Magazine article Variety

Mob Men's Last Call

Magazine article Variety

Mob Men's Last Call

Article excerpt

When it debuted, "Boardwalk Empire" looked like the answer to EtBO's prayers.

Another mob series with a glittering pedigree, including Martin Scorsese, who practically defined post-"The Godfather" crime movies; and "The Sopranos" alums Terence Winter and Steve Buscemi. A barrel full of Emmy nominations and a Golden Globe award quickly followed.

Yet despite early awards heat and critical accolades, the pay-TV paean to Atlantic City didn't fully cash in. What HBO programming president Michael Lombardo dubbed "one of the most superb ensemble casts of any television show I can think of" nabbed eight Emmys its freshman year (one short of "The West Wing's" record), but lost best drama to "Mad Men," produced by Winter's former "Sopranos" colleague Matthew Weiner.

"Boardwalk" has remained a critical favorite. Yet with the crush of prestigious new programs in the ensuing years, the show slipped off the best-series ballot the past two seasons.

"We're not the new kids anymore," Winter said, not long before the show wrapped principal photography on its fifth and final season in late August. "The more time passes, the more new shows get introduced and steal your thunder. People's focus shifts to that."

Indeed, if "Boardwalk" at one point appeared the obvious heir to "The Sopranos" - the series HBO had labored to find - in terms of popularity at least, that mantle has passed to another drama about feuding families and the exercise of power: "Game of Thrones," which actually surpassed Tony Soprano's gang in aggregated ratings during its fourth season. (The statistic warrants an asterisk, given that the population has grown, but it's an accomplishment nevertheless.)

All that serves as backstory as "Boardwalk Empire" charges to the finish line, adhering to Winter's timetable on when the show's "last call" should be. And unlike a lot of programs faced with the daunting task of brewing up a satisfying climax, this one, rooted in early 20th-century history, and focusing on bootlegger Nucky Thompson (Buscemi), came with a logical expiration date: the repeal of Prohibition, making all the repercussions related to trafficking in illegal booze a moot point.

"In my very early conversations with Terry Winter, we discussed the idea that first and foremost this was Nucky's story, so the end point would be dictated by what was happening with him," Scorsese said via email. "Because the Prohibition years specifically provide the backdrop to that story, tying the repeal in to the conclusion was almost a fait accompli."

In a sense, "Boardwalk Empire's" gaudy creative auspices became a pair of velvet handcuffs. With all the marquee talent involved - and a pilot reported to have cost in the $20 million range, including a dazzling multimillion-dollar replica of Atlantic City's boardwalk circa the 1920s - it could go only one of two ways: Be very, very good, or a major disappointment.

If all new TV shows are a gamble, more than most, "Boardwalk Empire" appeared to be stacking the deck.

"Audiences like to discover shows sometimes," said Lombardo. "And I think 'Boardwalk Empire' - that's a big promise. This came with very high expectations. Martin Scorsese directing a pilot? Mobsters? Come on. 'Boardwalk' came out with guns blazing."

Those involved with the show insisted they didn't feel the burden, or at least, were able to shield themselves from it. As for qualms about venturing into territory so sure to draw comparisons with some of the best movies and TV ever made, they kept returning to the same general thought: Working on "Boardwalk" was an offer they simply couldn't refuse.

"I don't know that I would have chosen to do a mob show immediately, but it was too much to resist," Winter explained. "They gave me the book. They said, 'See if there's a series in there, and oh, by the way, Martin Scorsese's attached.'"

Buscemi echoed feeling the draw of collaborating with that level of talent. …

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