5 Signs Boardwalk Empire Is the New Mad Men


Last night, Boardwalk Empire — perhaps the most anticipated show of the fall season — debuted on HBO. It’s been met with rave reviews, most of which liken it to The Sopranos, an obvious comparison, considering the two shows are on the same network, feature much of the same personnel, and take the lives of gangsters as their subject matters. But, while we enjoyed the premiere immensely, it also reminds us of Sunday’s other major TV event: Mad Men. After the jump, we look at some of the similarities between the two shows.

Callous but conflicted leading man

Sure, Steve Buscemi is never going to be as smooth and sexy as Jon Hamm. But their characters have a lot in common. As the center of each series’s universe, each is engaged in a struggle between his conscience and his basest desires (or, for the psychologists in the audience, needs). Each can completely adapt his personality to new situations: Don Draper is a different guy at home, in the office, with his various girlfriends, and across the country in California, with the people who truly know who he is. Nucky Thompson is equally charming at a meeting of uptight temperance women and a gangster dinner party. They’re both womanizers, and they both run a tight ship. And it seems that, like Don, the central question we’ll be asking about Nucky is whether he’ll ever dig himself out of the corruption and lies and emerge a better man.

Intriguing young upstart

We’re always glad to see Michael Pitt, and his Boardwalk Empire character, Jimmy Darmody, may just be as interesting as the show’s lead. A vet who keeps referring to the horrible things he did in World War I, he’s shaping up to be a master manipulator, throwing the FBI off his track and getting revenge on an enemy in one fell swoop, while orchestrating an epic (albeit flawed) heist with a still-on-training-wheels Al Capone. The question is, will Nucky’s protégé turn out to be a confident, talented, and independent Peggy Olsen or a smarmy, self-satisfied, constantly undermining Pete Campbell? At this point, it could go either way.

Retro fashion revival potential

For a few seasons now, Mad Men has had an outsize influence on the fashion world, with full, early-’60s-style dresses and dapper suits dotting runways around the world. Isn’t it about time for a new wave of retro-inspired fashion? The ’20s, with its flapper fringe, Deco jewelry, and gangster pinstripes is certainly ripe for a revival.

Free-flowing vice

Outside of its great writing, sharp directing and acting, and strong characters, much of the appeal of Mad Men is in its delicious depictions of vice — chain-smoking and drinking in the office, illicit affairs. Boardwalk Empire actually manages to one-up its AMC competitor, with a show that brims with illegal alcohol, gambling, and burlesque stars in feathery, glittery costumes. Oh, and since this is HBO, the sex is more graphic, too.

Life kinda sucks for ladies

We only meet a few women in the Boardwalk Empire pilot, and, like the gals of Mad Men, none of them has what you’d call an enviable life. Kelly Macdonald’s Margaret Schroeder — the only lady who the writers seem to be positioning as a main character, so far — is a pregnant immigrant wife and mother whose good-for-nothing husband beats her so severely she loses her baby. (While we tend to laugh at uptight temperance activists these days, it’s not hard to see what brought Margaret to those meetings.) Then there’s Angela Darmody (Aleksa Palladino), Jimmy’s common-law wife and baby mama, who is worried about (and kept largely ignorant of) Jimmy’s unsavory dealings, and whose suggestion that she could work to help support the family is only met with anger. Finally, we’ve got Nucky’s girlfriend, Lucy Danziger (Paz de la Huerta), a retired Ziegfeld girl who just wants some undivided attention from her constantly distracted man. Incidentally, we can imagine a sort of skewed Peggy-Betty-Joan dynamic may be in the works.