The Scope of HBO and Boardwalk Empire

Many a good TV show and film have discussed the idea of “escalation.”  Like bringing a knife to a gun fight, if a person is challenged and the stakes are raised, well, they’re a bit more likely to raise the stakes in retaliation to make sure that you never do such a thing again.  There is bang warfare currently being waged on the TV landscape, and it seems like HBO just brought a thermal nuke to the table with Boardwalk Empire.

Chris Connelly, best remembered by people in my age group as the entertainment/news reporter on MTV during those halcyon years in the mid-to-late 90s, was brought on to ESPN writer Bill Simmons‘ podcast The BS Report early this year to discuss the best and worst of the 2000s.  Considering he was also a very prominent voice in Entertainment Weekly and Rolling Stone, his commentary on TV and film certainly has some validity to it.  One big point mentioned in that podcast was that all the great movies of the decade were actually TV shows.  That medium had taken the superior storytellers and gave them a different venue in which to tell their tales, and allowing them to create more intimate, slower-moving character studies that you could not accomplish in a two-hour movie.  When you look at The Sopranos, The Wire, Six Feet Under, and countless others, some validity pops up.  It seems like some very good TV was created in the last ten or so years.

But, staying true to HBO’s slogan, Boardwalk Empire isn’t TV.  It’s beyond it.

Watching the pilot was beyond the best damn TV pilot I’ve ever seen; it wasn’t actually a TV pilot.  What the producing team has put together with this project (and having that team consist of Marky Mark and Martin Scorsese, who go back-to-back in the opening credits, is a mind-boggling experience, let me tell you) is a legitimate hour-long movie every week.  The scope of the show is just insane.  Taking a character set as large and diverse as The Wire, with the sets reminiscent of Scorsese’s Gangs of New York, and the scope of something like an Altman film, Boardwalk Empire is some sort of evolutionary step beyond this second Golden Age of TV.

HBO’s been paying attention all of this time, folks.  The network that threw its weight behind making a new kind of television show has ran through one generation of excellent, genre-defining programming (The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, Deadwood, Sex and the City, and Rome on top of others) and has been in a sort of funk recently.  While In Treatment, Eastbound and Down, and True Blood are all fine shows (and god knows how I adore the brilliant Eastbound) none of these shows could really compete with FX’s Sons of Anarchy, or most notably the AMC line-up of Breaking Bad and Mad Men.  All of these shows essentially are catching up to the level of quality from those older HBO shows, but are now doing it on other networks (noting, of course, that HBO passed on Mad Men and let AMC start up a dynasty).

So what does HBO do?  They bring in Terrence Winter, a Sopranos writer and disciple of show runner David Chase, which sounds an awful lot like the pedigree of Mad Men head Matthew Weiner…except Weiner didn’t write “The Pine Barrens” episode, now did he?  And to top it off, they bring in Scorsese to direct the pilot, which means a lot more than one pretty episode to start the series off.

The pilot episode sets the standard of what the show is to accomplish visually and otherwise.  It is the mark by which all other shows that follow are to be judged.  Two current shows are especially indicative of how to carry over the rules from the pilot throughout a series.  Breaking Bad has such a wonderful visual sense because it was shot by no less a talent than two-time Oscar winner John Toll (who won for the gorgeous looking films Braveheart and Legends of the Fall).  The Mad Men pilot was put together by members of the then-out-of-work Sopranos crew, who took the six years of moody TV lighting and a simple eye right into a show obsessed with style.

So now Martin Scorsese–as in, possibly the best living film director in the world, Marin Scorsese–just meanders over to Brooklyn, has the Atlantic City boardwalk recreated in an abandoned parking lot, and creates what is easily the best-looking hour of TV I’ve ever seen.  The only thing comparable is the recent HBO miniseries The Pacific, which was a ten-hour film that happened to be played out in mini-series format.  Both of these shows have budgets so large that HBO is almost embarrassed to discuss it, because they are ridiculous for doing TV.  TV is supposed to be cheap, easy, and made in such a way that they’re good enough to bring in advertising dollars.  That keeps the network afloat and the show going.

Now the paradigm has shifted.  Good, quality TV is seemingly everywhere, so HBO has to throw down the gauntlet in other ways, namely to create bigger, grander spectacles that share more likeness to a blockbuster film.  In a year where we said goodbye to Lost, quite possibly the last grand network show of all time (which was filmed on film for crying out loud), we get this little gift.  Big budget TV isn’t going away.  If anything, it’s getting better, as we’re molding the storytelling sense and visual importance of the last decade with the money of a feature, giving us a superlative product week after week.  The only losers in this situation are the poor bastards whose job it is to try and recreate a Martin Scorsese film week in and week out.  And if they have the talent to keep that level of quality up, well, we’re all winners.  Especially if you like insert shots!

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So what did you guys think of Boardwalk Empire?  Cause good lord, this show can be incredible.  Everything you needed to know was in that opening monologue from Steve Buscemi, how it was shot, how it was handled, and how wonderfully it was bullshitted.  Not to mention the fact that there’s a TV show starring Steve Freaking Buscemi, and loaded with other talent like it’s the 98 Yankees.  I have every expectation that this show is going to kick my ass in (although I really don’t like Michael Pitt who has one of the most hate-able faces of any actor of all time).  What did you guys think?

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