Most TV critics such as David Bianculli seem to agree that, if the Golden Age of Television occurred in the 1950’s in the age of I Love Lucy, than the Platinum Age of Television took place between 1999 and 2010, heralded by the rise of premium cable networks such as HBO. The Platinum Age was kicked off by The Sopranos and came to its natural conclusion with Game of Thrones.
One of the last great series of the Platinum Age was Boardwalk Empire. Most people don’t immediately mention it when they speak of the pantheon of great shows, but I recently rewatched the entire series and am reminded that Boardwalk Empire is a solid, consistently compelling piece of entertainment from start to finish.
The program was created by Sopranos alum Terence Winter and the pilot was directed by the legendary Martin Scorsese, so it is no surprise that it is a gangster epic. Based on a novel by Nelson Johnson, the premise concerns the passing of Prohibition in 1920 and the subsequent rise of bootlegging gangsters across the country. The protagonist is Enoch ‘Nucky’ Thompson (Steve Buscemi), the fictional crime boss of Atlantic City who is loosely based on the real life politician, Enoch Johnson. In the pilot, Thompson’s youthful protégé Jimmy Darmody (Michael Pitt), meets up with a young, inexperienced Al Capone (Stephen Graham) and the two commit a bold but ill-considered robbery of a shipment of whiskey. Naturally, because it’s a gangster story, the robbery goes wrong and a blood bath ensues.
Meanwhile, Nucky Thompson meets Margaret Schroeder (Kelly Macdonald), a young Irish immigrant who is a supporter of the temperance movement because of her drunken, abusive husband. Thompson takes pity on her, so naturally, murder ensues. And, of course, we have the dogged law enforcement agent in the character of Nelson Van Alden (Michael Shannon), who is dead sure that Thompson is a criminal mastermind, but who can’t convince his superiors of this obvious fact.
So begins the saga of Boardwalk Empire as we venture forth through this historical period and meet real life criminals such as Arnold Rothstein, Lucky Luciano and Meyer Lansky. We also meet real law enforcement figures such as J. Edgar Hoover and Elliott Ness. We even get to meet political figures such as Warren Harding and Joe Kennedy. In true Wouk style, fictional characters mingle with historical figures and small, insignificant events mushroom and have a major impact on history.
Sidebar: Dana, since you’re about the only person who reads this blog, you might not be aware that Arnold Rothstein is best known as the gangster who fixed the World Series in 1919.
On the surface, Boardwalk Empire is a crime drama, but as is often the case with premium shows in the Platinum Age, there is far more beneath its seething façade than guns, booze and blood. Since it is a period piece, we get to see the state of race relations in the country, particularly through the eyes of Chalky White (Michael Kenneth Williams), a local African-American criminal boss who is in league with Thompson. We see shades of the suffragette movement as Margaret fights for women’s right to vote. We see the lives of veterans of World War I as Jimmy returns home and meets his friend Richard Harrow (Jack Huston), a lethal sniper whose face was disfigured in combat. We even get a glimpse into the life of a closeted lesbian artist in the personage of Jimmy’s wife Angela (Aleksa Palladino.)
There are simply too many characters and stories to give their proper due in this entry. Special shout-outs go to Shea Whigham as Nucky’s brother Eli, Anthony Laciura as Nucky’s put-upon German butler Eddie Kessler, Charlie Cox as Irish hitman Owen Sleater, and Dabney Coleman as The Commodore, Nucky’s former mentor and the original architect of the modern Atlantic City. The Commodore’s lust for power is surpassed only by his lust for under-aged girls.
Boardwalk Empire is a masterpiece of storytelling with its intricate plotting, which sometimes weaves three or four stories together in various locations from New Jersey to New York City to Chicago. But at its heart, it is a crime epic, complete with the usual gangster tropes. Throughout the series, Nucky finds himself in various wars over booze and territory with Rothstein and Luciano, psychotic Gyp Rosetti (Bobby Cannavale), and Dr. Valentin Narcisse (Jeffrey Wright), an African-American drug lord who challenges Chalky, and even Jimmy Darmody himself. Since Buscemi is the unquestionable star of the show, you don’t often wonder how he’ll come out, but the enjoyment of the story is seeing how it plays out and which beloved supporting character will be the next to die.
Boardwalk is not perfect. No show can make that claim. Some characters exit the show before their time. The most obvious example of this is Jimmy, who exits the show after the second season. Alas, reliable internet gossip suggests that Michael Pitt was a talented but troubled actor and had to be let go for the good of the show. Other characters such as Agent Van Alden seem to outlast their usefulness. I found Van Alden’s arc to be fascinating when he was a pious prohibition agent who chased after Nucky, but less interesting after he fell from grace and ended up in Chicago in the employ of Al Capone.
Some critics seem to think that Steve Buscemi was miscast as an alpha male type gangster who controls an entire city. I don’t entirely disagree. I can buy Buscemi as the wheeling and dealing politician who is the master of the back room deal, but he doesn’t exude the menace necessary to prevail in physical conflicts with gunmen of New York and Chicago. Still, even if you aren’t entirely persuaded by Buscemi in the role, he is not a bad actor and the writing carries him through.
This is a minor nitpick, but the theme music is completely incompatible with the time period and feel of the series. “Straight Up and Down,” by the Brian Jonestown Massacre, is raw Scorsese with its heavy rock guitar feel and would have been far better suited to a ‘60’s or ‘70’s setting, rather than the Roaring ‘20’s.
The fifth and final season jumps ahead eight years and takes place in 1931, around the time that Prohibition was repealed in America. The truncated season has a Godfather II feel to it as we juxtapose a current day assassination conspiracy plot against Nucky in Cuba with flashbacks to Nucky’s childhood as he rises from poverty to power and makes one moral compromise after another along the way in service to The Commodore.
I mentioned that The Sopranos and Game of Thrones bookended the Platinum Age of Television. Whenever you hear those two landmark series referenced by fans, most will inevitably say something to the affect that, “The series is great, but the ending sucked.” This is not the case with Boardwalk Empire. Fans may or may not be able to predict the ending, but no one denies that it was fitting to the series that came before. The only two shows I have seen that stick the landing as well as Boardwalk Empire are Breaking Bad and The Shield.
It is impossible to reference the series finale without taking a moment to tip my hat to Gretchen Mol, who played the part of Gillian Darmody. Gillian is Jimmy’s mother and as the series progresses, it becomes clear that their relationship is far more dysfunctional and toxic than that of Tony and Livia Soprano. There are times throughout the story when I actively despised Gillian, but as we learn more about her past, I gained more sympathy for her. I cannot think of her ultimate fate now without being haunted by it. The arc of Gillian Darmody suggests writing that is expert at crafting the gray areas that typify the anti-heroes and anti-heroines of the Platinum Age of Television.
In a fortuitous turn of fate, I was putting the finishing touches on this entry when a news alert flashed across my phone. Michael K. Williams, who played Chalky White to perfection in this series, as well as Omar on another HBO crime epic, The Wire, was found dead. He was 54 years old. Mr. Williams was a master craftsman, every bit as talented as his Emmy magnet contemporaries like Gandolfini, Cranston and Dinklage. God bless MKW and all of his excellent work.
As for Boardwalk Empire, it stands up very well after seven years off the air. I suspect that history will treat it far more justly than it has treated its source material, The Volstead Act.