"Boardwalk Empire": The Halfway Report

by Angela Serratore

This is the way history works on cable — the period setting is condensed, amplified and sped up so that we can focus on the interpersonal relationships and dramas of our heroes and villains. You add enough historical ephemera to keep people who watch for that reason interested, anyone tuning for a character drama gets a venue more exciting than a hospital or an LA apartment complex and everyone finds a person/place/thing to plug into Google at the end of the night.

The problem with the first quarter of “Boardwalk Empire” — the first three episodes of its first season of twelve — as a cable television show with a historical bent is that it did the opposite.

Sets and costumes and those Google-able tidbits were allowed to spread out and take up valuable character-development space, and the thing about TV is that no one wants to feel like they’re in school while watching their stories. Casual historians get annoyed because they think a lot of the expository stuff is a given, and having it explained and explained again makes them feel like they’re being treated as stupid. Boomers who pay for HBO On Demand don’t like to be stupid. The other viewers, the ones interested in drama and Slutty Prohibition Agent Halloween costumes? They got a little bored. The result: some channel-changing, and then no one types ‘Baby Incubation Boardwalk’ into their search engines.

In the opening chapter of “Boardwalk Empire,” by which we mean the book, on which the TV show is based, we meet Atlantic City treasurer and de facto emperor Enoch ‘Nucky’ Johnson as he is dispensing a kind of charity particularly favored by those with ties to organized crime. A shabbily-dressed pregnant woman whose husband can’t stay away from the dice games or the bottle, worried about getting her children through the off-season, is handed a wad of cash and a promise that her husband will be barred from Thompson-controlled gambling houses. It’s classic Robin Hood stuff, and it is not so interesting — we’ve all seen the power-hungry crook deliver Christmas hams to the underclasses, right?

The scene is played for television in a new way. Steve Buscemi as Thompson (changed from Johnson in the script) opens up to the woman (Kelly MacDonald, who manages to appear wounded and not-at-all simpering) about his dead wife and assuages her concerns about sounding like an immigrant. They make a real connection, and rather than a benevolent promise to keep her husband out of trouble, Johnson offers the man a chance to redeem himself. When he fails this test, Johnson’s brother beats him to death and tosses him off the side of a boat meant for running liquor.

It’s the same linear story, slowed down and spread out, and for this reason, “Boardwalk Empire” is both a compelling show and proof that television has positioned itself to be declared as an ideal vehicle for telling historical stories. This does raise a question — do we even want to watch historical stories on televison? Aside from “Mad Men,” which is a well-written, well-acted soap opera set in a non-contemporary time period, it’s a genre largely filled with shows people rave about but don’t watch enough to keep on the air (“Deadwood,” “Rome”) and shows that are basically soft-core porn with costumes (“The Tudors,” “Spartacus”). The general philosophy of most of these shows is to present a condensed historical narrative. The real work is creating whatever characters star in the story, and everything else is done shorthand — Henry VIII gets to brood with his minister and shoot with his friends. His wives get a season or less before they’re divorced or beheaded.

The show is concerned with presenting a historical narrative in the fullest way possible — anyone who saw co-executive producer Martin Scorcese’s recreation of the Five Points neighborhood in Gangs of New York and imagined that film without the knife-throwing and Cameron Diaz knows that Scorcese is a closet historian. Lingering shots of Probhibition-eve parties and bootlegging operations that, for time constraints and focus group attention-flagging, would have been cut from a feature film abound here. Scorcese and creator Terence Winter (like “Mad Men”’s Matthew Weiner) clearly delight in the idea that his project will inspire a new crop of footnoters — when, in Episode 3, Michael K. Williams’ Chalky White, the Nucky Thompson of Atlantic City’s black community, uses the word “motherfucker,” it prompts Thompson to wonder aloud where the phrase came from. To the Internet, everyone!

Factoids aside, Winter and Scorcese have their own lesson plan.

Take, for example, the inclusion of real-life organized crime figures. Usually rife with stereotypical guido posturing, these figures show up in movies about gangland and get three minutes to make themselves known, at which point audiences are supposed to laugh knowingly or cringe at the reduction of complex figures to props with bad Brooklyn accents. “Empire” avoids this trap by making Arnold Rothstein, Charles Luciano, and Al Capone (who is, it should be said, played by Brit Stephen Graham with grit and humor) series regulars. Rothstein is a tightly-wound teetotaler, Luciano a smoldering menace, and Capone a young driver hungry for the chance to sell out his bosses and make his own luck. We know the legends of these characters but the show is now beginning to prove its interested in interrupting our suppositions — that instead of simply pandering to an audience desire to be in on a joke, it’s going to tell us a story we don’t think we know.

And yet! Maybe reducing things to cliche is a way to preserve context without sacrificing narrative. On “Mad Men,” when Peggy Olsen finds herself in a psuedo-Factory loft downtown, the Warhol stand-in is cringeworthy in his embodiment of everything associated with that scene, but we don’t mind because we’re not there to learn about video installations — we’re there to watch Peggy learn about video installations. Surely assistants and interns spent hours digging through photos and invite lists to make sure that the party scene looked exactly as it was supposed to, but the filmed result is effortless; a feast for the eyes and ears, sure, but first and foremost a venue for character development.

Contrast that with, well, any expository scene from the first quarter of “Boardwalk.” When Thompson and protege Jimmy (Michael Pitt) tour a bootlegging operation attached to a funeral parlor, it reads like an AP History class video on the process of turning legitimate Canadian Club whiskey into something worse than moonshine, albeit an extraordinarily well-shot one. We learn nothing about Thompson or Jimmy that we didn’t already know, reinforcing the creeping sensation that they aren’t (yet) embodied with characteristics related to their era. In a pivotal scene from the first episode, young Jimmy warns his boss that it’s no longer possible to be “half a gangster,” but Thompson doesn’t feel like a part of American criminal society on the way out, Jimmy isn’t a harbinger of what’s to come, and the (still well-acted!) tension falls flat.

Pedanticism is always a tough sell. But! Its fastiduousness is at times luxurious (the sets, in particular, are masterful), especially to those of us who grew up playing games we’d invented after trips to historic house museums (yes, this is a thing). More importantly, “Boardwalk Empire” has been unveiling itself as a love story. We want Thompson and Schroeder’s budding romance to be real — for his desire to shift entirely from amazingly dumb nightclub floozies to this sensible, smart woman, and for her to find the happiness and respect the abused immigrant wife never gets. Instead, she waits by her new telephone like every lover of Don Draper or Tony Soprano, but more intensely, because waiting by the phone for your man to call wasn’t even a thing women did yet! And meanwhile, married government man Michael Shannon flagellates himself to her picture. Do either of these men love her? Do they posess the ability to love her more than they love power or Prohibition? Will Jimmy’s attachment to a Chicago prostitute and her gruesome demise (plus the four or so additional bodies he adds to his tally) quash any chance he has at a normal family life? Will Charles Luciano give himself chlamydia again once he learns he’s been sleeping with Jimmy’s mother?

So now you see there are questions about “Boardwalk Empire” that Google can’t answer.

And Nucky and Margaret and Jimmy are real people, and it’s hard to tell if the schoolmarmishness of the early episodes is wearing off or if the characters have caught up with it. I can’t be the only one who drew a sharp breath and made a mental note to further investigate when Margaret reads about douching with Lysol before returning to Nucky’s arms, can I?

It remains to be seen whether a show that takes its time getting its hooks in can be successful in Our Modern Times. I’ve yet to hear about people dressing up as Nucky Thompson for Halloween. Some people are even beginning to escape the sensation that, since season two is already promised, that we might as well watch through season one, as if it were our medicine.

Angela Serratore is a writer/historian in Los Angeles