December 5, 2010


All Hail Boardwalk Empire: HBO’s Atlantic City gangster drama ends its first season tonight—Allen Barra argues that its excellence is unrivaled in TV history, and has only seldom been achieved in film. (Allen Barra, 12/05/10, Daily Beast)

Boardwalk Empire, which closes out its first season this Sunday at 9 p.m., has gone for the top rung in terms of authenticity and much more often than not reaches it. Nothing quite like this HBO series has ever been produced on television, and only seldom in the movies. A comparison to The Godfather and The Godfather, Part II wouldn’t be misleading. Boardwalk Empire is about the children and grandchildren of mostly Irish, Italian, and Jewish immigrants and how they came together to create organized crime as a springboard to becoming what one of the mob’s giants, Meyer Lansky, once called “real Americans.”

For total evocation of period and mood—not merely the automobiles and fashions, but the sepia-toned lighting of the interiors, the ornate furnishings, and especially the music (Eddie Cantor, Bessie Smith, Caruso)—the series has no rival in television history. Atlantic City (actually Greenpoint, Brooklyn, across the East River from Manhattan) looks like a beautiful place for organized crime to be born. A crew of more than 300 constructed a 290-foot long boardwalk and, using an estimated 140 tons of steel, created hotels (including the legendary Ritz, the real Nucky’s favorite), shops, taffy parlors and photography studios at a cost in excess of $5 million. (The first episode alone cost nearly $18 million.)

It’s the closest thing television has given us to actually stepping back into another time period. The product of a collaboration between Terence Winter, a key Sopranos writer, and Scorsese, Boardwalk Empire has been slow to ingratiate itself with some viewers because it takes its own sweet time developing the characters and story line, and also because the tone from episode to episode–and thus the overall arc–has sometimes been uneven. This was probably inevitable, since Episodes 2-12 are the work of four other directors: Tim Van Patten, Jeremy Podeswa, Alan Taylor, and Allen Coulter, all veterans of the some of the best recent series on television—The Sopranos, Deadwood, The Pacific, and Mad Men. But this is a minor complaint about a show whose pleasures are so rich and varied–and when was the last time such adjectives could be used to describe a show about gangsters?

Some critics have complained that Boardwalk Empire is too much based on fact, while other say it is too much based on fiction. In the New York Times, for instance, Alessandra Stanley wrote that because “the series is based on a history book, Nelson Johnson’s Boardwalk Empire” the show’s writers “lack the confidence to improvise.” If Stanley had read Johnson’s “history book,” she would have found that it is mostly a social account of Atlantic City from its inception as a blue-collar vacation spot in the late nineteenth century to the coming of Donald Trump. In fact, much of the background for the show’s real life characters are taken from such storied texts about the early mob as The Last Testament of Lucky Luciano by Martin Gosh and Richard Hammer, Hank Messick’s Lansky, and recent books such as David Pietrusza’s superb biography of the early financier of organized crime, Rothstein.

Even many of the fictional characters are composites of real people. Criticism that much of the characters’ interior lives are invented is irrelevant; no one was there with a tape recorder when Rothstein, Lansky, Lucky Luciano, Al Capone, and other luminaries met in Atlantic City in 1920 to create America’s shadow corporations.

Why Atlantic City and not New York or Chicago? As Nelson Johnson writes, “When it came to illegal booze, there was probably no place in the country as wide open as Nucky’s town. It was almost as if word of the Volstead Act never reached Atlantic City.”

Enhanced by Zemanta

Posted by Orrin Judd at December 5, 2010 8:36 AM
blog comments powered by Disqus