For those who are not familiar with HBO, my first declarative act as a blogger is to get familiar. Year after year, television critics clamor over HBO programming ... but why?
The best reason I can ferret out has to do with HBO's exemplary track record. HBO is consistently recognized as a portal for both uniquely popular and critically acclaimed shows. Unlike most other cable or broadcast networks, HBO can proudly boast about an ownership of some of the finest representations of television 'art'. I use the term 'art' to denote a certain subjective quality of cinematic beauty.
For me, this recognition of cinematic beauty began with The Sopranos. But the list does not end there, not even close. The Wire, Curb your Enthusiasm, The Pacific, Deadwood, Oz, and numerous other shows have graced the HBO network over the last 10-plus years, each branding its own form of artistic craftsmanship.
Speaking from the perspective of someone who does not watch much television, Boardwalk Empire—HBO's newest flagship program—marks a significant continuation of this superb trend. A trend that is defined by HBO's dominance in the qualitative arena of stellar television programming. The reason's for this continued success, as it relates to Boardwalk Empire, will be discussed in the remainder of this post. This will serve as my first official REVIEW.
First and foremost, Boardwalk Empire substantiates the long held notion that HBO is a bona fide factory for above quality TV viewership. To those who are unaware, Boardwalk Empire is a new series that explores the dynamics of illegality in the Prohibition era of the United States during the 1920's. The characters primarily interact in Atlantic City, which serves as the central locale for most of the show's action—but given the historical context of the premise, Chicago and New York also play key roles in the setting of the show.
From a purely contextual standpoint, Boardwalk Empire explores the predominantly illegal activities of real life corrupt figures including infamous mobsters such as Charles "Lucky" Luciano, Al Capone, Arnold Rothstein, and Meyer Lansky. In order to incorporate more of a creative license, creator Terence Winter has veered from telling a strictly historical, documentary-style story by fictionalizing aspects of the numerous real life characters. This fact is most pronounced with the main character, Enoch "Nucky" Thompson -- who is played by prolific character actor, Steve Buscemi and is based on the real life politician, Enoch L. Johnson. This approach is pivotal to the suspenseful nature of the show. By eliminating predictive historical qualities, Winter can truly craft a fictionalized, engrossing story and simultaneously maintain integrity.
The acting in Boardwalk Empire is also above average. Steve Buscemi nabbed a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actor in a Dramatic Series while Kelly Macdonald—who plays Margaret Schroeder, an Irish widow and mother—earned a Best Supporting Actress in a Series.
Although, I find Margaret Schroeder to be an annoying plot device at times and difficult to listen to, Macdonald does evoke humility and complexity in her character. I do not know if it is just me, but I find her Irish accent to be incredibly annoying. Whomever instructed Macdonald to adopt such a hellish accent ought to be fired. But in the grand scheme of things, this nuisance does not detract from the overall greatness of the show.
I would be remiss if I did not mention how awesome Steve Buscemi is in this kind of role. His ability to portray a certain contradictory sensibility while maintaining credibility as a convincing bigger-than-life figure is exceptional. He is believable both as a corrupt, wretched figure and empathetic, simple man who is tormented by a troubled past. At times, I find myself feeling sorry for him while at other times, I completely detest the man. The ability of an actor to capture the dichotomy of emotions within a character's psyche is extraordinary. Buscemi, in this respect, is extraordinary.
One of the appreciably jump off the screen qualities of Boardwalk Empire is unequivocally the writing. The Writers Guild of America agrees, as Boardwalk Empire has received nominations from the eminent labor union for Best Writing in a Dramatic Series and Best Writing in a New Series. The show is heavily reliant upon a thorough narrative structure. Some viewers may find this aspect of Boardwalk Empire to be cumbersome and distracting. But I find this writing intensive quality to be utterly absorbing.
Boardwalk Empire operates from a reservoir of storytelling nirvana. There is so much intrigue and opportunity for compelling drama within the fabric of a Prohibition era story set in Atlantic City. For instance, the birth of the modern mafia serves as a prime example of the robust thematic quality of this period in American History. The groundwork for the Five Families was laid by the establishment of the Commission and the corporate style mechanics of mafia activities. Largely the product of real life characters of Boardwalk Empire—the seminal and devious, Charles "Lucky" Luciano, and smart and cunning, Meyer Lansky—the mafia finally consolidated its growing network and gained a stronghold on crime.
The extensive bootlegging of the Prohibition era, as seen in Boardwalk Empire, provided ample revenue streams for the budding mafia enterprise to expand its criminal reach. By the way, the word mafia at this point in American History was neither part of the lexicon or understood—mafioso were often called members of a vast criminal syndicate.
The continuation of corruption within the American political system, underscored by Tammany Hall style indiscretions provides a pivot point for the overall thematic context of Boardwalk Empire. Amalgamated by amoral politicians like "Nucky" Thompson, who implore avarice devices to advance political clout, politics have been routinely impacted adversely by corruption. Moreover, the practice of underground dealings with nefarious figures, such as Arnold Rothstein and Johnny Torrio also help to further consolidate political dominance under an umbrella of corruption. These aspects help drive the engine of a show that runs off of a pristine and stunning visual ambiance.
The elaborate undertakings that help establish Boardwalk Empire as a 'period' piece drama set in the Prohibition era are vastly successful. Aside from costing upwards of $18 million to produce the pilot episode alone, the set took three months to build. The boardwalk, the storefronts, the cars, the wardrobe, and the various visual effects all help augment an inherently sincere premise. In order to practically and emotionally invest yourself into a period style drama, you must have conviction in the environment the characters are portrayed in. Authenticity is integral to a distraction free viewing. At no point through the first season did I ever feel disconnected from the internal doings of the characters because of the set. The production designers and wardrobe professionals did a phenomenal job.
I liken the cinematography of Boardwalk Empire to the emotional investment of watching your favorite football team. If your not a football fan, just substitute football for any other passionate sport or hobby you enjoy. As a football fan, you mentally prepare yourself for your team's upcoming game and unabashedly place all your hope on your team's shoulder. The anticipation prior to the game is palpable. When game time arrives, your journey as a an anxious fan begins as you follow the team through a litany of plays both offensive and defensive. This core aspect of football is equivalent to a narrative story that can ultimately turn out either way. But the journey—actually devoting three hours to watching a football contest—is enjoyed despite any unpleasant result. You may walk away with a strong feeling of anger, frustration and disappointment, but your unprovoked, meticulous viewing prior to that climax was full of unbridled enthusiasm.
This transplant of emotions is part of what makes Boardwalk Empire such an endearing viewing. Though I may find plot points to be reprehensible at times, character arcs to be questionable, and dialogue to be stilted and trite at various moments, my appreciation of the show—as a summation of peculiar and intricately woven elements—is still clocked at a fever pitch.
The last time I eagerly awaited a show's next episode was when I was still in high school/college. The Sopranos was the last show I devoted ample time to watching. But with the sudden emergence of Boardwalk Empire, a show that one of my film idols helped deliver—Martin Scorsese—I now find myself rekindling that youthful enthusiasm for a new television series. Boardwalk Empire gets my full stamp of approval.
9 out of 10
* If you somehow spent the last six months stranded on an island, Tom Hanks in Cast Away style, here is a trailer for Boardwalk Empire.