscemi, who has a career full of memorable supporting characters in film and television, could pull off the lead role in a weekly series, his incredible acting made that a moot point almost instantly. But his character was, for the first few seasons, far less interesting than those around him. That's not Buscemi's fault at all. Winter and his writers weren't able to make Nucky a standout lead a la Tony Soprano, Walter White or Don Draper. Nucky Thompson seeking power was a lot less interesting than him gaining it, suffering from it and trying to hold onto it, as the last couple of seasons have focused on. That's another Boardwalk Empire slow build for you. Part of the problem in tabulating the whole of this series is that it shined brightest when its minor parts were on display. Jimmy Darmody (Michael Pitt), Arnold Rothstein (Michael Stuhlbarg), Chalky White (Michael Kenneth Williams), Agent Nelson Van Alden (Michael Shannon), Al Capone (Stephen Graham), Lucky Luciano (Vincent Piazza), Valentin Narcisse (Jeffrey Wright) and the brilliant Richard Harrow (Jack Huston) were all more interesting than Nucky. Hell, if you'd told this story from the perspective of Harrow or Chalky, things might be different. Then again, Nucky built the Boardwalk Empire, so there you have your show. See more 40 Years of HBOBut this nagging issue will, for me, always complicate my appreciation for the series. Hell, I love Kelly Macdonald as an actress but never felt much for her Margaret. Which means the entirety of the first couple of seasons was built around two of the least compelling characters, though both were played by magnificent actors. Gah!I'm not sure Boardwalk Empire could ever truly realize its potential because of that. And killing Jimmy Darmody was like an exclamation point on this issue. Where the series gets immense credit, clearly, is making the aforementioned supporting characters so memorable. Though I wasn't a fan of Gyp Rosetti (Bobby Cannavale) - who seemed so obviously created to supplant the weakness of the Nucky character, or Owen Sleater (Charlie Cox), who also seemed manufactured to give Margaret more depth - they certainly spiced up the episodes they were in. And if you go back and look at that list of amazing supporting characters, you'll also note a troubling truism - the writers couldn't create or sustain a great female character. Margaret was too meek (though, in typical Boardwalk Empire style, she slowly became something else); the mad lust of Lucy (Paz de la Huerta) was short-lived, as was the brooding interior world of Angela Darmody (Aleksa Palladino); ditto the entrepreneurial sass of Sally (Patricia Arquette). The closest the show got to something else entirely was Gillian Darmody (Gretchen Moll), and it was as if the creepiness there was derailed with Jimmy, and suddenly the character was adrift. Perhaps there are too many cracks in the monument to properly appreciate it, but there was also something else that can't be ignored (and is, all these seasons later, still difficult to define). And that is the fact that Boardwalk Empire, once you stopped wanting it to be better than it was, stopped wishing it to pick up the pace and become more compelling and thus necessary, was still satisfying as the seasons ended, like a book you struggle through and want to put down, then end up recommending. As tonight's finale approaches, that's where I find myself as a critic and a fan (though I wouldn't say a fanatic one) - wondering about what was and what might have been, while also hoping others will discover it at some point, perhaps as a boxed set or in streamable seasons. Because Boardwalk Empire seems best as a series fully told, not one to be anticipated weekly, or weakly, as was often the case. Email: Tim. Goodman@THR.comTwitter: @BastardMachineSource link

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