Three years after everything went black and The Sopranos ended, HBO got back into bed with New Jersey gangsters, although this time the gangsters were down the Garden State Parkway in bustling Atlantic City. Yet differences in geography aside, Boardwalk Empire, which premiered on September 19, 2010, was linked to The Sopranos from the jump. This was due in no small part to the show being created by Terrence Winter, a Sopranos’ alum. And unfortunately, although not totally surprisingly, Boardwalk Empire never really managed to escape its predecessor’s shadow. On top of that, the show also suffered from being uneven, occasionally painstakingly slow, and too broad for its own good, quickly taking the action out of Atlantic City to New York City and Chicago, as it also tried to tell the stories of well-known gangsters before they were well known.
When Boardwalk Empire ended after five seasons in 2014, the legacy of Boardwalk Empire was that of a forgotten sibling, one who could never live up to the standards set by their older brother and one who made some crucial mistakes as a result.
Boardwalk Empire certainly had its moments, but it was never the show audiences hoped it would be, i.e. The Sopranos but in the 1920s but also not The Sopranos because nothing would ever be The Sopranos. It’s in that gray area in between that lies the reason why Boardwalk Empire was doomed from the start. Perhaps it would have been better on a different network, instead of airing on the same network that was home to The Sopranos. Perhaps more time needed to pass before it premiered, giving audiences more time removed from The Sopranos ending. Perhaps it would have been better if it just stayed in Atlantic City, instead of venturing off to New York and Chicago.
Or perhaps it should have just taken away one of the most important traits that made The Sopranos so good and that could have helped at least a little?
One of the lasting legacies of The Sopranos, of which there are many, is the show’s theme song and how well it worked with the opening credits.
The visuals and music work seamlessly together, with both alluding to a certain rawness and level of grit that was woven within the fabric of The Sopranos. While the visuals firmly drop you into the world of Tony Soprano, the song, “Woke Up This Morning” by Alabama 3, adds hints of menace, danger, and machinations of nefarious dirty work, all of which were also part of Tony’s world. And of course, there are traces of the show’s themes within the song’s lyrics, whether it’s “being born under a bad sign” or the general feeling of things having changed and we are helpless to do anything about it.
In ranking theme songs, “Woke Up This Morning” will always be near the top.
Now as far as Boardwalk Empire goes, the visuals of the show’s opening are good and the song, “Straight Up and Down” by Brian Jonestown Massacre, isn’t bad. The problem is that the song doesn’t match the show at all.
Boardwalk Empire was set mostly in the 1920s, with the fifth season having jumped ahead to 1931. Yet for a show set during that time period, the theme song features hammering drums and electric guitars. It didn’t make sense to me then; still doesn’t today, and will always be chalked up as a missed opportunity. I’m not saying they needed to have a ragtime jazz song from the period as their theme song, but they could have at least found a song that incorporated elements of music from the period in it, something to help place you and bring you into the show’s world.
You know, like “Woke Up This Morning” did for The Sopranos.
What makes the song choice even more jarring is that the visuals throughout Boardwalk Empire’s opening are really good, if not a little too thematically on the nose. But Boardwalk Empire was never one for subtly. All the show was missing was a character called Brooding O’Toole, which they actually might have had. It’s been a minute since I’ve thought about the show. Either way, it can be hard to totally enjoy the visuals because the song accompanying them doesn’t fit. It could be the theme song for any number of shows, but it shouldn’t have been the song for Boardwalk Empire. The song is also louder than Boardwalk Empire ever was, whereas “Woke Up This Morning” shows restraint, never getting too high or too low, which was part of the reason for The Sopranos’ success. For the most part, The Sopranos stayed steady, stayed level. Boardwalk Empire on the other hand, frequently went for the homer instead of going for a double, which probably would have been the right move.
I would imagine that settling on a theme song for your TV choice is one of the hardest decisions to make, especially because it probably takes place towards the end of things when your head is in a million places and you’re close to being burnt out. But a good theme song can really help push you over the finish line. If you can nail that choice, whether it’s with a song like “Woke Up This Morning” or an instrumental, like the theme for The Office, you’ve got it made. But if you whiff on that choice, like they did with Boardwalk Empire, it’s always going to be a blemish that’s tough to run from.
A show’s theme song helps set the table. But if it’s the wrong song, then it’ll be setting a table for four instead of six, placing steak knives out on pasta night, and forgetting to put out kid’s silverware for the little ones, because they’ll probably poke their eye out with a regular-sized fork.
Life is all about first impressions and for a TV show, especially one operating without a cold open, the theme song is that first impression. You have to nail it. The Sopranos did, Boardwalk Empire didn’t.