Boardwalk Empire: A paean

I just finished watching the second season of Boardwalk Empire, which means that the rest of my holidays are going to feel strangely, sadly empty and devoid of television. I don’t watch many TV shows (which makes me an inexperienced commentator, I guess), and there is absolutely no question of returning to Gossip Girl which, though always enjoyably and gloriously stupid, has surpassed even itself in recent seasons (or so Wiki-ing the synopsis indicates).

Though Boardwalk Empire has been (wrongly, unfairly!) likened to a “beautifully tailored empty suit” by a few dissenting voices, I think it’s gorgeous. Beautiful cinematography (the colours – sets and costumes – are stunning!), lovely atmospheric soundtrack, historical accuracy with an almost pathological attention to minute historical details… what ain’t to love? The Prohibition era was one of the most interesting periods of American history, flung into the melting-pot of burgeoning modernity and whatnot. (I’m reading about secularization right now, and while I don’t understand much… the writer talks about how some theories of secularization suggest that with secularization comes the privatization and marginalisation of religion, especially in the face of scientific post?/modernity – and yet the Prohibition is very, very much a manifestation of religion actually entering, affecting, transforming the public and allegedly totally ‘secular’ sphere in a radical way. As indeed are things like Michele Bachmann and Sarah Palin, I guess…)

I started watching Boardwalk Empire while writing my essay on 1920s/30s Parisian film and literature, and while European avant-garde BE’s Atlantic City ain’t, the general cultural shifts brought on by modernity seem by and large the same – particularly in terms of gender relations. Of course BE depicts the rabid misogyny that was so much a structural aspect of its era, but I find it fascinating how it also shows the sheer dynamism of different types of women, how they each react to their restricted (or not) circumstances and carve out (or not) an autonomy for themselves within their domestic spaces etc. Some women fail miserably at escaping the domestic space even as they challenge the heterosexual structuring of that space (Jimmy’s wife); some are caught between church and illegal brewery (as exciting a binary as any), running from religion and unable to escape. Etc etc. It’s a historical snapshot that seems aware of the issues it inevitably raises with that historicity, but it takes (some) time and trouble to explore them. Some of the possible things one could read into it – questions and doubts about faith, whether faith is a positive influence or not – are (I feel) still relevant and interesting things to think about. (Is Nucky’s absolute lack of it, in any religious or non-religious sense, meant to suggest that faithlessness is sociopathic? Does religious faith do some basic paradigmatic thing right, if not in any actual doctrinal sense – where it seems to be inversely evil, almost, à la van Alden.)

But these are only retrospective thoughts; readings and projections, not – I think – any grand intentional social/theological critique or debate on the behalf of the writers and directors. Although I have noticed a lot of Scorsese films play on the same themes of faith/no faith, good/evil (and the sheer difficulty, if not downright impossibility, of this binary); maybe he set the tone for the series with his pilot episode? The best thing about Boardwalk Empire really is the fact that it’s a cracking story – one which sometimes makes Nucky-like sociopaths out of us all in our ability to approve of, if not enjoy, peoples’ heads being blown off with Tommy guns – which presents an indelible feast for the eyes. Atmosphere is everything; one should never underestimate how many nostalgic fantasies people can harbour – television, films and books are all such people can turn to. I’m certainly – maybe unfortunately, because Midnight in Paris was really quite bad – of the Scorsese/Woody Allen school of living in the past a little bit.

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