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Unroaring Twenties

The soporific effect of flappers, gangsters, and ‘Boardwalk Empire.’

Sep 27, 2010, Vol. 16, No. 02 • By JOHN PODHORETZ
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The past week was an important one for HBO, the cable channel that singlehandedly transformed American television 15 years or so ago when its bosses saw an opening and decided to create programs that would surpass the quality of what was available on broadcast. 

Unroaring Twenties

First came the ominous news: HBO’s audience is shrinking, though the decline is minuscule: 216,000 subscribers out of 28.6 million. A household’s cancellation of its HBO subscription could simply be a manifestation of the nation’s overall economic woes. Or it could be the onset of a stampede away from pay cable. This is the way broadcast television began to lose its audience in the 1980s, 10 years after the arrival of cable television—slight declines at first, followed by a rapid acceleration. It’s now 10 years since the arrival of broadband, and the HBO numbers suggest that broadband may now be in the process of doing to cable what cable did to broadcast television.

HBO moved into programming so aggressively because it needed to give its giant subscriber base more than just movies, boxing, and late night pseudo-porn. It had to give them a reason to be proud they subscribed, and something to talk about to other people. It got that, in spades, with its signature series, The Sopranos and Sex and the City. But it’s been years since they went off the air. Now the network has hits, like the incredibly violent and dirty vampire comedy True Blood, and prestige productions, like the $200 million miniseries The Pacific, but it does not have the show that dominates the cultural discussion. And that, too, may be playing some role in the network’s decline.

And so came the second important HBO news of the week: The premiere of Boardwalk Empire, a lavish new series so theoretically prestigious that its pilot was directed by the most distinguished director in America, Martin Scorsese. It is clearly intended to be the Next Big Thing. Its creator and primary author, Terence Winter, was one of the guiding hands on The Sopranos.

This is old-time picture-making on a grand scale, with period sets and hundreds of extras and thousands of costumes and fancy special effects. It has a wonderful and picturesque setting, Atlantic City in 1920, and attempts to tell the story of the creation of the great crime syndicates of the 20th century—which rose to power and influence with the advent of Prohibition and the instant criminal underground economy it spawned. 

And yet Boardwalk Empire is a dud, and a peculiar dud as well. At nearly every turn, it consciously evokes classic gangster movies of the past (and The Sopranos) in ways that only make you wish you were seeing them instead of this mimeographed copy. The concluding scene of the first episode is a headshaking rip-off of the cross-cutting massacre with which The Godfather concludes. The same episode features an important sequence set in New Jersey’s Pine Barrens—the location of one of the most memorable Sopranos episodes, also written by Terence Winter, who should have chosen a different setting.

It indulges in every other once-interesting, now-tiresome cliché of the post-Godfather gangster era. Every time a character inaugurates a long anecdotal speech, we just know it’s going to conclude with an act of violence against the person to whom he’s speaking. If the camera comes and crowds in on somebody’s shoulder, it’s a clear sign that in 10 seconds a gun is going to be placed against his temple. 

There isn’t a memorable character to be seen here. The protagonist, a bizarrely whiny political boss named Nucky Thompson, is entirely uncompelling. The usually wonderful character actor Steve Buscemi is utterly lost in the role. He is as comfortable portraying a corrupt politician’s glad-handing fakery as Mike Castle would be attending a Tea Party convention. Even worse is Michael Pitt’s Jimmy Darmody, the second central character. We watch him for hours, with girl troubles and job troubles and post-traumatic stress disorder from World War I, and every moment is an endless agony of pointless boredom. And on it goes.

All of this contributes to the essential inauthenticity at the heart of Boardwalk Empire. Take its extraordinary set, a reconstruction of the Atlantic City boardwalk that must have cost in the tens of millions. Not for a second do you lose yourself in it. It’s too clean, too spanking, too unlived-in. There isn’t a cigarette butt to be seen on the wood planks. It more closely resembles the Boardwalk Inn at Walt Disney World, just as Boardwalk Empire suggests HBO is in a period of creative decline of exactly the sort into which the Walt Disney Studio descended in the 25 years between 101 Dalmatians and The Little Mermaid.

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