Boardwalk Empire, the new HBO series from a Sopranos alum that is probably best known to you for trumpeting its association with Martin Scorcese all around town, premiered Sunday night. I expect that the jury is going to be out in this show for some time. That's at least true for me. I've learned, through hard experience, not to judge these high-end cable shows based on their first hour. These things are slow burns, not forest fires; I actually can't think of too many of them that managed to get all their cards on the table in the premiere. When you have eleven or twelve hours to go, you usually lose much of the first episode to setup.
The show is set in 1920s Atlantic City, New Jersey, and centers around the life of Enoch "Nucky" Johnson (Steve Buscemi), a casino-owner gangster type. (The character is allegedly based on a real life figure.) Prohibition is newly begun, and Nucky's already playing politics with the local Women's temperance union, where he meets Margaret (Kelly Macdonald), a pregnant Irishwoman trapped in a bad marriage from which it seems inevitable that Nucky will liberate her. Meanwhile, his second-in-command, Jimmy (Michael Pitt), changed by the front lines of the Great War, is growing impatient with his income level and social status, and is eager to get scamming and killing, much to the comparatively laid-back Nucky's dismay. Meanwhile, the Internal Revenue Service is beginning to watch the gangster activity in AC more closely, with Agent Van Alden (Michael Shannon) at the helm.
As even that preliminary list of actors should indicate, no expense has been spared in casting the show, which is chock full of faces you'll recognize from other series, including Michael Kenneth Williams (The Wire's quixotic Omar) and even Molly Parker (Deadwood's Alma Garret) in a framed photograph of Nucky's "dead" wife. The look of the show, though beautiful, is a little clean for the subject matter—all bright eyes and scrubbed faces and red lipstick, without a trace of grime or dirt. Even the eruptions of flesh and blood from the show's many gangster shootouts are clinical and clean in a way. That's probably just the Scorcese influence. And perhaps I've become too used to the sepia, nouveau-grime aesthetic of most of HBO's other period pieces like Carnivale and Deadwood.
The big question, too, is whether Nucky will be compelling enough to carry the series. As of the end of this first episode, I'm really not sure. God knows I love Buscemi but so far the best compliment I can give his performance is über-competent. His Nucky does not, like Al Swearengen or Tony Soprano, leap off the screen. At least not yet.
Because I knew this show would be premiering during my time blogging for you, I have been praying for more women on it than the promos were suggesting there would be. In that respect this show might be doomed from the get-go by the choice of the gangster genre, which has not traditionally given rise to deep and nuanced characterizations of women. (The exception here may be The Sopranos and as I mentioned the showrunner is an alumni of that show, so here's hoping.) The gangster world is a man's world, and depictions of it in popular culture seem eager not to let us forget that. Furthermore, when I think to myself, "What film/television directors working today are most interested in the inner lives of women?" Martin Scorcese does not leap to mind. He does what he does very well, don't get me wrong—I enjoy his movies, but I don't look to them for interesting work about women particularly. His molls and mafia wives always seem more representative of what men think women are like than what women might articulate about their own experiences as such.
The premiere bears out my suspicions on that score, sadly, though it opens with the Women's Temperance Union meeting I alluded to earlier. The women in the meeting are predictably faceless, led by a shrewd schoolmarm who inveighs against the devil's drink. But for the women who do get significant screentime, we are only given Madonnas—the pregnant, suffering Margaret, framed beatifically in every shot, and Jimmy's wife Angela (Aleksa Palladino), with otherworldly perfect lustrous curls cascading down her back. To complete the cliché, one whore is presented—Nucky's girlfriend Lucy (Paz de la Huerta)—characterized almost entirely as a drunken, screeching harridan.
The most illuminating moment, in that regard, came when Nucky and Lucy were interrupted mid-coitus by one of Nucky's lackeys. As Lucy curses and yells, the camera doesn't even bother to focus on her, leaving her blurry in the background, as though the only thing that is dramatically interesting to Scorcese here is Nucky's reaction. That doesn't bode well.
Again, I am cognizant that time may change the tone and depth of the series' treatment of women, but these did seem to be exceptionally blunt portraits. And their coarseness does point to the issue of what it is that feminist—or anti-racist, or anti-homophobic, or really any kind of progressive—criticism of pop culture expects from cultural artifacts. Because I know what some of you were thinking—what, in any event, more of you would be thinking were you coming across what I've written above somewhere other than a feminist /progressive blog. You are thinking: so what? What Scorcese, or gangster movies/television shows more generally do, is good. It's entertaining. There's artfulness to it. You're not seriously suggesting that his work has to be for everybody, are you? That it has to be perfectly representative?
I'm not, exactly. All I'm trying to point out is that there is a good thing going, somewhere in the culture, and for whatever reason, women are not really a part of it. Is it really so wrong for people to want to feel a part of the stories their culture tells itself? Isn't it okay to want to feel like your presence is being noticed, that your existence is seriously thought about, and not just a piece of the background scenery?
Moreover, isn't it a problem that accurate, deep, careful dramatic depictions of women (or non-white people, or disabled people, etc.) are not viewed as necessary to the development of good drama. If we didn't live in a world that defined women as somehow, ephemerally, "less than," one could probably shrug one's shoulders and say that art is not a mirror, it's a lens. But if your lens is always myopic in a particular way, it seems to me that's something that, as a director or a writer or even an actor, something that ought to be of concern to you.
That's why I keep asking if the women on shows like Boardwalk Empire have to be so flat. It's also why I hope it gets get better.