Tuesday, December 07, 2010

 

Boardwalk Empire: Season 1 in Review


By Edward Copeland
We know one thing for certain about what will come next in Boardwalk Empire: another season of Boardwalk Empire. The ratings of the premiere impressed HBO enough to approve a second season for the impressive new series after a single episode. As for the content, who's to say? Creator Terence Winter picked an especially fruitful year to begin his story in 1920 and before the show even began airing he expressed hopes that 1921 would provide as much juicy material, indicating a plan to have each season take place a year after the previous one, the same plan David Simon says he's going to follow for his great new HBO series Treme. For me, I think I've come to the same verdict on Winter's show that I did on Simon's new one: they've started very good series that could grow to be great ones but that both fall slightly short of the best of recent TV dramas, on HBO and off.


BOARDWALK'S PLACE AMONG OTHER TV DRAMAS

Viewers most critical of Boardwalk Empire felt it suffered in comparison to The Sopranos, probably taking too literally the promotions emphasizing Winter's ties to that landmark series, the presence of gangsters in its storylines and the name of movie directing legend Martin Scorsese as a producer and director of the premiere episode. While Boardwalk Empire has not reached the glorious heights of The Sopranos, it's unfair to penalize it for not being that series because it has a much wider tale to tell than just simply a gangster story. Boardwalk Empire may not be as great as The Sopranos (yet), but its ambitions are far greater.

While it's been written many places, you can almost view Boardwalk Empire and The Sopranos as bookends. In the very first episode of The Sopranos, Tony complains that he feels as if he's come in at the end of something. Boardwalk Empire marks the beginnings, with a similar crucial moment in the first episode when Jimmy (Michael Pitt) tells Nucky (Steve Buscemi) after Jimmy's truck hijacking turned into a massacre that Nucky can't afford to be half a gangster anymore and much of the season details as Nucky, more comfortable as a corrupt politico, being dragged more into that criminal world. You also see that with the real-life gangsters' presence early in their careers such as Lucky Luciano (Anthony Piazza), Al Capone (Stephen Graham) and Meyer Lansky (Anatol Yusef).

This interaction of fictional, fictionalized and real people is another aspect of Boardwalk Empire that sets it apart and makes it more like another great HBO drama, Deadwood, and the novels of E.L. Doctorow. In a way, it lessens some suspense because you know that certain things can't happen to the real-life figures, though that actually penalizes viewers who know more than others. I've spoken with some who had no idea that Arnold Rothstein (Michael Stuhlbarg), Luciano and the others were real people, so they watch expecting a violent end for them as a storyline possibility when even a search of the questionable facts found on Wikipedia could set them straight on that, if anyone informed them that Lucky Luciano actually existed in the first place and that Terence Winter didn't invent him. For the most part though, everyone I've talked to had heard of Al Capone, so they knew he was real, but I wonder if we have Robert De Niro and Brian De Palma's The Untouchables to thank for that.

On a much smaller scale, I saw similarities to the way the series approached its method of storytelling to HBO's greatest drama, The Wire, with a vast cast and a more novelistic approach. It also doesn't bother to stop to spell out who all the characters are, it just lets you figure it out as the series unfolds. It also does what The Wire did so well: drop a seemingly insignificant bit of information or something that leaves a viewer with a question in one episode that you think has been long forgotten only to bring it back several episodes down the road before addressing its role or answering the query, requiring the viewer to pay close attention to really get the full effect. Boardwalk Empire also has a bit of Mad Men in it with real-world events that the characters comment on. Granted, most are issues in which the characters are involved such as Prohibition, women's suffrage and the presidential election but they also throw in other news of the day such as the women claiming to be the thought-dead Russian czar's daughter Anastasia or well-known books, movies and entertainers of the time.

One thing that separates Boardwalk Empire from The Sopranos is its timing. When The Sopranos entered the television landscape, it was a breath of fresh air that made all other dramas on the air at the same time look weaker by comparison. As I theorized in my post a while back asking if we were in the Golden Age of Television Drama, Boardwalk Empire enters a crowded field of quality, not only of shows no longer with us, but with ones still with us such as Treme, Mad Men, Dexter and shows I've heard great things about but have never sampled such as Sons of Anarchy and The Walking Dead. Still, as much as Boardwalk Empire has impressed me in its premiere season, I still have to say that the best current TV drama is Breaking Bad. This isn't a negative for Boardwalk Empire, just that right now we are in a period of an embarrassment of riches as far as television dramas go, so the bar for excellence has risen even higher.

ASSESSING THE FIRST SEASON

The series got off to a great start, helped in no small part by having executive producer Martin Scorsese direct the premiere, giving it both a cinematic quality and setting a great template for the series that was to follow. As I mentioned above, one thing I admired greatly here, and in creative works in general, is a respect for the audience that requires viewers to pay close attention to ascertain who the players are and what their importance is to the plot at hand. Too often pilot episodes waste far too much energy on exposition, spelling out in broad strokes who the important characters are and what the audience needs to be paying the closest attention to as it watches. When a work of entertainment eschews that dumbing down in favor of just leaping in to the story and setting and letting the viewer catch up, I find in infinitely more rewarding.

Much of the media campaign concentrates on the gangster aspect of the series because that's what will lure the viewers, especially those missing The Sopranos, but I find the political machinations just as interesting. In interviews, Terence Winter said at one point they considered beginning the series in the 1950s, but they really struck gold by picking 1920. Look at everything that was happening: Prohibition, women getting the right to vote, the presidential election, the fallout of the Black Sox scandal from the 1919 World Series. As a political junkie, I find it fascinating to watch as the parties were in the process of their great personality switch. Nucky runs the Republican machine, still proud of the fact that they were the party of emancipation and they still had a hold on the African-American vote because of it. However, the corrupt moneyed interests, which would really take charge in the Harding administration as the Democrats became the party of reform would lead to the switch we have today. It's still puzzling to think that the GOP in the 1860s freed the slaves and then 100 years later opposed civil rights and the Democrats, once the party that had a stranglehold on the South, lost that to the Republicans while taking northern areas that used to be GOP territory. This part of Boardwalk Empire intrigues me as much as the gangsterism.

You also have a look at the different levels of immigrants in the established Irish such as the Thompsons versus the relatively new arrivals such as Margaret. You even have people wanting to belong to the right ethnic group such as the Polish Mickey Cusick (Paul Sparks) changing his last name to Doyle to try to pass as Irish. Jimmy's decision to leave his rising rank in the Chicago mob comes about when he buys Nucky's argument that an Irishman won't go far in an organization run by Italians. Then there is the anti-Semitism practiced by the obsessively pious Van Alden, not just against Agent Sebso but the dying massacre witness as well. You also not only have fresh memories of the Great War but people still alive who are old enough to remember the Civil War, such as the Commodore who lost his brother in the Battle of Vicksburg.

If any of the storylines didn't really work for me, it was the affair between Jimmy's common-law wife Angela (Aleksa Palladino) and the photographer's wife Mary Dittrich (Lisa Joyce). The twist that it wasn't her husband Robert (Josiah Early) that Angela was cheating on Jimmy with was a good one, but after that the storyline turned into a bore with a very predictable ending. That's one thing I have to wonder going forward with some characters. For example, Paz de la Huerta's Lucy Danzinger. Once Nucky cut her off for Margaret, it seemed as if she'd been written into a corner and there wasn't anywhere else for her to go except for her surprise romp with Van Alden. Though after the finale's revelation, when it appeared as if they were paving the way for a Van Alden exit, it appears that they have a twist to keep both Lucy and Van Alden occupied.

Speaking of the feds, I do worry that they are going to follow the route of The Sopranos and continue to make the feds completely incompetent or, as in the case of Van Alden, bonkers to avoid them ever making a case. Though they did answer my question about how Nucky learned so quickly that the dying survivor of the massacre named Jimmy because Sebso was on the take, they never did resolve how Rothstein learned the information just as quickly. It's not just how they bungle the people they pursue: They let Sebso get away with murdering a witness and Van Alden with drowning Sebso.

WHAT A CAST

Perhaps the most impressive aspect about Boardwalk Empire is the stellar cast it assembled from the very beginning, both well-known performers and lesser-known ones. Casting Steve Buscemi in the lead and as an authority figure was a stroke of genius and has given the great character actor the best role of his career as Nucky Thompson. With the exception of his single season on The Sopranos, Buscemi's work has been almost exclusively in movies and big movies as well, but seldom as lead, but he's proved he can carry an enterprise with his work as Nucky, though he is aided by an astounding ensemble of supporting actors. They even saved his most impressive scene for the finale as he tells Margaret the truth about his late wife and son.

In fact, several of the regulars were performers usually found on the big screen. Michael Shannon's brilliant work as Agent Nelson Van Alden comes just as his film visibility was becoming more recognizable and he'd earned an Oscar nomination for supporting actor for Revolutionary Road. It would be very easy for Shannon to go over the top with Van Alden, an excessively religious Prohibition agent obsessed not only with his target, Nucky Thompson, but with Nucky's kept woman Margaret Schroeder. I mean, Van Alden ritually whips himself to injury when his temptations start to get the better of him and drowns a Jewish partner in the name of Christianity, not necessarily because he suspects (correctly) that he's on the take, but somehow Shannon keeps it as bottled in as Van Alden does. However, when Van Alden does explode, Shannon's a wonder to behold. Michael Stuhlbarg had been a respected theater actor not much known outside New York who drew the spotlight last year for his winning work in the Coen brothers' A Serious Man, playing a role that couldn't be more different than Arnold Rothstein. As meek and flustered as Lawrence Gopnik was in the movie, Rothstein is smooth and assured. When Rothstein raises his voice in a scene late in the season, it's a shock because he's perpetrated his terror without yelling until that moment. His comic timing also can be exquisite when he's revealing information, even when it's not for humorous effect. Michael Pitt has been making the rounds on both TV and film for quite some time including Bernardo Bertolucci's The Dreamers, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Dawson's Creek, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit and Michael Haneke's ill-advised U.S. remake of his own Funny Games. Pitt's work always was competent or quite good, but none of it prepared for the depth he displayed as Jimmy Darmody, which only grew as the season went along. Then, for fans of The Wire, we get to see Michael Kenneth Williams in a new guise as Chalky White, a powerful African-American leader in 1920 and a far cry from his legendary Omar Little but he's just as good. Finally, it's great to see the wonderful Dabney Coleman in a series again, even if he was unrecognizable at first, as the Commodore. Though it took until nearly the end of the season to figure out his character's point with the revelation that he's Jimmy's father, I would still like some clarification from the implication in the first episode that he might be Nucky's father in-law and the father of his late wife Mabel, though I think I must have surmised that incorrectly. Also, though she's always listed as a guest star, Gretchen Mol gets one of her best parts as Jimmy's still young mom Gillian, still dancing, not afraid to sleep with Lucky Luciano if it will help her son set him up and still up to poisoning the man (I'm still not convinced Louanne was behind it) who knocked her up at 13 under the guise of a renewed friendship.

In my opinion, the performance that stood out the most was Kelly Macdonald as Margaret Schroeder and while she might not be as familiar to all viewers as she should be, she's been giving solid work in films such as No Country for Old Men, Gosford Park, Two Family House and Trainspotting. Macdonald's Margaret proved to be a wonder. No character transformed in the season's 12 episodes more than she did and Macdonald's acting made every change seem real and never hit a false note. One interesting thing I notice about the series in general, but about Margaret in particular, is the frequency of shots they liked to use of her looking at herself in a mirror. She always was reflecting on herself because of her duality, though she really was much more complicated than just two-sided. To start as the poor pregnant Irish immigrant wife of an abusive husband involved in the temperance movement to become the assistant at a high-end dress shop and then the concubine of the powerful county treasurer who realizes her own powers for getting what she wants and pushed into involvement in Republican politics as women get the vote, Margaret had a helluva few months. That's not even counting the unseemly obsession a Prohibition agent has for her or her growing unease with her lover whom she suspects made her a widow. Macdonald made every step of Margaret's journey riveting and more than any other character, I'm eager to see where she goes.

Then there are the actors I wasn't familiar with prior to Boardwalk Empire but who turned out to be invaluable to the ensemble. First among them was a latecomer: Jack Huston, grandson of legendary director John Huston as Richard Harrow, a severely disfigured WWI veteran who is befriended by Jimmy. His face alone, half covered by a painted tin mask to complete his wrecked visage, makes him interesting enough, but his odd gait and way of speech, combined with the fact that though he's friendly enough to those on his side, he's also an emotionless killing machine because he's lost all connection to the world. Al Capone has been portrayed many times by many actors, but Stephen Graham puts an exciting, fresh spin on the legendary mobster in his formative years when he was just a driver and still acted like an immature kid. Graham's performance was all the more impressive once I learned the actor was British. Anthony Lacuira has proved to be a delight as Nucky's all-purpose manservant Eddie Kessler and I was surprised to learn, by an accident of researching the actress who guest-starred as Sophie Tucker, that he is a well-regarded opera tenor. I'm curious if we'll ever hear Eddie sing. Last, but certainly not least, attention must be paid to Shea Whigham's work as Nucky's younger brother Eli, the county sheriff and Nucky's chief enforcer. Whigham's performance usually relies on subtlety to convey his jealousy of his brother's position and his own lack of self-esteem, but he pulls it off well. This doesn't even mention all of the guest stars who pop up for just an episode or two. Boardwalk Empire may well be the best cast series on television.

WHERE DOES IT GO FROM HERE?

The finale has definitely set up the next season as the plotting of the Commodore and Eli to take down Nucky with Jimmy caught in the middle. With the resolution of the conflict between Nucky and Rothstein, I wonder how much of a role the gangster side still will play. In fact, how can they justify the continued presence of Rothstein, Luciano and Capone as characters in the Atlantic City story? The Sopranos often had main credit characters who only appeared for a single season (though their exit was usually do to their character's demise).

We won't be facing an election year, so that will change the game a bit as will considering what kind of warped child would be formed when Van Alden's sperm fertilizes Lucy's egg. I certainly hope we get to see more Chalky than we got to see this year. The same goes for Richard Harrow. Jack Huston is so great that it's a shame that so many of his appearances ended up being silent ones. As I mentioned in yesterday's recap, there should have been some sort of resolution to Mickey Doyle's character. Whatever happened to the charges that he (and Ward Boss Neary for that matter) faced from the feds? Nucky presumably wouldn't be eager to add him back to the payroll and since the D'Alessios already would have known he turned on them, if they'd killed him, I'm sure we would have heard about it. Does his character have anywhere to go?

Of course, what really bears watching will be the continued evolution of the relationship between Nucky and Margaret. She's obviously made the decision that staying with him is enough sin that she can live with, but will he stay on the straight and narrow? Make an honest woman of her? I do know that based on its first season, Boardwalk Empire will definitely be worth watching to see how it (and its depiction of Atlantic City) develops. I hope Scorsese lives up to his word and directs some more episodes. Most of all, I hope that this very expensive series, which replaces Mad Men as the best-looking show on television, doesn't meet the same fate as costly series such as Rome and Deadwood: a premature end.



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Comments:
One thing I don't think there's any risk of is a premature end. The show seems to be hugely popular and virtually everyone I know watches and loves it. It seems to be a concensus favorite and pretty safe in that regard.

Anyway, I thought the first season was fantastic, but as much as I loved it all, I'm somehow even more excited by what they've set up for season 2, with Nucky facing internal threats from the trio of Jimmy, Eli and the Commodore. The show has a lot of places to go from here, and if they keep up the same level of sharp writing, deep characterization and subtle thematic development, I'm very excited to keep watching. There are some small niggling problems (mostly on the feds side) but otherwise the show is exceptional.
 
I hope so. I'm still too scarred by the Deadwood experience.
 
I had high hopes and I ended up quitting after episode 7. I thought the premise had so much potential -- so many interesting things could be said about Prohibition, political corruption, society's relationship to alcohol. Instead the show just used generic gangster situations whenever it could. Buscemi is sleepwalking and the show tries really hard to make him a kinder, gentler boss with feelings, so we can root for him -- but the most honest shows about crime don't sugarcoat the "crime" part. More importantly, the show seemed to have nothing interesting to say about those larger issues. Wire, Sopranos, Deadwood, and Mad Men all have big thematic takeaways. What is Boardwalk Empire's? To me, it just doesn't seem like a deep or smartly-written show. Instead it's run-of-the-mill gangster stuff with mildly interesting characters.
 
Actually, you checked out after what I agree was the season's weakest episode (aside from the introduction of the great Richard Harrow character), but I disagree with you as a whole. It had so much more to say than just gangster stuff. The political developments were much more interesting and it may have the best acting ensemble on TV. In the finale, Buscemi got his best scene of the whole year. With its mixture of real-life figures and fictional ones, it's become all the more fascinating. It's not just a show about gangsters, it's also covering that crucial time period when the two political parties basically swapped identities.
 
Totally agree with you on Kelly Macdonald's performance and development. Was disappointed her relationship with Nucky does seem to be deteriorating (I'm only half way through season 2) but then I guess that was what was to be expected.

I think The Soprano's is still a superior drama as I do find the plot a bit too dense and the lack of character familiarity problematic at times.
 
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