All season long I have been watching and greatly enjoying Terence Winter’s Boardwalk Empire. In its way it’s just as much a creature of genre as The Walking Dead, at least in terms of being the sort of thing I’d watch simply for the pleasure of seeing some of my favorite tropes get a workout. I enjoy stories in which Meyer Lansky plays a supporting role on the same “yippee!” level that I enjoy stories in which small clusters of shambling corpses remove and consume someone’s small intestine.
The difference, of course, is that surrounding Meyer Lansky and Lucky Luciano and Arnold Rothstein and Al Capone in and so on in Boardwalk Empire is an entire edifice of pleasurable things to watch, from the casting on down. What a treat, for example, to watch Steve Buscemi play against type as a quietly impressive alpha dog instead of a shouty, squirrelly loser. I’m not even sure we’d buy him in a similar role set in the present day, but something in all those period suits suits him. Meanwhile, given Martin Scorsese’s role in the series, I was tempted to make “I’m not Leonardo DiCaprio, but I play him on TV” jokes about Michael Pitt same as everyone else, even though I’ve always thought more of him than that in the bits and pieces of his work I’ve seen. (A Law & Order: SVU episode and his side of the screen during the good bits of The Dreamers, mostly.) But lo and behold, Jimmy Darmody harnesses Pitt’s dead-eyed vacancy just as well as DiCaprio’s Scorsese roles make use of Leo’s angry runt-of-the-litter aged babyface; there’s no question in my mind, looking at him, that something vital was blown right out of him in the trenches, never to return. Kelly Macdonald keeps her good Irish girl believably poised between willful, indignant, and willfully ignorant; she’s had to work with a character arc that’s yanked her back and forth and back and forth, but she’s sold it during all those “Margaret learns something and must choose” by seeming to keep the immigrant dream of a better life somewhere in her mind at all times as a driving force, for better or for worse. Then there are the Michaels: Michael Stuhlbarg (and what a discovery that guy was! we really owe the Coen Brothers so much) is such a dapper menace, it sounds like his every word is wearing a tuxedo and carrying a small knife of some kind. Michael Shannon’s sepulchral voice and bug-eyed intensity make him my favorite hapless zealot law-enforcement officer since Edward Woodward’s Sgt. Howie. I do wish Michael Kenneth Williams had more to do as Chalky White, although of course the “These my Daddy’s tools” speech was gold, and hey, two out of three ain’t bad. And so on and so forth: The show’s basically heaven for ruddy-faced repeat Law & Order guest stars, and if you have the kind of thing for pale brunettes that I do, this is the greatest thing on television since Twin Peaks.
What’s more, it’s often astonishingly lovely to look at. The period costumes and sets are impeccable, and I’ve even come to love the somewhat obvious greenscreen nature of the Atlantic City boardwalk set precisely for its unreality, its pink and blue cotton-candy sky. That seems to me to be how many of these characters would see it. After all, Boardwalk Empire is a sentimental show, much more so, I think, then its two most direct antecedents, The Sopranos (New Jersey gangsters, Terence Winter) and Deadwood (charismatic communitarian criminal overlord, story of a city). Nucky Thompson has “a kindness” in him that the writers of The Sopranos and Deadwood never let us see in Tony Soprano or Al Swearengen without quickly reminding us that they’re horrible people who do terrible things routinely. Nuck’s clearly shown to be more at home shaking hands and kissing babies, or wining and dining potential contributors, than he is at ordering murders or extracting payments by force, things that Tony and Al do with evident glee in episode one. Moreover, none of the victims of his enterprise thus far are innocents (unless you count Jimmy’s young mom, which maybe you should), which again is something Al and Tony’s handlers were a lot less squeamish about.
Maybe it’s this sentimentality that the show’s naysayers are picking up on. But honestly, I get the sense that a good deal of shoulder-shrugging about this show has to do with things other than the quality of the show itself — it’s expensive, it’s the channel’s second gangster series, it’s not Mad Men, it’s not self-evidently A Great Show. But neither was The Sopranos in Season One. Hugely entertaining, sure, but I don’t think it became what it was until “University” in Season Three. And neither was The Wire, if you’re a Wire person. After all, it was impossible to get a sense of the show’s scope, and the game it would play by shifting focus with each season, until there was another season to watch. So if you’re only enjoying the show, instead of flipping out over it, I say give it time. Unlike certain other shows I could mention, what you already have can be savored rather than endured.
Another show I’ve been watching and enjoying all season long is Gossip Girl. It’s a shame that last season’s repetitive “look, I was gonna tell you, but…” storylines knocked me out of the habit of recapping/reviewing/whatevering these things every week, because this season deserves it. My goodness, the lengths to which I could have taken my “Chuck Bass as Batman” metaphors with that opening arc! (For example, they have the same goddamn catchphrase–“I’m Chuck Bass”/”I’m Batman”–and in this season Chuck even said it in order to reveal his secret identity!)
But as my friend Ben Morse has eloquently explained, it’s new villain Juliet who gave the show new life. Episode after episode I spent saying “this asshole has to go” as scheme after crudely manipulative scheme blew up in her face…but she didn’t go. They didn’t chase her into Europe or the military academy or Jesus camp. She simply stuck around, recalibrated, and formulated a new line of attack. She’s like the goddamn Borg! And over the past two episodes, it became clear: She means business. After suffering the most epic beatdown in Gossip Girl history, as all four rich kids teamed up to verbally crush her and banish her forthwith from
the kingdom of Rohan New York, she simply dusted herself off and hooked up with the other two most insufferable characters on the show, the odious, tedious Vanessa and trying-too-hard Jenny — and blam, she’d finally found the right combination to utterly annihilate Serena. In one evening’s work, she ended her relationship with Dan, torpedoed her friendship with Blair, estranged her from her family, got her kicked out of college, drugged her, fucking kidnapped her, and got her first hospitalized and then fucking committed. Juliet is the Black Glove, for Christ’s sake! And as Ben pointed out, underneath all this is one of the show’s most explicit class-war elements yet, in which the poor side is evil. Not since Blair stopped even pretending to give a fuck about anything but money and status while wooing that prince in the pilot has the show been this hilariously decadent.
The best part is that by centering Juliet’s evil scheme on Serena, Juliet forces our sympathy for her plot, even while we find it infuriating. After all, Serena really is a kind of gross, lazy, entitled creep who blows off almost any available chance to better herself and follows her vagina wherever it takes her, yet insists upon being seen as a paragon of put-togetherness and go-getteritude. (That’s the difference between her sluttiness and Chuck’s: Chuck makes no bones about what he is.) Plus, and let’s not forget this little season-one tidbit, girl has a fucking body on her! No, wait, that came out wrong — I mean, yes, that too, but what I was trying to say was she pretty much killed a dude! Sometimes I want to destroy Serena’s life Kingpin-from-Daredevil-Born-Again-style, and I don’t even exist in the same reality!
The funny thing about Gossip Girl is that fulfilling the role played in other shows of famous real-life gangsters or awesome zombie gore is simple eye candy. I love staring at the impossibly beautiful faces of Chace Crawford and Ed Westwick, I love the way they pour Blake Lively’s body into those dresses and festoon Leighton Meester with lingerie, I love the Patrick Bateman parade of guest stars. But this season, it’s fun to watch what they do again, too, and that’s just delightful. It’s fun to watch television shows that don’t involve “putting up with” something! (Well, other than Vanessa of course. Ugh.)