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Boardwalk Empire 

Like Mad Men, only 40 years earlier and less fixated on the props.

click to enlarge If this is what passed for entertainment then, no wonder they needed booze.
  • If this is what passed for entertainment then, no wonder they needed booze.

Liquor, gangsters, guns and gams. It doesn’t matter what medium you’re trying to gin up some entertainment in — that’s a damn tasty mix.

Drawing on the same pseudo-nostalgia/pseudo-guilty-pleasure aesthetic as Mad Men, HBO’s Boardwalk Empire transports us back to Prohibition-era Atlantic City. Its story (and indeed, the entire Eastern Seaboard) revolves around one Nucky Thompson (Steve Buscemi), controller of the purse strings for Atlantic County — and, thereby, the puppet master of everything.

The plotlines are at once intensely personal yet very public. In addition to providing alcohol to most of the country, Nucky also has to deal with a young upstart, Jimmy (Michael Pitt), whose intelligence and guile make him think he can do much better than being Nucky’s driver. And in the bedroom, Nucky has yet more complications.

Mad Men is certainly an apt comparison here, though this isn’t a case of conscious homage. Both shows are period dramas, set in times with mores and standards far removed from our own. They both revolve around powerful men who have to deal with a string of near (and sometimes actual) catastrophes. They’re barely able to cling to their dominance.

But Boardwalk Empire is the more interesting of the pair. Where Mad Men seems to revel in its time period (spending all its time watching Don Draper stare into his Old Fashioned), Boardwalk Empire plays out as more of a story that just happens to be set at a particular time.

Yes, it’s interesting to see how life was different back then (and titillating to see the women in their overly elaborate yet undeniably erotic undergarments), but the story revolves around the characters, not the era. Though often more expensive to make, period dramas have a tendency to be on the cheaper end of things, as storytelling goes — but this show manages to rise above that.

It’s therefore fitting that we’re bumping up against the season finale for Boardwalk Empire, which is more of a middle-shelf booze. It means you can buy the DVD set and enjoy the whole thing. As any good collegian will tell you, non-top-shelf booze isn’t meant to be savored in drops and spurts — you just tip the bottle back and enjoy it all at once.

Boardwalk Empire (HBO, Sundays, 9 pm)


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