Saturday, November 6, 2010

Broken Sidewalk: HBO's Boardwalk Empire

Steve Buscemi in Boardwalk Empire.

Now 8 episodes into its 12-episode run, HBO's Boardwalk Empire (created by Terence Wintner, a writer on The Sopranos), is an unfocused mess. Telling the story of Enoch 'Nucky' Thompson, king of Atlantic City in the 1920s, Boardwalk Empire tries to embrace both the mantles of The Sopranos coupled with the period cool surrounding another Soprano alum's show, Matthew Weiner's Mad Men. But it just doesn't work for an untold number of reasons. Thompson was a real person who was simultaneously a crook and a politician (better crook than politician). Well, he's almost real. Based on Eunuch 'Nucky' Johnson, Thompson is not the problem with the show. As played by perennial supporting player, Steve Buscemi, 'Nucky' is actually a compelling character to have at a show's centre, and Buscemi is quite wonderful in the role. Buscemi has made a career out of playing second-banana weasels in innumerable movies, but this is his first legit lead and he makes the absolute most of it. You can actually believe that, because of his power, a man as unattractive as 'Nucky' can and does have innumerable women throwing themselves at him.

The problem is poor clarity in the writing and ill-defined secondary characters, even those, such as Al Capone (Stephen Graham) and Arnold Rothstein (the man who fixed the 1919 World Series – Michael Stuhlbarg) who existed. The water is muddied early when we are introduced to returning WW1 veteran Jimmy Darmody (an opaque Michael Pitt). The show is so obsessed with getting the look of 1920s Atlantic City right (the first episode was poorly directed by Martin Scorsese) that it forgets that the viewer needs to discover and care for/loath the regular characters. How can you really give a damn, for example, when it took me three episodes to figure out that Jimmy wasn't one of 'Nucky' Thompson's brothers, but just a friend/Man Friday. Historical characters flit in and out (such as, Chris Mulkey playing the corrupt mayor of nearby Jersey City, Frank Hague), to no other effect than to show them as corrupt and corpulent. None of the episodes that I've seen (four of the eight) are clear about what point it is trying to make other than 'Nucky' is a plucky guy who's good at collecting cash and making necessary alliances with whomever he needs to in order to keep his happy, corrupt carousel spinning. And of course there's a cop, of sorts, always in the background (played with a pole firmly planted up his ass by Michael Shannon) trying to bring 'Nucky' down.

Kelly Macdonald
Margaret Schroeder, a fictional character played brilliantly by the utterly beguiling Kelly Macdonald (No Country For Old Men) – a temperance woman/early suffragette who has seemingly caught 'Nucky' Thompson's eye, much to his chagrin – is almost the only really interesting character in this world of bad guys. Sometimes the camera lingers on her doing little household things a bit too long, but whenever she's on screen the 'noise' of the rest of the world abates and we have a few moments where I really feel we are seeing into the window of somebody who actually lived in Atlantic City in the 1920s. Ironically, as I mentioned, her character is fictional, but she comes across as far more real than almost all the historical characters.

The biggest problem I think with this show is that it is so obsessed with getting the look right that it forgets to bother really looking at the characters who actually lived there. It is a charge frequently levelled at Mad Men, but this year, after a very shaky first few episodes, time and again I thought I was in the 1960s with the characters, not looking at window dressing used to drape over ill-defined characters. (I think the fourth season was the best since the first, and the episode called “The Suitcase”, was one of the finest hours of TV I saw this year.) But Boardwalk Empire has thus far never gotten that balance right. It looks great, but I don't for a second (except when Kelly Macdonald is around) think that I'm watching anything other than a faux 'cool looking' set pretending to be the 1920s. Will I keep watching? Possibly, but only to see how it ends (if it betrays me as terribly as the season finale of Rubicon did, though, I won't be around for a second year).

David Churchill is a film critic and the author of The Empire of Death. Go to for more information.

1 comment:

  1. David, I totally agree with you, especially about Buscemi and Macdonald...Maybe season 2 could revolve around them.

    And maybe they'll introduce a character like Patty Hewes's grandmother, or even promote Macdonald as Patty's grandmother. That'll bring the audience in...