Seitz Asks: What show do you watch each week, even though it keeps disappointing you?
Seitz Answers: Boardwalk Empire.
HBO's Prohibition-era saga Boardwalk Empire reminds me of the punch line of an old joke, quoted in Annie Hall, about two old guys eating at a Catskills resort. One guy says, "The food here is terrible," and the other replies, "Yeah, and such small portions."
Boardwalk isn't terrible — not most of the time. This series from former Sopranos writer-producer Terence Winter is always watchable, sometimes engrossing, occasionally brilliant. I've seen every episode to date. And yet I'd never put it on a list of my favorite current series because there's something fundamentally unsatisfying about it. We're three seasons in, but I still don't feel that pulse of life and constant promise of surprise that defines a great show — and that's strange, because on paper, Boardwalk would seem to have every element it needed to ascend to the pantheon. The sets, costumes, cinematography, and music are entrancing; if there were a Boardwalk Empire virtual-reality chamber that one could walk around in, I'd spend weeks there, drinking and shooting and carousing with flappers.
But there are too many locations, subplots, and characters. The whole thing has become so gigantic, disorganized, and entropic that sometimes they'll cut to a character who's been on from the start, such as Michael Kenneth Williams's gravel-voiced gangster Chalky White, or Michael Shannon's ex-treasury agent and homicidal religious nut Van Alden, and I think, Oh, right, he's still on the show! even though he was on last week, too. I'm liking some of the newer cast members — Bobby Cannavale as hypersensitive bootlegger Gyp Rosetti; Meg Steedle as Nucky's frustratingly unavailable showgirl mistress, Billie Kent — but not so much that I look forward to their next appearance. Why am I still watching this series, then? Is it just because I still miss The Sopranos? Because I love historical soaps? Or because I have a period furniture fetish?
Feel free to float theories in the comments. Better yet, tell me which current show you watch religiously, even though most weeks it really doesn't do much for you.