The Lesson Boardwalk Empire Should Have Learned from the Simpsons

The Boardwalk Empire series finale aired a couple of weeks ago, and though I already miss it and consider it one of my favourite shows of all time, I can’t help but feel disappointed by it. As great as the show was, I believe the writers missed out on an opportunity to make it one of the truly greatest shows of all time. After thinking about it for a couple of weeks, I believe the problem was that the writers failed to learn a valuable lesson from The Simpsons.

When The Simpsons first debuted over a quarter century ago, the star of the show was a 10 year old boy named Bart Simpson. As the first network cartoon aimed at an adult audience, the wise-cracking character became a nationwide sensation, complete with his own hit single. Once the initial infatuation with Bart subsided, the writers rather quickly and decisively shifted the focus of the show to Bart’s father Homer. Despite the notoriety and attention that Bart was able to bring to the show, his character was inherently shallower than Homer’s. Homer, who was working on raising children, maintaining a happy marriage, and keeping a job he was woefully unqualified for, offered far more possibilities for the writers. Had the show continued to focus on Bart, the show may well have died off once the Bart fad faded. By focusing on Homer, the show was able to become the most successful in the history of television.

When Boardwalk Empire debuted in September 2010, the star of the show was unquestionably Nucky Thompson, who was played by Steve Buscemi, the only widely known cast member. It appears that the writers of the show had a formula that involved following along with the historical developments relating to prohibition and organized crime, but also introducing a fictional rival to Nucky every season or two. The first such character was Jimmy Darmody, played by the talented by largely unknown actor Michael Pitt.

Much like the Simpsons, it became clear that Jimmy’s character had more depth and gave the writers more options than Nucky. Nucky was a corrupt political figure and gangster at the beginning of the show, and he was much the same at the end of the show. Throughout the course of the series he gradually became more of a gangster, and we learned a little more about him, but looking back on it, his character remained more or less static throughout.

Jimmy’s character offered much better opportunities for character and plot development. Nucky was a mentor/father figure to him, but was also his rival. This dynamic allowed the writers to develop a complex relationship where Jimmy both admired and perhaps loved Nucky, but due to his ambition and Machiavellian mother also plotted to depose him. The battle between Nucky and Jimmy allowed the writers to explore the nature in which power is attained, held, and ultimately, lost. Jimmy was the child of both an abused and abusive mother, a war hero, a devoted husband and father, and an aspiring mob boss. The writers could have easily pivoted and made the battle between Nucky and Jimmy an integral part of the entire series. Instead, they killed Jimmy off at the end of season two.

When Jimmy was killed I asked myself “What is this show about now?” In season three I found out the answer to that question was – not much. Unlike Jimmy’s character, who literally grew up around Nucky, the rival in season three was simply a cartoonish villain that was clearly destined to provide for some exciting and entertaining scenes but then get killed off at the end. In season 4 we are introduced to another villain who causes trouble but is predictably vanquished at the end of the season. By season 5, HBO had given up on the show and gave the writers a mere 8 episodes to clue things up. This abbreviated final season spent half the time with unenlightening flashbacks and the rest of the time killing off characters.

The truth is the show never recovered from killing off Jimmy. If the writers had realized early on that the show was really about Jimmy rather than Nucky, it would likely still be on the air and be receiving serious consideration as the best show that HBO has ever produced.