Manufactured Entertainment

October 20, 2010

Is “Boardwalk Empire” the TV series equivalent of the Miami Heat?

This thought came to me as I was watching an episode of the new HBO Prohibition Era drama the other night. To be exact, the idea arose during a scene in which a man was being beaten on a boat in the middle of the Atlantic, soon to be thrown overboard. Sound familiar, “Sopranos” fans?

As much as I’ve enjoyed “Boardwalk” so far, I’ve found it impossible to watch without thinking about how it was created or, should I say, manufactured. I got to imagining what the breakthrough brainstorm session that led to the show being green lit was like. Here’s that imaginary transcript:

HBO Producer Guy #1: OK, so everyone pretty much knows we haven’t really had a [using air quotes] flagship program since “The Sopranos” ended a few years ago. What should we do?

HBO Producer Guy #2: “John from Cincinnati” doesn’t qualify?

HBO Producer Guy #1: Haha. Very funny.

HBO Producer Guy #2: Thanks. [pause] I also think it has become obvious to the public that we screwed up big time when we passed on “Mad Men.” Don’t you remember? That “Sopranos” alum, Matthew Weiner, wanted it here before pitching it to AMC.

HBO Producer Guy #1: Yes, I remember. That was simply a matter of internal miscommunication. We decided to go with “Cincinnati” and not “Mad Men.” In hindsight …

HBO Producer Guy #2: [interrupts] Ha. That reminds me. The other day, I overheard someone say that decision was like Portland choosing Sam Bowie over Michael Jordan in the 1984 NBA Draft. You ever think of that?

HBO Producer Guy #1: Um, no. I don’t find it very constructive to think that way. But it’s time that we do something to make everything right again. I’ve heard people say that Showtime might be coming up with better original ideas than us. Let’s change that. Let’s give the people what they want. Something we know will work.

HBO Producer Guy #2: Are you saying what I think you’re saying, “Sopranos” meets “Mad Men?” Criminal voyeurism meets period piece?

HBO Producer Guy #1: Bingo. A new series set during the Prohibition Era. And just to be safe, let’s make sure like half its cast also was in “The Sopranos” and some of its scenes also sort of happened in “The Sopranos” so viewers don’t forget we made that show. Get Marty Scorcese on the phone.

And so you have it.

The discussion I’m interested in is if “Boardwalk Empire” is any less compelling because it can be seen as a regurgitated concept. And to reiterate, I’m a fan of this show. I love good gangster entertainment. And who doesn’t? But do I get greater pleasure out of watching “Bored to Death,” another new series from HBO that could be considered more original? I might.

I know the argument that states there are no new ideas at this point. I agree with that to an extent. And this is not to say HBO hasn’t given us any innovation. They have.

But let’s consider sports franchises that cherry pick from crops of elite free agents as opposed to building through the draft or farm system. Or TV shows like “Boardwalk Empire.” Does the fact they were manufactured this way take away from the fan/viewer experience?