Boardwalk Empire vs. Mad Men

Is HBO jealous of Mad Men? The network reportedly turned down the series when pitched. But over the last few years, Mad Men, which went to AMC instead, has largely taken over the culturally designated Best-Show-On-TV role previously filled by The Sopranos and The Wire. Part of the reason why is that, since the end of The Wire, HBO has struggled to offer the kind of accessible, intelligent, culturally relevant series needed to pick up the BSOTV title. True Blood is a little too weird. Big Love is a little too soapy. And much as I love Treme, its intense focus on urban life, and especially the urban realm’s lower income brackets, will almost certainly keep it from really breaking through. It’s the same problem the The Wire had, but worse: The Wire, at least, had a familiar enough cops-and-criminals/police procedural element. Treme is all Dickensian sprawl.

But now the network has come back with what looks like its best shot a consensus BSOTV winner since The Sopranos: Boardwalk Empire. I’m four episodes into the first season, and enjoying it very much. But I wonder if it will have to play second fiddle to Mad Men, in part because of how much it resembles AMC’s series.

Like Mad Men, Boardwalk Empire was created by a veteran of The Sopranos. Like Mad Men, it is a lushly shot period tale (although I would guess that Empire, with its giant boardwalk set, is considerably more expensive). And like Mad Men, it is a sober, serious social drama, intent on exploring the emerging social tensions of the era: Women’s suffrage, and their role in society in general; racial equality, both in business and politics; the intersection of local and national governmental corruption. And both shows set these tensions against a backdrop of brazen male bad behavior which they both exploit for entertainment and (usually) disapprove of. And both shows are far more explicit in their disapproval — their moral high-mindedness — than The Sopranos, which, as often as not, worked in black comedy and amoral farce, almost daring its audience to look down on its characters’ dark ways. As Nancy Franklin wrote in her review of Boardwalk for The New Yorker, “Even if its point is to show you the ugly side of fun, Boardwalk Empire should be much more fun to watch.” In my (probably too negative) NR review of Mad Men‘s first season, I made a similar point, comparing it to The Sopranos and arguing that Mad Men “is too timid to let its viewers in on the fun” its bad boy characters are having.

Boardwalk is somewhat more focused on business and political life while Mad Men is somewhat more focused on community and family. And so far, Boardwalk strikes me as somewhat less focused on targeting the ugly social practices of an older America, though it still attempts to reflect contemporary America on a pretty regular basis. I like both shows, and I’ll probably stick with both of them (though I should admit I’m a couple seasons behind on Mad Men). And in general, I’m pleased to see genuinely smart, high-quality shows like these receive ratings, attention, and accolades. But both Mad Men and Boardwalk seem to have decided that the lesson of The Sopranos was that because both critics and the general public started taking television very seriously, TV creators — at least those competing for the Best Show on TV mantle — should follow their lead and amp up the self-seriousness of their creations.