Long Long Ago
by DICK CHENEY
creator Julian Fellowes
creator Terence Winter
Downton Abbey returned last night. Not in America, because that would demand that American television executives had some idea of what people in their native country wanted to watch. Instead, on HBO, we were treated to a solid hour of Terence Winter's effort to prove he deserves some credit for The Sopranos. He achieved the opposite result, since it is now obvious to everyone that the only parts on The Sopranos he was responsible for were the boring ones, like when Tony was stuck in a dream for the entire fucking episode.
Here are some facts. If you plastered Shirley MacLaine's face on every billboard and bus in this country, they would have had roughly the same anticipation for her debut on Downton Abbey that I have been walking around with since 2012 began. I don't want to think about my country anymore; it simply makes me depressed. I want to think about when another country was slowly being torn apart by an elitism that would give way to an even more destructive socialism, not my own.
If you just watch Boardwalk Empire as a series of soundless still frames, it's one of the best shows on television. If you actually have to watch the pallid colors and characters weave and intersect, killing and destroying each other whenever they aren't at rest, it's a great deal more exhausting.
Taking screenshots of Boardwalk Empire is a lot more fun than actually enduring it. "Gentlemen remain gentlemen only when they must," Gretchen Mol croons. Do you know what this means? It's not that I don't think I'm capable of figuring it out, but why should I have to?
When you kill off a bunch of characters on your television program, and one of them is not Gretchen Mol, you have some serious questions to answer. For example: how excited should you be about watching an entire season of men in badly fitted suits exchange packages of money and liquor?
Trying to find a place for your empathy to reside in this ethical morass is difficult. I would compare it to some current political situation, but that would slow down the number of rhetorical questions I plan to unfurl in this revue like so many overly clothed women. I have mailed them to Terence Winter in an envelope that included my head shot.
Most of the Boardwalk Empire premiere takes place at a New Year's party at the home of Nucky Thompson (Steve Buscemi). It's a completely transparent effort to save on costs.
It's now easier to list what Boardwalk Empire isn't; it's the only possible way of figuring out what it is. Boardwalk Empire is not a satire or a parody. It's certainly not science fiction, except when it criticizes doctors of the period for not knowing much about prenatal care. It's not horror, fantasy, or pulp. It's not exciting, interesting or fun. It's not something you should try to enjoy, any more than, really, you should take pleasure in watching Italian men executing gentiles and Jews alike as if it were mere sport.
The show's primary new antagonist is Gyp Rossetti (Bobby Cannavale). Even he looks like he'd rather be anywhere else than in Tabor Heights, NJ, where there is next to no natural light. After he is refused a shipment of rum from Nucky Thompson, he gives his new dog to Nucky's wife. The promise of the dog's head showing up in someone's bed is practically implied.
Meanwhile, the only domestic drama we can really feel invested in is the relationship between the one-eyed saint who used to carry Jimmy Darmody's water and Darmody's mother (Gretchen Mol). Remember her? I was going to say, "Remember her before she was hideous," but after a quick google search, I realize that was never the case.
British people just have a lot more practice at idealizing their own history. There were slaves in England; you just never hear about them. There was a Men in Black style mass forgetting at some Beatles concert in the 1960s and since then the topic magically never comes up.
I mean, who cares that the entire continent of Europe is willing to fill their eyes and ears with sand when it comes to the threat of Islamic fascism? (Rhetorical.) Look at this!!!
When Sybil came back to Downton Abbey, I jumped up and down and clapped. The only time I did that on Boardwalk Empire was the end because I was so glad it was over. I'm considering a back tattoo that reads, "THERE'S A NEW FOOTMAN IN THE HOUSE."
The new Sybil casually brings up contemporary novels like Swann's Way in conversations about her riding horse. When someone mentions liking Theodore Dreiser she giggles and licks her lips. If she wasn't a gentile, she could be Leon Trotsky's mother. If my daughter ran off with a Marxist, I would have killed Karl Marx. If he wasn't alive at that point, I would have directed my anger at Aaron Sorkin.
With that said, watching the magisterial Downton return to normal after the changes wrought by the first World War is strange. It's hard to savor the importance of weddings and arrivals when so many more important things were lost in that miasma of death. You almost want them to fast forward to the next war where we find a middle-aged Sybil and Mary shepherding Jews into a potential abbatoir below their sitting rooms.
For those in other countries, especially the U.K., the ups and downs of class warfare never completely lost their luster/lustre. Seeing them in their environment is pleasing to us; like watching through the plate glass in an aquarium. Part of the reason Boardwalk Empire has been more successful abroad than here is that it hurts so much more to be witness to our own foibles.
Dick Cheney is the senior contributor to This Recording. He is the former vice president of the United States and a writer living in an undisclosed location. You can find an archive of his writing on This Recording here. He last wrote in these pages about The Mindy Project.
"The Undertaker's Daughter" - Seamus Fogarty (mp3)
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The latest album from Seamus Fogarty is entitled God Damn You Mountain.