Boardwalk Empire - Season 1
, 31 Jan 2011
Following on from the incredible but cruelly abandoned Rome and Dead Wood, HBO has once again chosen to take a gamble with a big budget period drama with Boardwalk Empire. Although not quite boasting the astronomical budgets of those titles complete with their lavishly constructed, historically accurate, set pieces the network has risked a similar scenario of having to cut short a classic whilst in its prime when ratings fail to match up to their ambitions.
HBO has become something of a unique entity in the television industry. Its productions are of such consistently high quality that they can no longer realistically be compared to anything else you will see on the box. Utilising the hefty budgets which can be generated by box office TV the average production is better than most films, both visually and in terms of screen play. They are distanced further from the mainstream through the networks disregard for the conventions of the television industry. Each title allows for a continuous story arc to unfold over the course of several series, each of these consisting of 10-13 hour long episodes, making up to 60 70 hours of film in total. Story arc progression bears more relation to a novel than a standard TV show or even a film. Many of the writers behind the more revered titles openly vent their disdain for the age old TV conventions which have led to programmes being structured more by advertisement concerns than artistic requirements. These guiding principles have been responsible for shaping dramas into a more digestible form for an audience that is - at least as perceived by the TV execs - addicted to fast-food entertainment. This culture has brought us to the 24 effect where a series is fuelled by a hyperactive concern for its viewers state of mind, and anxieties that if left to think for a moment they might switch off. Script writers keep their creations in a permanent state of cliff hanger, where ridiculous events can take place but have no bearing on the main characters or the world in which the drama takes place. In 24 America can go through a civil war in a single day but life still manages to return to normal at the start of the next series. For some reason which we have to be eternally grateful for, the execs at HBO have sided with their writers andcommitted to undoing this trend.
Although each hour long episode of a HBO drama can stand up to the quality of most films by itself (see the Sopranos ep Pine Barrens) few episodes canbe truly viewed in isolation. Primary characters can die at any time; major sub plots may come to a sudden conclusion mid series only for their real consequences to be felt two series later. Casually dipping in and out is not an option. Episodes are no longer judged as strong or weak, but only in terms of what they bring to the greater whole.
Of course, we have seen epic story arcs unfold in TV series before but with HBO they are not limited to a big budget season opener or a feature length climax where things may very well get real. Audiences are not viewed as fickle and insatiable consumers who need to be hooked into a product with season ending cliff hangers, or will they, wont they love stories. Each and every minute is as important as the last, each character influential, and every event will lead to consequences like a stone being dropped into a pond.
Being no different Boardwalk follows an extensive and socially diverse cast of characters which Tolstoy would be satisfied with, as they navigate the key institutions which make up the city, namely government, crime organisations, and families. The lives of politicians and crime-lords (often a mixture of the two), thugs, policemen, singers, housewives; all play a prominent role. Their existences are tied together by the flow of money and the lure of power and often cross over in an orgy of sex or violence (or again a mixture of the two). The threads are numerous and each strand has been delicately woven thought out. Having already established some strong roots, the seeds of some promising future events can be seen growing, including the violent rise of the young Al Capone, a disturbed FBI agent, and some classically HBO insidious women.
Unfortunately Boardwalk has not started without its teething problems. By the 5th or 6th episode everything starts to feel a little dry, and this is not helped by the two central characters of Jimmy and Nucky. Though well written and expertly acted both characters do not seem to work so well in complementing each other. There is a distinct lack of charisma or humour to either and you are often left pining for the more exciting exploits of Capone or the increasingly unhinged FBI agent. Hopefully this is just a matter of waiting for their characters to develop but it does seem to be something which the writers are aware of. You can set your watch by each ponderous section of dialogue being punctuated with another extended and graphic sex scene suspiciously placed to keep their viewers from nodding off. Though not one to complain about a healthy dose of stunning beauties in the nip these occurrences do start to get a bit invasive and then a little patronising. With the back drop of Prohibition and the swinging 20s there is always going to be plenty of excess on screen in the way of booze, money, girls, and guns. Everything just feels like a bit of fine tuning is needed to be done so there is no need to resort to cheap thrills.
Underpinning any concerns over Boardwalk at this early stage is the worrying feeling that maybe we have seen this all before one too many times. Agangsters life has always made the perfect source material for a character of angst, ambition and vulnerability but when weve been treated to the same epic rise and fall time and time again it all gets a bit hard to be truly excited about. Yet the 20s and 30s are undoubtedly a fascinating and iconic era, and despite the multitude of films already out there it does feel like HBO could offer a definitive vision. And we have learnt time and time again that HBOs writing teams know how to build a drama up. Lets just give them a chance to go somewhere special with Boardwalk they have earned it after all.
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