Jeresy Boys

By Franklin, Nancy | The New Yorker, September 20, 2010 | Go to article overview

Jeresy Boys


Franklin, Nancy, The New Yorker


After "The Sopranos" ended its eight-year run on HBO, in 2007, the cable channel's other programming had to suffer frequent unfavorable comparisons with that series. Over time, though, the droning voices of critics (this one among them) and unpaid viewers lamenting what seemed to be a fall from greatness have grown quieter. For one thing, with "The Sopranos" off the air "The Wire" started to get the attention it deserved. And, for better or for worse, HBO was freed from the constant, expectant scrutiny of viewers by the excellent shows that cropped up on other cable channels. If there was some slack in HBO's offerings, Showtime and AMC made up for it; by last year, AMC's "Breaking Bad" and "Mad Men" had become appointment television for increasing numbers of obsessive fans. But HBO's breather is about to end, with the premiere, on September 19th, of "Boardwalk Empire," a series set in Atlantic City during Prohibition, about which one feels that it's fair to say "It's no 'Sopranos,' " because it doesn't just invite comparison with the earlier series--it demands it.

"Boardwalk Empire" was created by Terence Winter, a writer and producer (and, by the end, an executive producer) of "The Sopranos," and several of "The Sopranos" 's directors, such as Alan Taylor, Allen Coulter, and Tim Van Patten, are also connected with it. The star of the series is Steve Buscemi, who played Tony Soprano's unsettling cousin, and who directed several episodes of "The Sopranos," including one--"Pine Barrens"--that is a classic of black comedy, ranking high on almost everyone's list of the best TV episodes of all time. Presiding--looming, so to speak--over the enterprise is Martin Scorsese, who is the show's co-executive producer. "Boardwalk" is Scorsese's first foray into television (except for "The Blues," a group of seven documentary films that he executive-produced, each by a director with a distinct signature), and it's seemingly perfect for him: the story of a larger-than-life, charismatic, canny man, who controls Atlantic City like a Mafia boss, with an army of not always controllable underlings--sometimes comic, sometimes dangerous, sometimes both at once--and whose good works are made possible by corruption.

And yet, as familiar as this shaky moral ground is to Scorsese, you'd think the setting, the particular history of Atlantic City, would give him a chance to do something fresh. The series, which will have twelve episodes this year, takes place at a moment of huge change--it's the end of the war, the beginning of Prohibition, and women are about to gain the right to vote. We're aware, as we watch the doings in "the world's playground," that still more change--the city's death and its eventual renewal, if you want to call it that--waits far in the future, and we identify with the grabbiness with which people go after opportunity, with the melancholy that seems to suffuse the salt air, and with the jazzy tunes performed by the night-club orchestras.

Buscemi plays Enoch (Nucky) Thompson--an undisguised if not entirely factual version of Enoch (Nucky) Johnson, the political boss who ruled Atlantic City with, as they say, an iron fist for three decades, ending in 1941, when he was convicted of tax evasion. That crime was a mere twig in the forest of the crimes and misdemeanors of Nucky's career, and gives little indication of his role as pleasure poo-bah and godlike benefactor. (The series is drawn from a book of the same name by Nelson Johnson, no relation to Nucky, a lifelong resident of the area and now a superior-court judge there.) It would be hard to do justice to Nucky's grand style and excess, or to the great--and depressing--American saga of Atlantic City, and "Boardwalk Empire" doesn't meet the challenge. It's a big production--the first episode alone cost nearly twenty million dollars--and it looks authentic in a way that, paradoxically, seems lifeless. You're constantly aware that you're watching a period piece, albeit one with some vivid scenes and interesting details. …

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