Missing ‘Boardwalk Empire’: Ten Works to Occupy You While You Wait

Fandom is akin to madness. Any enthusiast of a particular artist, genre, or series knows this agonizing fact intimately. Modern television fans (whose devotion often borders on obsession) bask in their mechanical master’s warming glow on a weekly basis to devour their favorite programs in seasons that often last no more than twelve episodes. Given that one episode is an hour in length, these fans will experience the equivalent of half a day of aggregate story time, a drop in the bucket compared to the amount of time they’ll no doubt spend pondering over and pining for the series before it returns at some unspecified date in the future. For these fans, the only way to treat the interminable disease known as fandom is to consume more works that share the elements that made them fall in love with their beloved in the first place.

One such show that has recruited an army of followers due to its transfixing atmosphere, indelible characters, and operatically epic plot is HBO’s critically acclaimed Boardwalk Empire (2010- ). Set in Atlantic City during its height as the tourist capital of America in the 1920s, Boardwalk centers on City Treasurer “Nucky” Thompson (Steve Buscemi), a chief political figure who, along with spending his days as a public servant, moonlights as the kingpin of the illegal liquor trade during Prohibition.

Standing in this corrupt protagonist’s way are his virtuous Irish immigrant mistress (Kelly Macdonald), a broodingly intense, puritanical federal agent who’s hell-bent on bringing him to justice (Michael Shannon), and a myriad “businessmen” contesting his right to the throne. These “businessmen” include his disciple-turned-dissenter, Jimmy (Michael Pitt). Desperate to maintain power, Nucky consolidates his kingdom using any means at his disposal, leaving both friend and foe in his wake.

Often mislabeled as a retread of the mob movie formula popularized by Francis Ford Coppola’s Godfather Trilogy (1972-1990), Boardwalk is a densely-packed and uncompromising tapestry of power and morality set against the vivid backdrop of a 1920s’ Gomorrah that seduces even the most upstanding of citizens.

After one of the finest seasons in television history boasted by an unforgettable ending, fans of this seminal series have been eagerly waiting for months without a shred of news regarding the air date of Boardwalk’s third season. For those poor souls aching for some kind of Boardwalk fix, look no further:

10. Deadwood (2004-2006):

If the inclusion of any HBO series seemed like a no-brainer for this list, it would be Boardwalk creator Terence Winter’s earlier foray into the world of organized crime, The Sopranos (1999-2007). Featuring terrific acting, a central interest on the dynamics of mob dealings, and the inclusion of Buscemi, the criteria for comparison seem obvious. In reality, nearly all of HBO’s shows contain the same basic formula, involving an intricate web of narratives taken from the accounts of a dozen characters and cutting on both gender and racial lines. David Milch’s period epic, Deadwood, despite being set in Wild West South Dakota, shares more similarities in tone and theme to Boardwalk than any its HBO brethren. Both programs boast casts of colorful, and often dangerous, characters, including historical individuals like mainstays Wild Bill Hickok (Keith Carradine) and Calamity Jane (Robin Weigert) in Deadwood and Al Capone (Stephen Graham) and Lucky Luciano (Vincent Piazza) in Boardwalk.  Even the series’ central locations – their booming towns – develop distinct identities over time. In addition, with major plotlines focusing on the vain efforts of law officials to police societies that have embraced illegality at their cores, and featuring criminals fearful of losing their empires to any number of usurpers, both programs detail the problems of maintaining control of an increasingly savage environment.

9. Eight Men Out (1988):

As noted, Boardwalk weaves its countless narratives through the fabric of American History. One such example of fact bleeding into fiction occurs when the sinister Jewish “businessman,” Arnold Rothstein (Michael Stuhlbarg), endeavors to bully Thompson out of his empire, despite being in the shadow of a Grand Jury investigation. Acting almost as a prequel to this event, Eight Men Out, depicts the circumstances surrounding the Black Socks Scandal of 1919, wherein the Chicago White Socks threw the World Series at the behest of Rothstein (Michael Lerner). Taken entirely from the perspective of the players, the film illuminates the tremendous level of power possessed by gangsters in the 1920s, who held all manners of legitimate matters like sports, business, and politics in their grasps. Featuring tremendous performances by Stuhlbarg and Lerner (who shared the screen in 2009’s A Serious Man), both works provide memorable portraits of one of the most notorious mobsters of all time.

8. Boardwalk Empire: The Birth, High Times, and Corruption of Atlantic City (2010)

Unbeknownst to most ardent Boardwalk fans, the show’s name and plot derives from author Nelson Johnson’s non-fictional account of flamboyant Atlantic City politician Enoch L. Johnson, the model for Nucky. Serving as the chief Republican boss of Atlantic City until his arrest for Income Tax Evasion in 1930, Thompson controlled the lawless resort destination and burgeoning haven from Prohibition throughout the era of the Roaring Twenties, overseeing the city’s bootlegging, gambling, and prostitution in the process. Embracing the lavish lifestyle afforded by a vast empire of illegal interests, Johnson ushered his city into an era of unrivaled prosperity (even earning it the title of “World’s Playground”). Chronicling the rise and fall of an unscrupulous powerhouse, Johnson’s book may give eager fans an early peek into Nucky’s ultimate fate.

7. Henry IV, Part 1; Henry IV, Part 2 (late-1590s):

While Boardwalk is loaded with significant interpersonal relationships, the series hinges on the one between Jimmy and Nucky. Mentored by his surrogate brother, Jimmy opens the first season as Nucky’s chief enforcer, before he divorces himself from his operations to join his father, the former King of Atlantic City, the Commodore (Dabny Coleman). The growing schism between the two main characters causes the majority of the tension on the show, as their shared history gives way to a vicious clash of egos. This severed relationship recalls one of the most iconic example of dissolving friendship in the plays of William Shakespeare, between Hal (the future King Henry V) and his lower-class, gregarious mate Sir John Falstaff. Broken hearts lead to hard feelings in both scenarios, with that between Nucky and Jimmy being rooted in violence. In the end, both separations produce casualties.

6. Magic City (2012):

While still in its infancy (the series is only through its first five episodes), Starz’ new flagship program often feels like a spiritual successor to Boardwalk. Set in resort and entertainment capitals during their zeniths (Atlantic City in the 1920s and Miami in the 1950s), both shows burst out of the gates in the middle of New Year’s celebrations, marking their entry into tumultuous times in American history. Magic City focuses on Ike Evans (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), the proprietor of the most glamorous hotel in Miami, who, under constant threat of having his beloved sand castle washed away by the South Florida current, must resort to violent means. Hunted by the law, Ike must grapple with his remorse for watering his garden with the blood of his opponents. In addition to sharing both a cinematic presentation and crackling tempos, Boardwalk and Magic City tantalize viewers with two of the most vivid and terrifying villains (both incidentally bearing the nickname “the Butcher”) in recent memory, played by William Forsythe and Danny Huston, respectively. NOTE: This trailer is NSFW.

5. The Great Gatsby (1925):

Possibly no work, including Boardwalk, embodies the energetic spirit and deteriorating morality of the Roaring Twenties like F. Scott Fitzgerald’s most famous novel. Following the narrative of a morally righteous former soldier and college student, Nick Carraway, who becomes fascinated by the allure of playboy (and bootlegger) Jay Gatsby, the book’s central obsession with success permeates every fiber of Boardwalk. With Jimmy serving as a stand-in for Nick, and Nucky playing the Gatsby character, Winter and crew made a clear nod to the golden standard on all things 1920s.

4. Ken Burns’ Prohibition (2011):

The maven of the modern episodic documentary, Ken Burns has become synonymous with the PBS-watching viewership that follows him so closely. Anyone who watches his series, including his comprehensive Jazz (2001) and Baseball (1994), knows that these films are anything but the dry factual fare they are often depicted as. Piercing deep into the fabric of one of the most romanticized and formative periods in our country’s history, Burns’ latest documentary finds him providing all of the background information on the events and people too often only mentioned in Boardwalk, while also providing a broader look at the ways that the Volstead Act transformed America into a nation of criminals. In addition, both programs address the effects of Prohibition on racial, gender, and class dynamics.

3. Music of the 1920s:

Nothing transports you to a particular time quite like music. Both in its cheery atmosphere and delicate melodies, the music of the ’20s will take you back to a rosy past. So put a scratchy Al Jolson, Eddie Cantor, or Nora Bayes record on the phonograph, hop on down to the nearest dance hall, get zozzled, and do the Lindy Hop with some swell hoofers. And how!

2. La Luna (1979):

Italian auteur Bernardo Bertolucci’s controversial feature about a mother who engages in intercourse with her teenage son to help him recover from heroin made a stir when it was released in 1979 due to its condoning portrayal of incest. This incestuous relationship recalls the relationship between Jimmy and his mother (Gretchen Mol), who at only thirteen became impregnated by the Commodore. Forever tarnished by this event, Jimmy’s mother devotes all her efforts to being the top priority in the life of her only child (including his wife and child), as their uncomfortably affectionate relationship becomes the subject of abject disgust and speculation by the community, which may or may not be warranted.

1. Retrospective Movies of the 1930s:

Despite being bombarded by the rise of the mafia and the stark realities of returning soldiers, Hollywood in the 1920s offered few critical examinations on the social milieu of post-WWI America. It wasn’t until the 1930s that these issues received their proper due on the silver screen, in part because of the popularity of James Cagney, who epitomized the image of the mobster in his most enduring picture, Public Enemy (1931). Instead of painting gangsters in broad strokes of inherent evil, mob films of the 1930s conveyed a much more sympathetic depiction of the modern criminal, often shaped by social forces. This depiction is particularly the case in Cagney’s The Roaring Twenties (1939), whose protagonist shares a similar path as Jimmy. As a former soldier retuning to a cold society with limited opportunities, Cagney’s Eddie becomes embroiled in the life of a bootlegger to survive. This socially conscious theme was expanded upon in works like the provocative Heroes for Sale (1933), whose narrative mirrors closely that of fan favorite Richard Harrow (Jack Huston) in Boardwalk, a facially disfigured soldier ostracized by the society he was injured protecting. While not donning a facial mask à la The Phantom of the Opera (1909-1910), the protagonist of the Depression-era film (played by Richard Barthelmess) returns from the war eternally marred due to an addiction to morphine acquired while a soldier, which makes him an outcast in the callous American society.

 

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