Monday, September 20, 2010

"Boardwalk Empire"...the best film of the year?

[I'm hoping to do these quick and dirty posts on what I liked most about each episode every Monday. For detailed episode recaps, which these posts of mine will not be, you should read Edward Copeland's wonderful blog. His summation of the pilot episode can be found here.

Keeping in the spirit of what Jim Emerson has been proposing over at his blog (essentially that television is doing cinema better than cinema these days), "Boardwalk Empire" may just be the best "film" I see this year. I'm extremely excited to see where it goes from here.

A few notes about the pilot episode after the jump...

- I naturally thought of Shutter Isalnd (Martin Scorsese is one of the executive producers of the show, as well as the director of the pilot episode) during the opening sequence (a boat sits in the fog waiting to illegally unload its whiskey onto smaller boats); however, the iris shot of a pocket watch (the show's first image) made me think of The Age of Innocence and how Scorsese toyed with that particular cinematic trope in that film ("Boardwalk Empire", appropriately, closes with a reverse iris). I loved seeing the flashes of the Scorsese aesthetic (irises, freeze frames, jump cuts, title cards) throughout the episode. It really is the most interesting thing he's done in a long time...and I'm someone who loved Shutter Island.

- I love, love, loved the tracking shots...again, making a television show feel more like a film. I especially loved the way the camera just kind of swept over the boardwalk to give us a sense of place (and to notice the amazing set design).

- Speaking of those amazing sets: this reminded me a lot of "Deadwood" (I hope they don't cancel this show based on its costs, too) in how the setting is just as much a character as the interesting people that inhabit the town. I also like the way that Scorsese, like Milch did with "Deadwood", uses the logistics of the town to introduce us to all of the characters, and their connection to each other and the setting (the boardwalk).

- The casting is superb. Another home run by the people at HBO for shelling out the money not just for the construction of the fantastic sets, but for getting another show with quality acting. I like the casting of Steve Buscemi as Enoch "Nucky" Thompson, making me think of the innovative casting of shows like "Big Love", "The Sopranos", and "Deadwood" in how they used character actors (Bill Paxton, Chloe Sevigny, James Gandolfini, Ian McShane, Timothy Olyphant, John Hawkes, et al) to really carry their shows. Buscemi is really only known to the public as an oddball character actor who sometime appears in Adam Sandler comedies. However, as most cinephiles know, he is so much more than that as an actor (one of my favorite performances of his is Ghost World)  and I'm glad that Scorsese (who apparently had a lot of say in the casting of the show) and show creator Terence Winter ("The Sopranos") saw an actor who could more than carry his weight as an ambiguous character. There's  a lot we don't know yet about "Nucky", and I'm really interested in seeing where they go with this his character (will he be Al Swearengen, Bill Henrickson, or Tony Soprano to continue the HBO comparisons...all three different types of "leaders" who eventually go through varying degrees of madness by having too many responsibilities).

- Speaking of the acting: Michael Shannon as Agent Nelson Van Alden is fantastic, and Shannon continues to be the best and most interesting actor working today. His line about the feds doing a "God[ly] pursuit" was my favorite line of the episode. And everything he says sounds so damn's great! Why wasn't he cast in Public Enemies as T-Man Melvin Purvis, by the way? Oh, and Michael Pitt as Jimmy Darmody, "Nucky's" right hand man, is also quite good. His character seems to have a lot of levels being introduced in the pilot, and I'm excited to see where they go with his character, too.

- I didn't see the trailer, so Al Capone's (Stephen Graham) reveal was a genuine surprise, and a great moment.

- Finally, it's so amazing to see a piece of entertainment use visuals as a means of exposition. Nothing felt superfluous in the pilot episode, and I loved that Scorsese and Winter decided to let the audience try and fill in the blanks, instead of using the pilot in order to lay a foundation of context through needless exposition. As beautiful as this episode of television was to look at, the two scenes that stood out the most to me where the quietest.  These moments were when "Nucky" stares into the windows of two boardwalk businesses (an Incubator store where nurses are treating pre-mature babies, and a Fortune Teller) obviously thinking deeply upon something he's done, or needs to do. So rarely do you get these moments where the character's moment of contemplation washes over the audience, permeating the screen so that we are contemplating just as much as "Nucky" is. It's the best kind of mystery I've seen in a movie or on a television show this year, and Scorsese and Winter do a brilliant job trusting the audiences abilities of inference in trying to figure out the, ambiguous context for "Nucky's" past (he briefly mentions in the episode that his wife died, after that moment he walks on the boardwalk for some "fresh air" and this is when he stops by the window where he can see the nurses tending to the babies), as well as his present-day motivations. I hope the way they mete out the background information for "Nucky" is as good as the first season of AMC's "Mad Men" where we slowly became privy to the things that shaped Don Draper.

This is easily one of the best pieces of entertainment I've seen all year.


  1. I completely agree, it feels like a movie. I mean even though it's a pilot, it feels more or less self contained. I jotted a few thought's down.

    Scorsese has been loving the iris shot since Gangs Of New York (and as you pointed out before that. But since Gang's I think it's popped up in every film he's made since.

    I'm particularly fond of its use in The Departed, where it frames Matt Damon on the street and then opens up to reveal Police Headquarters.

    Love that shot.

  2. Yeah, I was digging Michael Shannon in this as well. Great to see him in anything but being directed by Scorese? Wow. It should be interesting to see how his character develops over the season. As I mentioned over at Bryce's blog, it was great to see Michael Pitt in such a substantial, high profile role. Been a fan of his since THE DREAMERS and he brings a slightly off-kilter unpredictability to the role.

    Also loved seeing Kelly Mcdonald in there as well. Always liked her work and her career never took off despite being in some pretty major films (TRAINSPOTTING, NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN, etc.). Hopefully, this show will give her more exposure.

  3. Of course, I have the advantage of having seen the first six episodes. It's very good. I agree with the premise that for the most part TV dramas are producing higher quality more consistently, but I disagree with the idea that a TV series can be the best film (A TV movie, yes, but not a series) because they are different media. A series has advantages that a movie never will in its ability to tell stories at a leisurely pace and develop the characters over time. TV dramas by and large ARE better than most movies right now, but you can't say that makes them the best movie of the year because they are different breeds. It's like saying a great play that you read is the best book of the year.

  4. I don't think there's a distinction to be made between TV series and movies, Edward. Why? Because Hollywood is too gun-shy to adopt the form?

    When you have epic films like CARLOS, CHE, MESRINE, and THE RED RIDING TRILOGY (each of which have running times which come close or even match the ones of these 12-episode seasons that run on cable) now playing in theaters, I don't think your argument stands up.
    What's worse is that these series seldom have the budget or the time to film their stories the way films do.

    Cinema is cinema. It can thrive under restrictions and usually does.

  5. Of course, Red Riding Trilogy was made for television, they just released it theatrically here. Length isn't the issue and if you consider some TV series as the equivalent, then you would have to consider them all. NCIS? Walker, Texas Ranger? They are distinct mediums. There's no reason to try to merge them just because right now there are more quality TV dramas because there are so many TV outlets, they are more willing to take chances that movies are. You'll see as Boardwalk Empire goes on. It's very good, but the Scorsese-directed episode is a bit of an anomaly. The episodes directed by directors who usually direct for television will seem more like a series, albeit a very good one.

  6. Ratings were so good for the premiere that it has been renewed for a second season after only one episode.

  7. Bryce:

    Thanks for sharing that link. I enjoyed your thoughts on the show. I'm stupid and should have mentioned the use of the iris shot in stuff like GANGS and THE DEPARTED. Woops. Thanks for reminding me.

  8. J.D.:

    I'm glad you mentioned McDonald. I knew I had seen her before! Thanks for helping me make that connection. I'm really interested in seeing whether or not "Nucky" gets more involved with her.

  9. Edward:

    Yeah...I see what you're saying, but I have to side with Tony on this one. I think what I like about what Emerson has been doing the last couple of years (with things like "best of" lists) is that he's making more of an effort to single out TV and praise it for how good of a job it's doing at presenting the "form" of film better than most films are.

    You're right, though...a show does have an advantage in that it can use 12 episodes to tell its story, but in the case of "Boardwalk Empire", the pilot felt like it's own entity. I'm glad you mention that the other episodes aren't directed the same way, and I'm going to count that as being a good thing. I think that for the opener, and it's purpose of getting people hooked on the show, the style of Scorsese was perfect, and therefore the episode felt very cinematic...and I would have no problem listing along some of the best films of the year on the obligatory year-end list.

    I guess what I'm trying to say is that I like what Emerson does because it calls into question the very idea of things like lists, and when one places a television show on a list of the best films of the year, then maybe it will continue to cause people to look at these television series with the critical and analytical seriousness that they approach cinema; the idea that TV can be seen as high art. I know I don't explicitly state that in this review, but after thinking on it for awhile that is what I was trying to get at...the ability to be able to say that TV is just as cinematic as the movies, and that it can be explicated and deconstructed in the same way.

  10. Oh, and thanks for letting us know about the ratings. That is great news. I wonder how it compares to other HBO premiers?

  11. It said it was the highest premiere for a new series since Deadwood, which had the advantage of a new Sopranos episode as a lead-in. I'm not disputing TV can't be high art or that it's producing more quality that movies right now, just that it's a different beast. It's hard to compare a great film (and there still are some occasionally) to a great series such as Breaking Bad which is a continuing story. The movie has to stand alone. Even Scorsese's pilot, while very cinematic, set up many plot strands that will be played out. That's why when Twin Peaks was originally made, they had to have a silly tacked-on resolution for the pilot for European audiences. When you think about it, Twin Peak was probably the first truly "cinematic" TV series, but it was still a TV series.

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  13. Just to be a pedantic asshole, I have to point out that the early works that people like Sydney Lumet, John Frankenheimer, and even Rod Serling were doing on TV, were very cinematic.

    It's a weird phenomenon that TV got a whole lot less cinematic, before getting a whole lot more so.

    I disagree with Emerson's statement (Then again I disagree with most of Emerson's statements), simply because TV is a serialized medium, and Movie's are for the most part not.

    A long running film series, like say just for a point of example, Sam Raimi's Spiderman, is lucky to last 3 movies. Break it down, that movie tells "a story" over about seven hours, and over the course of five years.

    Compare that to the average Television show that last five years, and that show if you break it down to forty minutes an episode, twenty two episodes a year is going to have seventy three hours to tell it's story.

    Now that is both a blessing and a curse, as even the greatest TV show is going to have some weak points (Anyone remember the "Cast Of The Sopranoes argues with Indians about Columbus Day episode?") The only exception I can think of for this is The Wire, and that's mostly because Simon design's every season to basically work as an episode.

    The grey area, it seems to me, comes on DVD. To take The Sopranoes as the example again, there is no way you can tell me that David Chase didn't look at the extended multi episode dream sequence that opened Season 6 and say "Eh, It'll work on DVD."

    That's where I first saw it, and I think it worked pretty damn well, but people to this day still bitch about it because they saw it over the course of three weeks rather then three hours.

    My point is, there may not be a huge amount of difference in how TV and Film is made. But there is a HUGE amount of difference in how they are processed.

  14. Actually, I think The Wire is the closest television has ever come to being a visual novel. You really had to pay attention to all the details to truly experience it in all its greatness. While the Spider-man movies can be considered a series, any one of those films can stand alone and you wouldn't have to have seen the others to comprehend what's going on. If someone tried to start watching The Wire in say the middle of Season 3, they'd be hopelessly lost.

  15. Very good point, on The Wire being more akin to a novel.

    It's funny I used to tell people that it was the closest thing to a modern day Dicken's novel, and then Simon had the asshole editor in Season Five refer to everything as "Dickensian" and I began to feel very bad for the choices in my life.

    In all fairness though that was the point I was trying to make with Spiderman (hence the quotes). It's one of the things that makes movies and TV different, even if when placed together they do tell one big story, narratively they need to work on their own.

  16. Very interesting discussion here! I'm afraid I'm out of my league, since I missed the premiere. But I'm figuring on a DVD release soon enough, though much like JOHN ADAMS on HBO I was swept up by the anticipation of the new airing in the tradition of television in the glory days.

  17. I'd like to remind everyone downplaying the cinematic qualities of a television series because it is serialized and long-form that there is a rich tradition of serials in American film before the advent of television, and like EMPIRE, many of these were genre efforts.

  18. Kelly MacDonald was in Trainspotting? WOW - I did not realize that. Was she a main character in that? I don't remember her at all.

    She's been great in the first two episodes here...other characters' obsessions with her character make her the most interesting character on the show so far.

  19. I loved the Scorsese premiere of Boardwalk Empire. It really was outstanding. It helps that they throw recognizable names from the past like Luciano, Rothstein, and Capone into the mix. These popular names in history already familiarizes the characters to an audience regardless of authenticity. I know that the show is probably not going to be historically accurate but using real gangsters of the period is a great way to build viewership.

    I must admit though that the second episode was a huge drop in quality. I know like all television series' that this will happen episode to episode. It just bothers me that this expected scenario already played out so early in the series. I hope the pilot wasn't the peak of what Boardwalk Empire can provide to its fanbase. I'm hoping more great episodes are forthcoming......M.Roca

  20. I give him a new one, because I feel that this show turn into something worthwhile.