Boredwalk Empire

the pleasures of the formulaic.

Steve Buscemi as Enoch “Nucky” Thompson.

Boardwalk Empire is the ultimate refinement of the HBO series. This is at once its great success and its ultimate failure.

The show recapitulates every achievement of past shows. Of course, The Sopranos looms large here. Boardwalk Empire serves as a kind of prequel that takes us back to the early days of twentieth-century American gangsterism as the program chronicles the life and times of Atlantic City kingpin Enoch “Nucky” Thompson (real-life figure, Enoch L. Johnson) during Prohibition.

We get the same complex family dynamics between uncles and nephews, resentful brothers and bitter fathers, adopted sons and alienated wives. We get the internecine struggles, the plotting, the black humor of violent deaths, the hookers with hearts of gold. We get the exquisite acting, the incredible editing, the taut scriptwriting. And of course there is Steve Buscemi in the lead role, with all the Sopranos connections (as Tony Blundetto, as well as director).

There is a good dose of Deadwood on the show, too: the obscure references and playful interest in the flavor of a particular historical period; the interest in older codes of behavior, both public and private, coming into contact with disruptive modern forces; and the similar clash between older modes of social and political organization and shocking new ones. Hey, we even get a lesbian relationship.

It also helps that actress Molly Parker, who played Alma Garrett in Deadwood, appears in sepia-toned photographs on Boardwalk Empire as Nucky Thompson’s widow. It’s as if Deadwood lurks somewhere in the background of this new HBO program, a pre-story about the coming of modernity in America. And as if to link Boardwalk Empire‘s outlawed alcohol kingdom to a future urban regime of illegal substances, Michael K. Williams appears on the show, mapping a version of his Omar character back onto Chalky White, a sharp, African-American businessman and political leader (actually Chalky White is more of an Avon Barksdale, but you get the point).

So, Boardwalk Empire fills in yet another gap in what has become HBO’s ongoing survey of American history, which is fast coming to rival Ken Burns in its televisual authority, and is perhaps even better than Burns’s triumphalist, consensus pans across the national past. For HBO’s fictionalizations allow for a more rueful, ironic, and bitter historical consciousness to emerge, peeking around the period costumes with a sense of just how far America has come, and what has been lost along the way—or perhaps what was never there (innocence, wholesomeness, simplicity) in the first place.

Indeed, when it comes to historical consciousness translated into televisual drama, we might even include the honorary-HBO series Mad Men here as a precursor to Boardwalk Empire (after all, Mad Men is cut from the same cloth, with Sopranos alumni Matthew Weiner as creator and producer and a now infamous rejection from HBO before the program landed on AMC). Like Mad Men, Boardwalk Empire takes great pleasure in showing us all the strange pleasures and lost rituals of a past historical moment that diverges so much from our own. We get, on Boardwalk Empire: birth control directions straight from Margaret Sanger; World War I medical tests; Warren Harding’s corrupt Ohio campaign managers; and various other activities at once familiar and as if from another country.

Just as Deadwood now seems a kind of prequel to Boardwalk Empire, so too Mad Men, The Sopranos, and The Wire offer us what will come next, a few decades later, when the phase of American industrial consolidation seemed to end, and we passed into another, more uncertain, and much more familiar epoch.

The problem is not historical here. I hope HBO keeps going with its saga of the American past. The problem is aesthetic. And the aesthetic issue is a strange one. For Boardwalk Empire is perfectly done. It’s wonderful and addictive. I could not wait for the next week’s episode. And yet, the program was also oddly moribund, stale, caked in cracked, formulaic makeup. It was an HBO Original Series on repeat.


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