Sky’s new channel, Atlantic, kicked off this week with two big shows: Boardwalk Empire, which is set in 1920 and is about gangsters, and Blue Bloods, which is set in the modern day and is about a family of New York law enforcers.
Sky’s new channel, Atlantic, kicked off this week with two big shows: Boardwalk Empire, which is set in 1920 and is about gangsters, and Blue Bloods, which is set in the modern day and is about a family of New York law enforcers. As in all American cop shows, there is a lot of badge-flashing, though for some reason none of the people they flash their badges at ever asks for a closer look. It would be quite easy to make one from an old credit card and a milk-bottle top, quite good enough to pass in the half-second the average flash takes.
That’s a detail. Boardwalk Empire has been hugely ballyhooed — no wonder, since the first episode was directed by Martin Scorsese for HBO, the American channel that gave us The Sopranos, which was not as good as everyone said, and Curb Your Enthusiasm, which is so brilliant that although I have a box set I can’t watch more than one episode at a time because it would be like eating half a pound of foie gras.
The gangster movie is the American equivalent of our more elderly costume dramas. And it, too, has its own conventions — massacres instead of cotillions, flashy suits instead of tights and ruffs, and characters saying things like: ‘ya pay 12 clams for a piece o’cooze worth nuttin’’ (tr: ‘even an ill-favoured prostitute will charge £7.74’), rather than, ‘Miss Bennet, I would esteem it the highest honour you could visit upon me were you to…’
So there is an inevitability about every scene. This is not to say there aren’t dazzling set pieces, lovingly and expensively mounted. The anti-hero is Enoch ‘Nucky’ Thompson (Steve Buscemi), gangland boss and, in his scant spare time, the esteemed treasurer of Atlantic City. The tawdry horrors of the resort — the display of premature babies and the dwarf boxing — are created with meticulous care. The opening few scenes were gripping: it is the very eve of Prohibition, and Nucky is addressing a hall full of temperance women about the evils of alcohol, making them gasp with an invented story about how his father, having spent everything on booze, killed wharf rats for the family supper. Minutes later he is at a drunken midnight party, toasting the tremendous business opportunities the Volstead Act is about to bring.
Or, as someone puts it, ‘I will keep Atlantic City as wet as a mermaid’s twat.’ The joy of HBO is that it is for grown-ups, and doesn’t follow the ferociously asexual ethic of the American terrestrial channels. Remember how CBS had to pay a $550,000 fine — later overturned — when Janet Jackson’s nipple flipped out during the Superbowl half-time show in 2004? But on cable we see Nucky and his girlfriend actually at it as two — count them, two — whole breasts flip merrily around. It’s not pornographic, but it does tell you that there is no purse-lipped puritan sitting on the writer’s shoulder and inspires more trust in the rest of the story.
So why was I not entranced and enthralled, as all the pre-publicity tells me I should have been? Well, for one thing we’ve seen it all before. The gangster movie has formal rules, as westerns did or Japanese Noh plays. There’s the scene when an amiable young gangster introduces himself as ‘Al Capone’. There is the terrible slaughter of other gangsters, which by law has to be juxtaposed either with an opera (often being enjoyed by the boss who ordered the killing) or, in this case, a truly terrible comedian. But Jimmy, Nucky’s right-hand man, is just back from the trenches in France, and the experience has affected him horribly. Why can’t they explore the intriguing relationship between machine-gunning Germans and mowing down rival mobsters?
Then there is the sentimental side — the more vicious the gangster, the more tenderness he needs to show in private. And, of course, there has to be a plot so complicated that only the most attentive anorak with a pause and replay button on his Sky-plus box could follow.
Which is why I thought Blue Bloods was more interesting. Tom Selleck plays an NYPD commissioner who has risen from the ranks. His three sons all went into the force, though one was killed in the line of duty — or so we think until the end of episode one. His daughter is an assistant DA who has strong views on police violence. The moral quandary — whether it’s right to torture a suspect even when a little girl’s life depends on it — is made more piquant by the fact that the whole audience is probably thinking, ‘Yup, I’d do the same!’ It was taut and exciting. It was only the badge-flashing that wasn’t convincing.