I wrote about what I think is the dominant trend in serial television right now in my review of the Lone Star premiere, so I’ll just say here that Boardwalk Empire is a more artful version of the same myth of the sociopath with a heart of gold, almost an origin story for the Tony Soprano archetype.
What is actually most interesting to me about Boardwalk Empire is the way it’s been positioned among other critically acclaimed HBO shows. The link to The Sopranos is the most obvious, what with the presence of Steve Buscemi and show runner Terence Winter, but there were other nods to HBO dramas throughout: the New Orleans funeral for John Barleycorn seemed to be a direct reference to the Treme pilot, and the intros of Michael K. Williams (Omar from The Wire) and Molly Parker (Alma Garret from Deadwood) were given a kind of visual fanfare that other characters didn’t get.
More than anything, all these nods seem to serve as a way of reminding us that this isn’t TV we’re watching—it’s HBO. The ascendance of Mad Men and Breaking Bad, especially at the Emmys, suggests that this reminder is sorely needed. It’s worth pointing out that there’s no intertextual nod to True Blood, the HBO show that has most enthusiastically embraced its position as “trash TV.” The network’s feverish immediate renewal of the show for a second season suggests that the HBO Powers That Be want the self-consciously cinematic pace and look of Boardwalk Empire to be the new network standard.
And I have to say, even without Martin Scorsese’s directorial flourishes (laid out brilliantly in Noel Murray’s review in the AV Club), this show feels incredibly cinematic. The massive sets, the showy camera work, and the period accuracy are part of it, but the in media res start and the breakneck pacing add to this feeling. I’m curious what will happen as the show goes on. The biggest thing that distinguishes TV from film, to my mind (and what makes me prefer the former), is the sprawling, expansive nature of the kinds of narratives you can tell in twelve hours instead of two. And that’s just one season! The spectacle of television is in depth, not surfaces, and Boardwalk Empire seems to be trying for both. I’m curious how long they can sustain that kind of energy.