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Boardwalk Empire

creator Terence Winter

The list of things that would never have existed without The Sopranos grows longer by the day. Mad Men, Ryan Gosling, the Brown University class "Middlemarch & The Sopranos," Michael Imperioli's career, 326 instances of James Gandolfini having sex with women, some of my fashion choices during 1998, and now Boardwalk Empire. People enjoy comparing these shows to novels, and since novels usually have terrible beginnings, we shouldn't be surprised that Terence Winter's version of the Roman myth begins slowly. As someone remarked, they should have just had a title card that said "Prohibition Begins."

Let's not let that discourage us from what appears to be an astonishing new show with a few severe but not unfixable problems. No one remembers that the first season of The Sopranos was a cartoonish melange compared to what followed. You usually need a season to work out the kinks in a concept, although Weeds only needed one season to completely ruin one.

Fictional depictions of historical life either adhere devoutly to realism or descend into wild fantasy. No one can take anything Chuck Bass says seriously anymore, but in contrast Boardwalk Empire seems fairly keen on not having anyone wear out his welcome. Many Gentiles struggled to tell the faces of the Italian foot soldiers apart in Winter's previous television effort, and there are no shortish of burly, mustachioed guys here. Al Capone looks more like a NJ extra than a crime lord on the come.

But no matter — you can always recast, or just kill people off, especially when one of those people is being played by Gretchen Mol. (Unfortunately for a lot of people, you can't kill off Al Capone.) The number one problem foreseen with Boardwalk Empire was whether audiences could tolerate Steve Buscemi's pasty face, and it's generally been concluded that he's at least competent in the role. Here's what I don't understand — other actors gain and lose weight for roles, and Joaquin Phoenix performs an accidental bj on Casey Affleck for the sake of his art, and yet Buscemi can't hit the tanning salon on the way to the set?

In The Sopranos Buscemi played a convict relation to Tony who returned to the family as an awkward accoutrement not long for this world. (They had smuggled his character's semen out of jail, and it became two twin boys. Remind you of anyone?) Here he is the most permanent fixture of life, a googly-eyed reproduction of a boss that is itself new enough to garner our attention. The fact that the real life Nucky Johnson more resembles James Gandolfini is a sad reminder that life is not usually as novel as it appears on television.

Does Boardwalk Empire attempt a simulacra of the period in which its action rests? Occasionally; but it is more insistent on a steampunk aesthetic that makes its denizens more like aliens than real folk. The show's real protagonist is Jimmy Darmody (Michael Pitt), a up-and-coming thug who returned from the first World War lacking a healthy fear of death. His relationship with his wife is easily the highlight of the show so far, as she is the proto-New Jersey Jew and they get along in a funny way.

Sopranos production designer Bob Shaw creates a wonderworld of unlikely lighting and subtly changed interiors given the limitations of stage sets to represent entire whorls: Atlantic City, New York, and Chicago, the three centers of crime. When Buscemi's Nucky hits the boardwalk, it's more reminiscent of Disney's hotel than the actual degrading atmosphere of that troubled city, but let's face it, the bright and pastel fantasy is more interesting than the reality.

So it is with much of the milieu. When Boardwalk Empire gets historical, or tries to make fun jokes for tenured professors with unique portrayals of Lucky Luciano and gags about Arnold Rothstein fixing the 1919 World Series, it gets a little bogged down by its details, letting the background of the characters speak more loudly than their actions in the drama. Then again, part of the fun of The Sopranos was constant set-up with unexpected payoff — it was never too certain if your favorite hood was going to make it through another episode or become the next boss.

Deadwood experimented with the same time-shifting, and gradually morphed from hard-boiled western to a gaudy fantasy world of death. Boardwalk Empire is violent, but death and dying is not savored in a sadomachistic way. Wildness is celebrated, is cherished, as an expression of freedom. Once you start dating a call girl and gambling in the six figures every night (adjusted for inflation) a lot of joy is sucked out of things, a happiness that can only be regained by continuing to behave as if nothing else mattered. These are the feelings even a contemporary journey to Atlantic City invariably elicits.

Nucky rules the roost, taking kickbacks from every commissioner in his bureaucracy. Jimmy is his driver, and when he meets up with his mirror image in Chicago Al Capone, blood runs thick. Scorsese shoots the whole thing exactly the same way he would have in 1988, adjusting for inflation. Actually the Ray Liotta of 20 years ago would be a great add here. As in all Scorsese productions, the unattainable women are blondes and your sister and wife are brunettes.

The show is already better at creating convincing storylines for its women than its northern NJ cousin. It was genius to cast No Country for Old Men's Kelly MacDonald as a battered wife in Nucky's parish seduced by his power. Her inclusion was a master stroke; things will likely improve when they discard her immigrant accent and have her journaling about how much she loves Henry James. Her romantically-challenged storyline with Enoch has yet to be very convincing. No matter how many times they show Steve Buscemi pleasuring a woman, it never gets any easier to believe.

The rest is easy to fabricate, because our ideas of these times is already bound up in films like The Untouchables. (Mamet's influence on the dialogue is almost painful.) The way of speaking is neither too foreign or too modern, and the show takes advantage of the fact that modernity lurks 75 years in the future in Bill Gates' garage. Misunderstandings and isolated incidents affect life in unexpected ways. The freedom of doing whatever you want during a restrictive time in America is literally intoxicating.

Sometimes we forget how restrictive the society we live in now is. It's disappointing to live in a world where there is not more than an outside chance you will not be caught after committing a murder. The inherent chaos of perpetrating crime in this context creates a sprawling pastiche of action and character that is unlike even Boardwalk Empire's obvious progenitors.

Comparing any television show to a novel is an unserious analogy. No novel written in this period or any other had the luxury of so much action or such a spread of characters. Boardwalk Empire is more reminiscent of The Canterbury Tales, an epic poem with many individual endings and stories.

Eventually the show will focus on who really possesses power — basically men in ballrooms stroking dogs — and will soon become a not-very-veiled attack on the indiscretions of the financial industry. All shows about criminals seek to prove that the taint of crime touches every sphere of life. It is tough to equate the actions of America's early entrepreneurs with offenses against the SEC. The first was the inevitable byproduct of the wild American economy, the second was the inevitable failure of a bureaucracy that was itself unregulated in a regulated industry.

In fact, there is a great danger in judging the past by the standards of the present. We live perpetually with the idea that this is the only age, but in reality the ancient Egyptians pursued the dream of flight and may have even constructed airplanes, the Indians of central America built massive suspension bridges, and indoor plumbing in Crete far predates the birth of Jesus. The tumultuous but vibrant life of another America is proof that these times look straight at their antecedents, not down at them. We have come not far at all.

Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording. He last wrote in these pages about the double life of James Tiptree Jr. He tumbls here and twitters here.

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Reader Comments (3)

brilliant as usual

October 1, 2010 | Unregistered Commenteryvonne

Are you kidding me? You suggest a title card that says "Prohibition Begins"? Because words on a screen are sooooo much more interesting than seeing Prohibition begin? The black balloon drop and funeral procession for alcohol were amazing and so much more interesting than a title card! WHat kind of reviewer are you!?

October 1, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJim

Ray Liotta as Nucky would solve 99% of this show's believability problems.

October 3, 2010 | Registered CommenterMolly

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