Married to the Mob
Alston, Joshua, Newsweek
Byline: Joshua Alston
HBO is gambling on a crime drama set in New Jersey. Sound familiar?
Some narratives grow so large and amass such power that they become bulletproof. Such is the case with the conventional wisdom regarding cable TV's big man on campus, HBO. The first is that the network hasn't had a real series hit since The Sopranos ended in 2007. That isn't exactly true--True Blood boasts boffo ratings and has won an evangelical following, but it certainly lacks the critical acclaim or prestige that The Sopranos brought with it. The other fish story is that HBO has been in a four-year shame spiral since allowing Emmy magnet Mad Men, the brainchild of former Sopranos writer Matthew Weiner, to slip into the welcome arms of AMC. Though network executives have graciously congratulated their scrappy competitor, HBO's anticipated new series Boardwalk Empire, which is set in Atlantic City during the Prohibition era, is bound to fuel notions of their historical-drama envy. Empire, created by Sopranos alum Terence Winter, seems almost self-conscious in the way it combines the criminal voyeurism of its former flagship with the persnickety period detail of the instant classic that got away. But it's good enough to make quibbling seem like too much trouble. Based on Nelson Johnson's obsessively researched book, Empire begins in early 1920 as Prohibition is just taking effect, at which point revelers spill into the streets, burying a bottle-shaped effigy of John Barleycorn, and, naturally, getting properly soused. Steve Buscemi stars as Enoch "Nucky" Thompson (drawn from the real-life racketeer Nucky Johnson), the czar of Atlantic City, a political boss as powerful as he is avaricious. As the townsfolk are playing dirges for their beloved sauce, Nucky is positioning himself and his cronies for a windfall when they control all the bootlegged liquor. It's the cusp of an age of unparalleled lawlessness and vice, and Nucky is three knee-deep steps ahead of it.
If the cultural relics of Mad Men seem shocking in retrospect--the consumption, the sexism, the unapologetic prejudice--Empire renders them quaint by comparison. The world of Boardwalk Empire is far more naughty, shocking, and decadent, and not just because of the latitude premium cable provides. Unlike the 1960s of Mad Men, when the advertising industry is an openly boozy bacchanalia, in Boardwalk Empire's roaring '20s, indulgence is forbidden--fermented fruit. Sexual exploration is in its infancy. A character sheepishly asks his wife for oral sex by reminiscing about his days abroad: "When we were outside Paris, fellas were talking about some gals they met--" Prohibition also led to the mainstreaming of jazz and integrated speakeasies, yet another social taboo being broken decades before the tension came to a head.
Where Mad Men is all about the packaging of desire, Empire is about the suppression of desire, how the more we try to deny ourselves pleasure, the more intense the hunger for it becomes. Johnson's book and its series adaptation aren't alone in wanting to explore the period; there was also last year's The Prohibition Hangover by Garrett Peck, and earlier this year, Daniel Okrent's Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition, which documentarian Ken Burns is using as the basis of a film project to be released next year. In other words, Prohibition is so hot right now. In addition to providing history with some of its most delicious villains, the Prohibition experiment is a potent metaphor for our recessionary times: how do we react when the party is over and the sobering reality of our reduced circumstances is staring us in the eye? …