The Blog Formerly Known as Rebel Prince

Cult TV, Gen Y rants, and endless opera.

Thoughts on “Boardwalk Empire”

Posted by therebelprince on October 3, 2010

I’ve been asked why I haven’t reviewed Boardwalk Empire, and… I really didn’t have an answer, so I thought I’d give it a go. But see, so far everything makes sense upfront. I can talk about the thematic significance of scenes or characters in Mad Men or Twin Peaks for hours on end, but this show is just doing what it does. And – ironically – Boardwalk Empire‘s perfect presentation means there’s little to write home about.

Steve Buscemi is Nucky Thompson, our hero; a 1920s profiteer during Prohibition. It’s great to see Buscemi in a lead role, and he’s clearly relishing the part. He’s surrounded by a talented group that includes Dabney Coleman, Dana Ivey, Michael Stuhlbarg, Kelly Macdonald as an abused recent-widow in Nucky’s care and (apparently) Michael Kenneth Williams, although he’s yet to make more then a cameo. In fact everyone in the cast is in fine form, except for Michael Pitt, who sometimes seems to be phoning it in as the war-ravaged young hood Jimmy Darmody.

Unfortunately for a reviewer like myself, there’s really not much to say. Even at episode two, Tony Soprano’s psychology and his disenchantment with the dreams of his forefathers could open up avenues of discussion. Here, everything just makes sense. I’m not sure this is actually a flaw – it’s just an example of finely-crafted television made to be savoured. And everything involved is indeed worth savouring – the costumes, the make-up, the period props. And, as a 1920s buff myself, the music! My god, the music! (When I first learned of the series, I mistakenly – perhaps deliberately – assumed it to be set in Coney Island, which made my heart leap. But I’ll settle for New Jersey.)

But what can I say? Do I recommend the series? I guess so. The AV Club compared the series in its predictable perfection to the Yankees, a comparison which amused me no end. Indeed, the series does everything we’d expect in the ‘classic’ era of HBO: the days of Deadwood and The Wire. And because of that, nothing seems surprising. You expect to see a perfectly rendered world and that’s what we get. The only issue is that, for an era like Prohibition which is rooted in our pop culture from Some Like It Hot and The Thin Man to The Untouchables, we need something more than what’s already been said. Cable does it best when applying an extra layer to existing tropes, just as, say, Nurse Jackie does for the hospital drama. But here, we’re limited to a few moments of uneasy sex in the Darmody home to bring us out of the classic era.

I’m hoping that Boardwalk Empire is heading somewhere in particular. There’s so much to like about it, and indeed the 60 minutes have held my interest each week. I don’t doubt I’ll keep watching this show. But as yet, I don’t have that feeling of needing to watch it each week, and I hope HBO can rectify that soon.

Diverse observations:

* Americans need to do period dramas more often. Between John Adams, Deadwood, and this, there’s so much to write home about. The Brits may have stunning period costumes and castles, but American history has that beautiful-looking society which can be so remarkably rendered.

* Two episodes with entire scenes focussing on pictures of Nucky’s dead wife, as played by Molly Parker? Are we getting flashbacks? Is she still alive? It’s possible they just wanted someone really expressive for the photographs, however TV execs know by now that we’re pausing the show and noting these things down, so I’m sure we’ll see Parker at some point.

* Probably the most dangerous element of this series – as indeed of The Sopranos – is how to deal with the law. I’m as yet unconvinced they’ll be anything but idiotic feds. In fact, given how much knowledge the cops seem to have of Nucky at this point (reminiscent of Tony and the FBI), one has to wonder what’s going to stop them. Sure, Capone pulled off the same trick for ages, but it doesn’t make interesting drama to watch Nucky slide out of the situation each week.

* I’m not a Scorsese fan, but he really reined himself in directing the finale. I barely even noticed it was him, and that’s to his credit.

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