Premium television, where sex, drugs and violence are routinely exploited as art forms, has a long history of providing compelling programming. At times equal parts horror and humor, the programming content is always blended together in a neat package of engaging storytelling and presented by an award-winning ensemble. To wit, six of the eight Golden Globe categories dedicated to television series this year were awarded to premium television programming and their respective stars.
This past fall, when television networks resumed their nightly ratings battles with lineups featuring new and returning scripted programming, premium television joined the fray with impressive entrants of their own, all of which were already established hits that have enjoyed both popular and critical success. Topping the list were two Showtime series and, of course, an HBO original series. After all, what would premium television be without a hit show on HBO? And a hit it was with a seasonal average of 2.3 million viewers.
If you haven’t guessed it already, the most popular premium television program last fall was none other than HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire,” a period drama that chronicles the lives of gangsters and bootleggers during the Prohibition era. Most notable of all the bootleggers is Enoch “Nucky” Thompson (played by Steve Buscemi), the treasurer of Atlantic County who deals in bribes, kickbacks and various other illicit activities befitting a corrupt politician.
The series, which premiered in 2010, has enjoyed a steady rate of success over the years and currently stands as HBO’s third most popular series after “True Blood” and “Game of Thrones.” In the overall history of the channel, “Boardwalk Empire” is the fourth most watched series while “The Sopranos” still holds the number one position.
Though it would be ill-advised to presume a show’s success before it even premieres, when “Boardwalk Empire” was first announced, so too were the heavyweight names behind the series, specifically Martin Scorsese who directed the pilot episode and acts as an executive producer. Also behind the scenes are executive producers Mark Wahlberg and Terence Winter. Winter, who worked as a writer and executive producer for “The Sopranos,” is also the series creator and show runner. Throw in Steve Buscemi as the lead actor and you have a series that’s sure to garner some attention.
As expected, what makes “Boardwalk Empire” so entertaining is the story. In Nucky Thompson you have a man who’s clearly corrupt, yet the audience views him not as a criminal but as a businessman who exploits opportunities as they’re presented. Through the first two seasons, his carefully-constructed world is challenged as his brand of criminality undergoes a transformation from a gentleman’s game into that of a street thug, leaving behind a new man in a new world at the start of season three.
It also helps that many of the characters are modeled after real-world criminals such as Al Capone, Arnold Rothstein and even Nucky Thompson. America’s organized crime and the notable individuals whose names have found their way into popular culture as representatives of the gangster archetype have long been an intriguing chapter of the nation’s history. A fictionalized drama that adds a compelling backstory to this world is something that will invariably attract an audience.
Of all the series airing on premium television last fall, “Boardwalk Empire” enjoyed the most success. However, the runner-ups deserve a mention as both are equally addictive. “Dexter,” a show already in its seventh season, still manages to captivate the audience so many years after the lovable serial killer was first introduced.
“Homeland,” another Showtime series, comes in third. It should be noted, however, that the series easily takes first place when standings are determined by the number of awards each series has won. (For those counting, it’s six Emmy awards and five Golden Globes for “Homeland” — so far.) The series reinvents the premise of “24″ with a higher dose of suspense and drama, along with a lead character who’s either the hero or the terrorist. Two seasons later, everyone’s still trying to decide which.