Pass the Remote: Boardwalk Empire – Film Dispenser

Television September 11, 2014 Scott Phillips
Scott serves as the Content Programmer for the Way Down Film Festival held in Columbus, Georgia every Fall.

Over the past year, Film Dispenser has provided recurring in-depth written analysis of television series like The Killing, True Detective, Justified, and Game of Thrones. With so many new platforms offering original content (Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu) in addition to the networks we already rely upon for quality programming, Film Dispenser has created a column called Pass the Remote that will appear several times a month to provide reviews and analysis of television series that we will not be following on a week-to-week basis. Our goal is to help you make more efficient use of your viewing time. Let us watch the bad shows so you don’t have to and allow us to pass along some suggestions for content we think you will enjoy.


The fifth, and final season, of HBO’s Boardwalk Empire opens with a caption:  New York City, 1931.  That may seem innocuous enough, but it’s rarely a good sign when a series leaps forward seven years between seasons.  It’s as if the writers and show-runners got together for a meeting and devised the easiest way to distance themselves from the lukewarm plotlines of previous seasons.  Wiping the slate clean and starting out fresh for a final season may make narrative sense if you’ve painted yourself into a creative corner, but it certainly lowers the emotional stakes for this final 12-episode run.

Boardwalk Empire has always been HBO’s Ferrari.  It looks amazing.  The plot runs with mechanical efficiency like a well-time engine.  But it’s also a little soulless.  Although I’m interested enough in what happens next to keep watching, I’m rarely invested in the outcome.  The Sopranos, The Wire, Game of Thrones, and True Detective all left me eagerly anticipating my next Sunday night of HBO.  Boardwalk Empire has never had that effect, and the premiere of its final season was no different.

The Boardwalk universe is surprisingly static.  Characters rarely evolve or change in any substantial way.  Allegiances and loyalties come and go.  The occasional major character dies, but the people populating the screen stay true to their Season One labels and learn little from their fictional life experiences.  As the Canadian prog-rock group Rush once sang: “The more that things change, the more they stay the same” (Circumstances, 1978).  Who’s betraying whom and who’s sleeping with whom are always the plot twists du jour and that lack of imagination has threatened to turn Boardwalk Empire into a prime-time version of Days of Our Lives with flapper dresses and classic cars.

As the new season opens, Nucky Thompson (Steve Buscemi) is no longer focused on bootlegging now that a movement to repeal Prohibition is gaining congressional support.  So, he’s in Cuba looking to become the exclusive distributor of Bacardi rum in the United States.  Lucky Luciano is still scheming his way up the gangster ladder and serves up his current boss, Joe Masseria, to become a made man in another family.

Chalky White is cutting trees on a prison chain gang.  The audience doesn’t know how he landed in prison, but his escape near the end of this most recent episode makes that issue less compelling.  And Margaret, the former Mrs. Nucky Thompson, has worked her way up to executive secretary within an investment bank where her male colleagues shoot themselves at staff meetings because it’s the Great Depression and things aren’t going well.

It always takes Boardwalk some time to come to a full boil.  The premiere of Season 5 left me with a familiar feeling of indifference, but with 49 episodes under my belt, I intend to see it through to the end.  For all the talent on both sides of the camera, the finished product should be more compelling.  It’s as if the breeding and social graces of the 1920s and ’30s have bled the personality out of the premise.  But, the most surprising thing is how long each new episode remains unwatched on my DVR each week (if I don’t have to write about it).



Scott Phillips

The Movie Isle

Scott Phillips holds a degree in print journalism from the University of Georgia and is currently a member of the Georgia Film Critics Association (GAFCA). In addition to his role as a correspondent for Timed Edition, Scott serves as the Executive Editor and Senior Writer for From 2013 through 2017, he reviewed films for Along with his duties as a critic, Scott serves as the Content Programmer for the Way Down Film Festival held in Columbus, Georgia every fall.

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