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Boardwalk Empire: Season I

Well, I quite enjoyed that.

Better Nuck on wood the show stays this good...

Let’s be honest, a lot of iconic television shows have ended in the last number of years. Shows like The Wire or The Sopranos or even Battlestar Galactica. To be frank, we haven’t seen a large number of new shows rising up to replace them. There’s a lot of debate and discussion about what the best shows on television are at the moment, rather than there being a strong core of shows which consistently represent the very best stuff being broadcast. If you asked me to name the show that most people would consider the best on television at the moment, I’d probably come back with Mad Men, but struggle to identify another.

I like thank HBO for that. In the past decade, the company has redefined the quality of television as a medium, whether for drama or comedy. Although one can point to any number of dramas which are worth of attention, I don’t think any network has consistently produced that level of high-quality drama over such a long period of time. And, to be frank, I think we’ve seen a lot of their good work filter down through to other channels. I think that a lot of the shows that we find on the air today owe a huge debt to those big HBO properties.

Tonight were going to party like its 1919...

As such, it’s understandable that HBO has struggled to replace that iconic line-up. In recent years, every drama they’ve put out has found itself gasping for air under the weight of expectations, as it is undoubtedly measured against those hugely popular hits. I’d argue it’s an unfair comparison – each time you revolutionise or redefine a medium in a way that HBO did, it becomes harder to do it again. When the box gets bigger, it becomes harder to think outside it.

So I don’t think Boardwalk Empire redefined television or anything like that. I don’t think it will win any converts to the medium that weren’t impressed with Tony Soprano’s antics. While it was lavishly produced and excellently acted, it isn’t by any means perfect, and it’s certainly not the shock to the system that those earlier productions were. And, yet, I am perfectly happy with it – even impressed. I will be back next year, as will my parents.

Fed up?

Why? Because, unlike a lot of new drama this year, Boardwalk Empire managed to walk through its first season without falling, even with what seemed like the entire world watching. It was consistently entertaining, beautifully stage, wonderfully acted and cleverly written. It didn’t reinvent the wheel, but the wheel doesn’t need reinventing – it works perfectly fine, thank you very much. When did being a great piece of television week-in and week-out become the standard of mediocrity at HBO?

I can point to any number of things I loved about this period piece set in Atlantic City. The performances of what is perhaps the best ensemble of the year come to mind. Steve Buscemi transitions surprisingly well from supporting character to leading man, as the show offers us a lead character mobster who is entirely different from Tony Soprano. Michael Shannon proved that Revolutionary Road was not a fluke, and offered a genuinely compelling look at righteous fanaticism as Agent Nelson Van Alden – it was fascinating to watch the character fall apart as he found himself in a city of temptation. Then there was Michael Stuhlbarg as Arnold Rothstein, who managed to steal every scene he was in.

Shows over for the moment, folks...

More than that, there was the wonderful way that the series did cleverly and skilfully develop ideas over the course of the season. I am proud to say that I guessed a few developments correctly (for example, that Louis was being poisoned by his maid, that Nucky lost a child around the same time his wife) and yet was way off on others (I honestly figured Nucky would turn out to be Jimmy’s father). As seems to be increasingly the pattern for television shows, it’s great to see ideas and suggestions hinted at in earlier episodes paying off down the line. It’s an approach that I do credit the HBO shows for popularising – of course serialised shows existed beforehand, but they certainly weren’t the norm among prime time television.

I have a soft spot for the way that the show integrates itself with the actual written history of the time. I was delighted to see Harding’s famous “return to normalcy” featured not only as a soundbyte, but an episode title, along with countless other historical in-jokes. It’s not too difficult to see why the concept of the show appealed to Martin Scorsese, who produces and directed the first episode – much like Gangs of New York, reality mingles with fiction, producing interesting results. I especially liked the inclusion of the infamous “Ponzi” scheme.

Worth making a song and dance about?

There were problems, to be frank. For such a large ensemble, there were a lot of under-developed cast members as a handful hogged the limelight. In particular, it seems a shame to cast Michael K. Williams as a representative of the African American community in Atlantic City, if he feels more like a guest star than a regular cast member. There’s a whole host of similar regulars who struggled to find things to do, particularly as Jimmy’s own subplot struggled to find its feet between domestic drama and mobster affairs, in both Chicago and Atlantic City.

There was also a strange tendency to give characters long-winded monologues. I’m certainly not complaining – they were always well written and delivered, but it seemed quite noticeable when the show devoted so much time to public speaking that characters tended to monologuing in conversation with one another, answering questions with stories and anecdotes. Maybe people actually talked like that back in the day (I credit the scripts with being wonderful eloquent, but never afraid to be grounded), but it just seemed strange. Not because of the content or any one example, just the frequency with which it occurred. The only other moment which took me out of the show featured what I thought was a rather poor taste Phantom of the Opera reference, with the score going wild for no real reason.

In the Nuck of time?

These are minor complaints to make, to be frank, and they are well-balanced out by the genuine love shown in making the show. It perfectly captures a sense of period, with the eponymous boardwalk being one of the more iconic sets I think I’ve ever seen on television. I sincerely hope that Gillette paid good money for all that advertising space, but it’s a nice light touch.

Boardwalk Empire isn’t perfect. Very few shows are. It is, however, consistently good. Very few shows can manage that level of consistency – and certainly none that I’ve seen so far this year. I’ll see you all for the rest of 1921.

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