Over the last decade we’ve witnessed the birth of a new genre of television drama – we’ll call it the ‘prestige flatulator’. Although it has found its way into many different settings and sub-genres, its constants are high production value, lengthy narrative arcs, and being very, very ‘Good’. Of course there were plenty of great TV shows made before HBO commissioned The Wire, but since its phenomenal critical success the concept of a ‘Good’ show has been cemented and talked about in very particular terms. Watching television drama has now become a display of sophistication as much as a source of entertainment, each new example garnering the same hyperbolic praise, regularly cited by their fans as being the ‘Greatest Show Ever’.
This feverish excitement is not a problem as long as it draws viewers to absorb, admire, and talk, and talk, and talk, and talk about genuine quality programmes – the buzz gives producers a mandate to back original ideas which might otherwise have been discarded or domesticated. It may become a problem, however, if the features of this new ‘genre’ get predictable enough to be catalogued and reproduced as familiar tropes, networks commissioning the next ‘prestige flatulator’ with the same routine pragmatism which heralds the latest ‘police procedural’ or ‘annoying twenty-somethings sitcom’. The question becomes: if the buzz surrounding a potential ‘Greatest Show Ever’ were manufactured rather than authentic, would we be able to tell the difference?
Boardwalk Empire (2010) presents us with the perfect test-case. Scripted by Sopranos (1999-2007) alumnus Terence Winter and with an extensive campaign of hype paving the way, HBO has done everything possible to get the most expensive pilot episode in television history gratefully received as ‘The Next [BLANK]’ before anyone even saw it. Hoping to lead by example, they took the unusual step of renewing Boardwalk for a second season shortly after the first episode was broadcast, suggesting that waiting for the show to air at all was a mere formality.
Their highest hopes are riding on the shoulders of Martin Scorsese, who was brought in to direct the first episode and lend his considerable aura of credibility to the show as a whole. It certainly fits his pattern – like Goodfellas (1990) and Casino (1995), Boardwalk Empire plays fast and loose with facts drawn from non-fiction writings on the gangster world, changing the odd name for the creative license needed to shape events into his preferred ‘rise and fall‘ arc. Here the focus is earlier than usual, taking us back to the modern mafia’s roots in Prohibition-era booze running. The show’s pseudo-historical setting has the potential to be fascinating. The eternal underdog Steve Buscemi has finally made it to the safety of a prominent leading role, playing the respected and imposing politican/mobster/hedonist Enoch ‘Nucky’ Thompson.
Winter seems to be writing the role as essentially Tony Soprano with a carnation on his lapel, suggesting that Buscemi may have been strategically miscast to ensure the attendance of his loyal following. Michael Stuhlberg (A Serious Man (2009)) quietly steals the show as real-life millionaire mob hustler Arthur Rothstein, who ruthlessly breaks the bank at Thompson’s casino just to make a good first impression. By the final scenes ‘Nucky’ is forced to accept that the liquor trade will inevitably bring a new level of violence and ruthlessness into his life, rammed home by the intercut assassination of mob boss “Big Jim” Colosimo in retaliation for his opposition to the lucrative new industry. A brief segue into The Young Al Capone Chronicles suggests the vast scope this story could have, should the show prove a hit.
The biggest problem evident so far is that, while it might look like a Scorsese film (specifically one of his recent, money-bloated Di Caprio vehicles), on first impressions the show has very little of the twisted heart that beats inside his greatest works. The filmmaker’s numerous examinations of American gangsterism have always been the best of their kind because he has never been seduced by the operatic grandeur epitomised in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather (1972). While others have often misrepresented the Mafia as a world of tarnished honour and nobility, in which even brutal violence can be presented as grimly beautiful, Scorsese has always been willing to expose the ugliness, smallness, and occasionally the sheer tedium of the men and actions produced by such a life.
Judging from this opener Boardwalk Empire is set to veer away from that messy humanity, being both visually and morally just a bit too clean. From the exquisite period costumes, to the meticulously recreated boardwalk itself, this is a show of expensive and tastefully shot surfaces. It has already been compared to AMC’s Mad Men (2007–), which has always had that quality of superficial beauty and, in its fourth season, is feeling more than ever like a slickly produced but fundamentally hollow soap opera. To an even greater extent, Boardwalk Empire and its publicity suggests that the ‘prestige flatulator’ has become a genre in itself, with boxes to tick and a marketing hype-speak all its own. There’s a lot to like about the show, and maybe HBO will get its wish and it will become ‘The Next [BLANK]’, but on the basis of this episode it doesn’t merit any huge levels excitement. We can only hope that this is the shallow jumping off point for deeper, darker waters, and that at some point we’ll get a look at the underside of that shiny new boardwalk.