The new TV season is underway. As always, The CW got out of the gate early, and for what seems like the first time in a while, the four major networks are all launching the vast majority of their new series during the exact same premiere week, beginning tonight.
But it goes without saying that—NBC's attempts to make people care about The Event not withstanding—the most anticipated event of the new season was last night's premiere of Boardwalk Empire on HBO: A show that carries the prestige of Martin Scorsese making his first foray into narrative series television; a show created by one of the main contributors to the longevity of "the series that changed television," The Sopranos; a show starring notable and recognizable talent most well-known for their performances in the independent film world; and, of course, a show from the aforementioned HBO, which does perfectly fine (thank-you-very-much) with the rest of its current slate creatively, but suffers the slings-and-arrows of a preponderance of critical media who have deemed the channel modern television's Tiffany network and therefore responsible for always bettering the quality and influence of their shows. When HBO produces anything less than a Sopranos-like lightning-strike or critical darling hosannas falling short of The Wire while impish ingénue-networks like AMC, F/X and Showtime nip at its heels, the channel's perch at the peak of the mountaintop becomes tenuous.
Of course, HBO simply became its own enemy, and people don't treat HBO series like any others on television (even as the opposite has regularly proved true for its original movies). This reality actually informs this perfect marriage between the network and Scorsese; people don't seem to judge his work on its own merits anymore either. "A Martin Scorsese film" must live-up to, if not surpass, his estimable canon, otherwise the backlash begins rather quickly.
I'm not necessarily arguing that such consideration is unfair; we expect more from better artists in any medium, and often, I think we expect even more than they give us no matter how great the work may be. Sometimes we do the opposite as well, and I'm sure I've been guilty of this as much as anyone—forgiving missteps because of a general admiration; nitpicking because of a regular distaste.
I can't think of any network nor filmmaker in recent memory more criticized for producing disappointments that aren't, though. Several HBO series some have considered misfires are actually excellent television; just maybe not the level of "excellent television" expected from the network behind The Sopranos, Deadwood, The Wire, etc. But too many also forget that—its brilliant, now decades-old tagline notwithstanding—HBO actually is TV, and never more so than when it produces work within the series form. Regardless of the lack of commercials and production budgets, these programs remain television series, requiring different storytelling and narrative techniques than feature films. They are not 50-to-60 minute movies with an ungodly number of sequels. What that too often means is that episode one likely will not shock you into rapturous fidelity, and more often than not, even the best series will seem like they are just "warming up," a phrase I've seen in reviews concerning Boardwalk Empire.
The best first episode of any series manages a fine balance between total exposition that simply introduces the characters while simultaneously providing a tour of this new universe and launching at least a couple storylines that manage to support overall, season-, and even series-, long narrative and thematic arcs.
Episode one of The Wire was not yet actually The Wire that everyone (including some haters who believe it transcends the universal worthless medium that is "television") now considers among the greatest series of all time, if not actually the absolute best. The Wire showed sparks of what it would become, but it took patience. Not until the end of its first season, when all the pieces coalesced, did this holistic greatness truly reveal itself. I can make similar statements about Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Dexter, The Shield and just about any number of great series birthed over the past decade; at least those not created by J.J. Abrams or Ryan Murphy, whose goals seem to involve throwing everything at you from episode one and worrying later about how they'll find another twist on their individual gimmick or write themselves out of their multiple narrative corners. But that's a subject for another post.
Most television critics won't review a series based on just one episode, but sometimes, it takes more than the three or four screeners a network may send for a show to truly find its stride. The fact that certain series regularly take time to grow into themselves as well as to find their audiences, and that some of those shows that do are among the most successful in television history (Cheers, Seinfeld and most recently, maybe, The Big Bang Theory), prove this point. With the number of programs demanding audiences' time these days, the patience required for the best series remains in short supply; the economic catch-22 faced by the networks is legitimate, even for subscriber-based channels like HBO, as evidenced by the too-soon-even-after-three-seasons demise of Deadwood.
All of this prologue is my way of avoiding any full-fledged review of Boardwalk Empire … yet. And, in fact, this practice is one I will continue as I do my best to give all the new major network series (and several others) a shot, as I do just about every year, at least in private. Within this space, I plan to provide a (generally shorter) first take; a description of my response to how well a first episode captured my attention. Does the new series instill a nearly manic excitement to watch the second episode, or do I simply follow my general belief that most series require and deserve more than one episode for fair judgment.
For Boardwalk Empire, as much as it has in its favor, it also faces the high barriers of these extreme expectations. Has the success or failure of any series on any network symbolized more? (I don't include last year's failed Jay Leno experiment in this equation, especially since its failure was pre-destined at the time of its announcement.) With the money and creative pedigree behind it, critics and the general audience alike seem to want it to establish itself as the greatest series to ever appear on television while expecting it to be the greatest series to ever appear on television even as they simultaneously "know" that realizing this destiny as the greatest series to ever appear on television will prove impossible. I've seen a litany of comments ranging from tweets to published reviews presenting some variation of "It was better than I expected," or, "I really wanted to like it, but…," or, "It's not The Sopranos/The Wire/The Godfather/etc.
And no, it's not The Sopranos much as Treme was not The Wire even though its first season, in many ways, progressed with a similar slowness and narrative build. (Personally, I found Treme extremely compelling, especially as it progressed into its final episodes, and I'm eagerly anticipating season two.)
I'll admit, it's extremely difficult not to compare Boardwalk Empire to The Sopranos and GoodFellas and The Godfather films, especially when you reach scenes like the gin hijacking in the woods, the dinner party at which Atlantic City's most powerful discuss their plans to embrace Prohibition or the episode-closing montage of contrasting punishments, murders, power-grabs and everyday life, all underneath the prototypical Scorsese/Francis Ford Coppola-usage of a soaring musical score.
That said, I can't wait to delve further into this world. Yes, the production design is incredibly enticing, even if the opening credits feel almost too inspired by those from Six Feet Under and Big Love. At the same time, the credits adequately prepare the viewer for the photography's hyperrealistic lighting and somehow-saturated neutral yellows-and-browns accompanied by matte painting backgrounds, all which provide a different, and somewhat unexpected, tone than the spot-on period recreation presented by Mad Men.
This episode sets-up many storylines that should provide wonderfully entertaining fodder for quite some time. We're always so caught up in studying "The Greatest Generation" that defeated Hitler, I'm thrilled to see a modern exploration of the young men who fought and suffered all the same war traumas of The Great War that in 1920 still required no roman numeral. Jimmy Darmody (the excellent Michael Pitt) returns to Atlantic City from fighting the "Jerries," coming home to a country where supreme concerns over morality-issues were strong enough to push through a constitutional amendment to ban alcohol. Can you imagine such a country? Where religion and morality dominated politics to such an extreme? Why, it would seem so foreign, if we weren't living through this modern era where a woman who believes masturbation is evil might become one of a hundred of the most powerful and influential people in our country; or, if we didn't live in a society that for half-a-century has fought a losing war on drugs that only reinforces the lessons it learned from Prohibition.
I also found myself profoundly interested in the line I quoted at the top of this post that Jimmy says to the series's main character, Nucky Thompson, near the end of the episode: "You can't be half-a-gangster, Nuck." I could be wrong, but it seems that in Nucky Thompson, the creators of Boardwalk Empire want to give us a character who might struggle with his own views as to the grey-haze that separates a businessman who conducts some illegal activities with a gangster who lacks any sense of right versus wrong.
We don't yet know Nucky well-enough, but the writers and Buscemi have already noticeably separated him from the likes of Al Capone, Lucky Luciano or even Arnold Rothstein. Is he ruthless enough? In some ways, probably. And certainly, all gangster stories depict men who live by their own loyalties and moral codes, but the way Nucky reacts to his young protégé Jimmy's actions or to the troubled pregnant woman Margaret (the always-excellent Kelly Macdonald) leads me to believe that in his ideal world, Nucky would prefer to be only half-a-gangster; the most powerful and wealthy half-gangster ever, but one whose actions don't hurt larger society or embroil him in violent conflicts. He wants wealth, power and influence, and he won't refrain from ordering enforcement when required, but it's not his ideal cup-of-gin.
We'll see. I have not read Nelson Johnson's book which inspired this series, nor had I even heard of the real-life Nucky Johnson, upon whom creator Terence Winter and his writing staff have based their Nucky Thompson. However, that they decided to change their main character's name, albeit so minimally, indicates a desire to tell their story as opposed to, necessarily, the story.
With as large a canvas as Atlantic City, Prohibition and the rise of organized crime in 1920s New Jersey, New York and Chicago, I'm placing the over/under on Boardwalk Empire truly finding its footing as somewhere between the fourth and sixth episodes. Especially with this relatively new form of American television featuring seasons that more closely resemble the major network miniseries of the '70s and '80s, totaling anywhere from six to 13 hours and generally maintaining a concise narrative arc per season, I would argue that critiquing Boardwalk Empire before the completion of its first season is a fool's errand. That would be like reviewing half-a-novel, the first act of a play or the first 40 minutes of a feature film. Sure, maybe the series won't (nor deserves to) hold your interest for more than an hour or two; that's a fair choice for any viewer to make, similar as to no matter how hard I tried, by page 180 and the 45th time Bella and Edward swooned at each other in Stephanie Meyer's book "Twilight," I couldn't take anymore. Plenty of films are too long at two-and-a-half hours; it's absolutely reasonable that a season of any TV show, especially of this form, is too long at 12 episodes.
Does Boardwalk Empire entice me to come back for more? Absolutely. Does it represent HBO's complete return to the mountaintop of popular, cultural and critical leadership? Who knows? And really, who cares? But for now, Winter, Scorsese and company have established the roots and laid the foundation for one of the more compelling series currently on television. It's true place in history will have to wait at least until the end of this season—and maybe several more after that—before it can be fairly judged. Some time before then, quite possibly we'll discover that half-a-gangster could even be greater than the whole.