Thursday, February 23, 2012
The Empire Builder
I'm not in the habit of promoting television. My antipathy for broadcast TV is one of my worst-kept secrets, * and so promoting any television show is reflexively difficult for me.
But I've never claimed there is nothing of value to be found on television. Currently I'm working my way through two series that have made waves, Season One of HBO's Boardwalk Empire and the first season of the British series Downton Abbey. I was taken enough by the first two episodes of Downton Abbey that I've stopped watching until Susan and I can watch together. And now I've finished the first season of Boardwalk Empire.
Boardwalk Empire comes from producer Martin Scorsese, who also directed the very ambitious pilot episode--which allegedly cost $18 million to produce (more than the budget for Niels Arden Oplev's The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo). The pilot was a big hit, and the season continued with another 11 episodes.
The story, for the uninitiated, plunks us down in Atlantic City, NJ during Prohibition. The city is under the control of its treasurer, one Enoch "Nucky" Thompson. His real job--which is how a treasurer runs a city--is boss of the criminal enterprises in Atlantic City, and especially the now-illicit liquor trade. In this he must deal with / struggle against competing criminal elements from New York City just to the North and Chicago further distant. While Nucky Thompson is a fictional character loosely based on an actual crime boss "Nucky" Johnson, many of the other criminals in the story are actual historical figures: Al "Scarface" Capone, "Lucky" Luciano, Arnold Rothstein, Johnny Torrio.
I suppose I'm more likely to get sucked into this series than others because I have a particular love of this era of history. Prohibition especially (as Ken Burns' and Lynn Novick's recent three-part PBS documentary shows) had a transforming effect on American culture, making criminals out of very many people and introducing vast waves of money and corruption where they did not previous exist much. This brought out a huge and colorful array of characters of myriad talents. The era of flappers and jazz and women's suffrage and Art-Deco-themed cross-country trains and stills in the woods and Tommy guns and fedoras. The era of organized crime.
This is all engaging enough in itself, and makes for a most compelling backdrop; but the series really soars on the strength of several key characters. Steve Buscemi plays Thompson, a powerful man but one who can be maddeningly hard to pin down. As the head of a criminal enterprise, he is not squeamish about harsh measures; and yet he is generous and can be soft-hearted. He seems common and approachable, both friendly and amiable and also a bit short-fused. And yet he is measured and confident as the need arises. His second-in-command is one Jimmy Darmody (Michael Pitt), a kind of surrogate son to Nucky who served in WWI and returned to work for him. But Jimmy's ambitions soon place him on Nucky's bad side. Nucky, who is unmarried, has an affair with a young Irish immigrant widow in Atlantic City, Margaret Schroeder (Kelly Macdonald). And Nucky is constantly under investigation by Prohibition agent Nelson Van Alden (Michael Shannon), a "good guy" who is pretty deeply fucked up.
I love that none of the characters is a single, pure substance. The bad guys are varying degrees of bad, with everyone having their humanity mingled with the necessary brutality. And the good guys are inevitably fallible, some egregiously so. And some are just a question mark, staking out territory on neither side of the line. This sets up a war of expectations in the viewer, a constant tension between what we expect and what actually happens--which as often as not differs quite considerably.
It is the relationship between Thompson and Margaret Schroeder that seems the most fascinating and well-drawn to me. Kelly Macdonald might almost be a young Meryl Streep, able to brilliantly do accents and to project a very broad range with complete conviction. I think of her as being kind of mousy in No Country For Old Men, (where her thick Scottish brogue was blithely replaced with a Texas trailer-trash twang) but she plays a much more nuanced character here. A member of the Women's Temperance League and a very pious woman married to a violent and abusive man, she is very far from Nucky Thompson's world as the story begins. When he begins an affair with her, she only dimly--and reluctantly--sees who and what he is, exactly. And this takes, well, the whole season to effect. By turns she becomes reconciled to things that were anathema to her not long before, and Macdonald manages this in remarkable fashion, neither surrendering Margaret's will nor making her foolish or indecisive. There's something deeply human in her character that is thrilling to watch. Likewise the great enigma of Nucky himself. Buscemi (who won an Emmy for the role) plays a complicated character, a back-slapping politician who runs his world behind closed doors with an irascible iron hand. I don't want to give anything away, so I'll just say that I was surprised many times at the writing and the character.
One other intriguing character--a smaller character--is Jimmy's friend and deputy Robert Harrow (played by British actor Jack Huston). Jimmy meets Harrow, another WWI vet, at a VA hospital where both have gone for treatment. Harrow sustained severe facial damage in the war, and he wears a tin mask over nearly half his face--his left eye, nose and half his mouth. The mask makes for a nearly-normal face (I'm especially taken by the fact that half of Harrow's moustache is depicted on the mask side), but the effect is strangely ghoulish; it's impossible not to stare at him. But Harrow seems an upright, if severely tested, man. Jimmy is taken by something in Harrow's pure but knowing nature, and befriends and recruits him. Masks are not a new mechanism, I know, but its effect here is to keep us continually off balance. Harrow speaks with difficulty and a croaking voice, but he is a skilled marksman and he has seen terrible things.
Despite very high marks for the series, there has been some criticism that it's slow-moving. But I reject this out of hand. One can get only so far with gun battles, and it is the (mostly) quiet interaction between characters that drives everything here. I was shocked at how quickly I dispensed with 12 episodes and was distressed that there were no more available. Season Two is in the can and will see a DVD release later this year. Season Three has been commissioned, and presumably production is underway. All credit to a story well-told that I'm anxious to see what will unfold with this cast of characters.
* About my tiresome antipathy toward network television: I'm convinced that if I could somehow eradicate television altogether society would benefit handily from it--the things of value we'd lose, and the impact they have, would be far outstripped by all the bad shit that went away at the same time. Much of what ails us in this life stems, I think, from the influence of big money and unchecked market forces working on the collective human psyche--inevitably working for the benefit of others. And with a step back we can see that television exists almost exclusively as a tool for players in these big-money fields. It is a key weapon in the commercialization of society, a propaganda tool for manipulating the thoughts and desires of a mass market (the largest market possible before the internet came along). It tells us what is news (and what isn't), we're supposed to want--and THAT we're supposed to want, what behaviors our friends will find hip, who we should listen to, what we should think about ourselves and what we should value; all the things we historically got from our community.
TV shows are vehicles for selling things. Make shows spectacular and lurid so we'll watch; watch the shows so you'll see the ads--the ads are really the whole banana. It now strikes me as positively harmful to let kids sit in front of the thing, or to have it blathering inanely in the background, filling our heads with jingles and catch phrases, all carefully engineered to sell shit that we might not otherwise buy. Some of it is stuff we need and which actually benefits us; but as with political ads I'm sure television is not the way for us to suss out what is true from what we're told is true. I steer clear of the whole mess by never watching live TV in any circumstances, and by waiting for series to be vetted by critics before renting or buying the DVDs later (I'd much rather pay for the shows themselves than let the advertisers pay and then make me watch the ads). In this manner I've watched all of Ken Burns's documentaries, and some of the dramatic series The Sopranos and The Tudors and Rome. I sampled a bit of Dexter and Weeds, and--wandering further afield--I've long been a fan of the original Law & Order.
Essentially these are my convictions. But I know there's nothing intrinsic to the medium of television that prevents it being used for profound communication or artistic expression like film; it's just that in practice these higher-brain values take a back seat to the tremendous money-making potential in the titillation of a carefully-cultivated mass audience (a phenomenon that has worked its way into film as well).
Even to me my fervor seems a bit paranoid and nutty at times. But since I haven't watched network TV for 15 or 20 years, I'm appalled now every time I run across it. It really is base and horrid, looking like something out of Terry Gilliam's Brazil.