Atlantic City – what used to be the East Coast’s answer for Las Vegas and one of the premiere vacation spots in the country – is in trouble, and not just in the Boardwalk Empireverse.
Profits have dropped nearly 50% since 2006 and AC’s Trump Plaza will be the fourth hotel to close this year, which could prove to be a fatal blow to the New Jersey gaming destination. Atlantic City just can’t keep up with the quality competition that’s cropped up in neighboring states and what was once a unique experience has become run-of-the-mill.
In a bit of irony or coincidence, HBO’s Boardwalk Empire – set in 1920’s Atlantic City – will also be closing up shop this year for strikingly similar reasons.
But for a show with so much promise, what’s the deal with Boardwalk’s unceremonious swan song?
Some may argue that it was timing that doomed Boardwalk Empire. As HBO’s follow up project to the massively successful crime drama, The Sopranos, the audience may have been burnt out on gangster stories. Boardwalk’s Nucky Thompson (Steve Buscemi) also hit the screen at the tail end of the Golden Age, when Don Draper had cornered the market on the TV antihero and another criminal mastermind was rising to prominence in New Mexico.
Whether it was due to timing, lack of interest, or over-saturation in an already crowded market, the show isn’t getting the sendoff that it was built up to deserve.
This isn’t to say that Boardwalk Empire is by any means bad, and a five season run – the fifth having premiered Sunday night – isn’t a failure by traditional standards. In fact aesthetically, it’s a triumph, capturing 1920’s Atlantic City as it has never been before. The pilot is one of the most expensive episodes ever produced at an estimated $19 million, largely thanks to production building a fully functional boardwalk.
Not to mention the show’s enormous star power with Buscemi, Michael Shannon and Michael K. Williams in front of the camera; plus Martin Scorsese (who directed the pilot) and Mark Wahlberg as executive producers behind it. Meanwhile, creator Terence Winter served as an EP and writer for The Sopranos; and got an Oscar nomination for a little original screenplay called The Wolf of Wall Street.
As for the story itself, the series had all the fanfare possible during its first season. The scope of the plot was an astounding all-encompassing look at the corruption and crime brought on by 1920’s Prohibition. Legendary crime figures like Al Capone, Lucky Luciano, Arnold Rothstein and Meyer Lansky all shuffle through as the audience watches the formative years of American organized crime unfold.
Despite all its potential there was always a feeling of waiting for it to take the next step, to join its peers at HBO as a truly great television series. Even when Buscemi gained two Emmy nominations for lead actor and the show was twice recognized with a nomination for best drama series, it consistently fell short.
In fact the show has only taken three Primetime Emmy’s: two for directing and one for best supporting actor by Bobby Cannavale (criminal nut job Gyp Rosetti of Season 3).
When one of the lead characters was killed in the second season, it appeared to be the lift the series needed. But as it pressed on into a third and fourth, the show seemed to slip. More characters were added to an already bursting-at-the-seams cast at the expense of headliners Kelly MacDonald and Shannon, who started to appear out of what felt like obligation rather than to forward the plot.
Almost cartoonish villains were introduced to play foil to Buscemi’s Nucky Thompson, and what resulted was a fun but ultimately empty couple of seasons.
Finally, HBO announced this spring that this would be Boardwalk’s final season. The lack of Emmy recognition and the sky-high production costs just didn’t make sense to continue the series, which had become a budgetary albatross while filling arguably the most coveted timeslot in all of television.
Despite the star power, brilliant design, promising premise and five seasons, through the lens of HBO standards it’s hard to see Boardwalk Empire as anything but a disappointment.
In the end, Boardwalk will be remembered as an ambitious, expensive gamble that didn’t meet its lofty expectations. So as the lights dim on both the present day Atlantic City boardwalk and HBO’s version, we are left with pieces of American culture whose glitz and glamour weren’t able to save them from quietly fading into history.