by DICK CHENEY
creator Terence Winter
To find someone who really enjoys Boardwalk Empire, you need to find a very subtle and self-destructive person. Paranoiacs, specifically potheads, enjoy Boardwalk Empire more than regular people like you or me. Sitting down to enjoy Ken Burns' Prohibition requires an advanced degree, a willingness to pretend you have never see a documentary before now, today, and a stick with which to flay yourself. Sitting down to watch Boardwalk Empire requires all that and a suspension of your disbelief.
Last night Hulk Hogan wrestled his last match. I should say, he "wrestled" "his" "last" "match", because the match was so horrible it was difficult to tell if there were any wrestlers in it, and the outcome (he lost) was predetermined. Numerous back surgeries that have left Hogan, born Terry Bollea, a shell of his former, still-not very mobile self, and he could not take any bumps flat on his back, and indeed barely left his feet during the match at all. Despite his evident handicaps, and the fact that he was the de facto bad guy in the match, the Philadelphia crowd cheered him. After the match, he presented a disgusting photo of his back that will haunt me for all time.
Hogan is one of the most notorious Italian-Americans since Al Capone. Although Capone should be the biggest heel in Boardwalk Empire, for some reason he is portrayed as a happy-go-lucky teenager. In last week's episode, his father died, and no one really cared, least of all Steve Buscemi's Nucky Thompson. Finding a villain on Boardwalk Empire is easy, finding one you care about is a lot harder.
Instead of just promoting himself as Hulk Hogan, the conquering hero, Terry Bollea wanted to play a bad guy who is good deep down inside. The fact that Hogan's last match drew a pathetic crowd of only 2,500 in Philadelphia emphasizes the fact that the paying customers don't care about tortured souls, they only care about watching good guys and bad guys settle things in the ring.
The rings of Boardwalk Empire are its gorgeous and elaborate sets, which look to have cost a fortune. Considering the only person I know who likes Boardwalk Empire recently suffered a thematically timely stroke, the ratings cannot possibly be justifying the wanton spending. Many big-budget shows, in order to save costs, built concept episodes into their seasons, hour-long editions that only use one set: think Breaking Bad's "Fly" or The Sopranos' ultimate masterpiece "Pine Barrens" or "Soprano Home Movies." I cannot imagine wanting to be any one place in the New Jersey of a century ago for an hour.
In fact, everyone is a heel on Boardwalk Empire. Nucky Thompson's an election-rigging corpuscle of corruption, his common-law wife (Kelly Macdonald) rationalizes his behavior and regularly lies for him, his former protege Jimmy Darmody (the incredibly charismatic Michael Pitt) doesn't appreciate his guidance and kills someone in cold blood during every single episode, his own mentor the Commodore has a face that looks like a leather purse, and Nucky's two stepchildren would probably be better off on a raft back to Ireland. Last night the introduction of a new Jewish character featured him sharpening his knives.
Nucky's black friend Chalky White (Michael Kenneth Williams) can't even get a hero's welcome after he assassinates a Klansmen defending his family. In order to make Paz de la Huerta sympathetic, the writers of Boardwalk Empire put a bun in her oven, forced her to weep for an entire sixty minutes and had her threaten to throw her gigantic pregnant body down a flight of stairs. I still didn't give a shit. As for the woman formerly known as Gretchen Mol, she wouldn't be sympathetic if she was falling from the World Trade Center.
It doesn't help that at least twenty percent of each episode of Boardwalk Empire is devoted to making sure we know what racist and sexist bastards everyone in this time period was. Granted, no one on the show is quite as unsympathetic or unrepentantly sexist as the fat guy on Mike & Molly, but they all are generally disgusted by members of other ethnic groups. You'd need a scorecard to really remember who is Italian, who is Irish, and who just eats a lot of pasta or potatoes. Usually you know if someone's black, although that is mostly because only one black character, Chalky, is permitted emotions slightly more complex than indignation or anger.
Actually, Chalky has been permitted to have scenes with other actors of color this season. He saw some black guys in prison and pretended he could read, wasn't that a hoot? In last night's episode, he freaked out on his family because his daughter ("Princess", smh) brought home an educated black man who was interested in medicine. It was unclear whether Chalky was upset because of the exorbitant cost of malpractice insurance, or if he was just really drunk on Nucky Thompson's watered-down whiskey.
In either case, he went from loving father and husband to wanton degenerate in about forty-five minutes, which would be uniquely captivating if every other father on the show wasn't also a total fucking shitface.
Even if you can't care about Boardwalk Empire's characters, you should be able to at least get a little turned on. What passes for sex on Boardwalk Empire is a cartoonish imitation of eroticism, designed to repel us from liking any of the people involved in it. Even the innocent sight of a naked breast is fed through a black cage of sin, or offered and then retracted like the promises Nucky makes to his maids.
The central couple of Nucky and Margaret is by all appearances completely chaste. Michael Shannon's prohibition agent won't have sex with either his wife or his pregnant mistress, Chalky White isn't even permitted to touch his lovely paramour, Jimmy Darmody gets the occasional hug from his common law wife, Arnold Weinstein was apparently a closeted homosexual, and Meyer Lansky was 13 years old with a smoothed over bump where his cock would normally be. As it mocks the prudish prohibition of alcohol openly, Boardwalk Empire embarks on a subtler crusade against the enjoyment of sex.
One of the main reasons we look back at history is to find those people who wanted to achieve something beyond their own time. No one on Boardwalk Empire wants to do anything great. They're all super satisfied with the inventions of the early 20th century. When they talk on the telephone they stick out their elongated pinkie fingers in the air; when they ride around in a motorcoach they sniff its filthy exhaust as if it were an opiate. They don't want do anything. Remind you of anybody?
I'm willing to witness the shady backstage dealings of some not very imaginative or interesting people if in the end they either get their just deserts by paying for their sins, or come out magnificently scot-free despite their foibles. History — real history — ruins this possibility. For christ's sake, I already know the date of Nucky Thompson's death, and I have no chance of unknowing it. For the purposes of Boardwalk Empire, Nucky is as immortal as a fucking Highlander.
With that said, there's a part of me that loves how different Boardwalk Empire is from the rest of television. Granted, it's not exactly an imaginative difference, but you can appreciate all that must go into it — like eating an elaborately prepared meal that tastes no better than the drive-thru at Burger King. It is what makes the lack of satisfaction that could come from these characters, from this place and time, all the more frustrating.
Some people go their entire lives without admitting an essential truth: they are desperately seeking someone to admire. I too succumb to this fundamental human urge from time to time (until I find a very tall & wide mirror). When I attempt to worship a person, they end up cheating on their wife, or starting a federal campaign against obesity, or telling me they respect Ezra Klein, or inadvertently allowing me to learn they subscribe to The Atlantic Monthly, perhaps when I drop a deuce in their bathroom.
When I was in high school in Wyoming, I idealized a certain woman, call her Evelyn. Every gesture she made was like the wave of a wand; our conversations were ebullient displays of equanimity. Once I came — no orgasm, simply a discrete ejaculation in my pleated khakis — when Evelyn hugged me after I'd explained the Pythagorean theorem. Nothing could ever be the same after that. Eventually, she started dating a guy whose penis resembled the Washington Monument in both proportions and color.
Evelyn was a shitty person but potentially a great character on Boardwalk Empire. In last night's episode, Jimmy Darmody's wife Angela (Aleksa Palladino) painted his disfigured bodyguard and chaffeur Richard Harrow. He took off the half-mask that covers the wounds he obtained in the Great War. He tells her a very moving story about how, after his twin sister Emily cared for his wounds, he became unable to love her as he did before. It is a vaguely threatening fable about how knowing everything about someone is tantamount to destroying them.
Captivated by how he integrates savagery and vulnerability in one person, Angela sketches him as best she is able. Before the final product is revealed to us, Angela seems the exception to the rule: she alone aspires to something ineffable, something immortal and everlasting, beyond time. Then, with a start, we see Richard Harrow as she has depicted him. It is the image of a man, and nothing more.
Dick Cheney is the senior contributor to This Recording. He is the former vice president of the United States. He last wrote in these pages about Vince Gilligan's Breaking Bad. You can find an archive of his writing on This Recording here.
"Through the Dirt and the Gravel" - We Were Promised Jetpacks (mp3)
"Picture of Health" - We Were Promised Jetpacks (mp3)
"Hard to Remember" - We Were Promised Jetpacks (mp3)