Thursday, November 10, 2011

Boardwalk View from Across the Pond

Under the boardwalk

Chris Philpott – View from Abroad

Today marks a week since Sky's new SoHo channel came on the air, launching with repeats of Mad Men and The Sopranos, and new episodes of Game of Thrones. How much have you been watching the new channel? What shows are you most excited to see? Or waiting to see in the next week or so?

I'm going to try not to blog about SoHo too often since not everyone has Sky, but Boardwalk Empire is too good to ignore. In the past week I've watched Game of Thrones, Rescue Me, Weeds, How To Make It in America, Six Feet Under, and TV movies Too Big To Fail and Superheroes, as well as a few other bits and pieces.

One of the shows I've been most excited to see isBoardwalk Empire, the period drama set during America's prohibition era and starring Steve Buscemi, which started last night with a two-hour premiere. SoHo also showed the entire first series over the weekend, which was a decent opportunity to think back over the tale of Nucky Thompson so far.

It seems to me that Boardwalk Empire isn't really about Nucky, per se. He's a known quantity - the poster boy for the phrase "absolute power corrupts absolutely", the man who automatically hands out cash as a way of making problems disappear (and how interesting it was that his solution to Teddy Schroeder's foray into pyromania was to hand him some cash and say "don't get caught, kid"), the politician who doesn't truly care about anyone except himself; as he said to Margaret during the first series, after she admitted she was being selfish, "I never hold that against anyone."*

Far more interesting are characters like Jimmy Darmody (the incomparable Michael Pitt), Margaret Schroeder (Kelly McDonald), and creepy prohibition agent Nelson Van Alden (Michael Shannon), each of whom has undergone radical changes since arriving in Atlantic City and falling in with Mr Thompson.

The entire first season was about the story of each character - Darmody, the former soldier who becomes a violent henchman; Schroeder, the morally upstanding citizen who ends up turning a blind eye to the immoral behaviour of her sugar-daddy; and Van Alden, the staunchly Protestant man who falls into temptation, self-flagellates to a photo of Schroeder**, kills a co-worker, and impregnates Nucky's former mistress (and as we saw last night, is hiding that fact from his wife).
The thing they all have in common is that they've been changed, even irreparably damaged, by their association with Nucky Thompson - and while Nucky is the sun at the centre of this solar system, their journeys are what keeps me interested in the show. Sure, it's interesting to watch a dramatisation of the early years of prohibition and the gangster resurgence of the 1920s, but it's always investment in characters that keeps me coming back.

In a way, that's the real genius of Boardwalk Empire. It tells the tale of prohibition from the viewpoint of those trying to skirt the law, implying that we're meant to sympathise with the crooks, while simultaneously showing us the downside of getting involved in that lifestyle.

When we see Margaret deceiving election fraud investigators against her better judgment or see Van Alden showing his wife around before going back to Lucy (as we saw last night), it's clear that downside is, and those characters are, infinitely more interesting.

A few other quick thoughts before wrapping this up:

- Richard Harrow might be one of the most interesting characters on the show - he certainly became a favourite of mine last season, despite only a few short appearances. But that scrapbook he's keeping, with pictures of happy families glued into a Bible, can't be too healthy, right? I'm predicting an episode where he takes Angela and Tommy hostage and drives them to Detroit or something.

- Van Alden's wife is surely the biggest wet blanket in the world, right? Though Michael Shannon might be the standout performer in the series - last night being no exception. His droll delivery of the line "I'm sorry you had to see that", after Mrs Van Alden merely saw a list of wet venues, showed even he was enthusiastic for a weekend with his wife as I'd be with a weekend of Masterchef Australia reruns.

- Last, before you get excited about the Commodore's takeover of the boardwalk, don't forget that Nucky outsmarted him once before, plus Jimmy and Eli aren't the most reliable sidekicks - I think the odds are in Nucky' favour at this point.

What did you think of last night's Boardwalk Empire? Is the show more interesting because of Nucky Thompson, or because of the Jimmys, Margarets and Van Aldens of the show? And how much have you watched on SoHo in the past week?

(*) Before you say "oi, Nucky looked after Jimmy and looks after Margaret, he cares about them", even those examples are selfish acts - Nucky just wants to feel as though he has a son after his own was taken from him.

(**) One of the most disturbing scenes in the first series, and so much worse than anything else he might have done while looking at that photograph. By the way, is his marriage to Mrs Van Alden the most bizarre marriage ever shown on television? I dare you to try and name a marriage that was more dysfunctional.

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