TV Review: Boardwalk Empire

TV Review: Boardwalk Empire

Boardwalk EmpireChannel:  Highlight Timelsot:  Sundays, 8:30 PM Rating:   MThere’s a saying that could have been making the rounds since Eve directed Adam’s attention to that first piece of forbidden fruit – ‘One bad apple can ruin the whole barrel.’ It’s an axiom Jesus picked up on when he warned his disciples that there was no such thing […]

By Mark HadleyMonday 11 Apr 2011TV and StreamingReading Time: 3 minutes

Boardwalk Empire

Channel:  Highlight
Timelsot:  Sundays, 8:30 PM
Rating:   M

There’s a saying that could have been making the rounds since Eve directed Adam’s attention to that first piece of forbidden fruit – ‘One bad apple can ruin the whole barrel.’ It’s an axiom Jesus picked up on when he warned his disciples that there was no such thing as a safe amount of evil, “A little leven, levens the whole loaf.” Boardwalk Empire is a week-by-week morality tale about how evil expands until it taints everything we do.

‘Nucky’ Thomson is the Treasurer of Atlantic City’s city council during the American prohibition. To the public he is the caring politician who has struggled against injustice all of his life; to those in the know, he is the king-pin of organised crime, receiving payments from every illegal enterprise within the city limits. But Nucky is not all graft and corruption. Struggling between his wallet and his mistress is an infrequent sense of charity towards those who have been kicked to the curb. He ensures that rough justice is meted out to a wife-beating husband, while looking out for the wayward son of an old friend. But a new breed of gangster is emerging in the form of legendary names like Lucky Luciano and Al Capone, men who have little time for Nucky’s niceties.

Boardwalk Empire is the newest offering from the American award-winning channel HBO. It has all the slickness of its stable-mate The Sopranos combined with the cultural insight of Madmen. Boardwalk Empire also contains similar levels of violence and nudity as those predecessors, but guest directors like Martin Scorcese ensure they colour rather than dominate the storyline. The series stars Steve Buscemi who was born to play Nucky Thomson’s complex character. He’s ably supported by Michael Pitt, who plays Jimmy Darmody, the Treasurer’s impatient driver-cum-protégé.

It’s Jimmy who actually sets the theme of the series by alerting Nucky to the changing nature of his criminal world. There is a new kind of gangster on the rise who learnt the value of life in the furnace of World War One. “I’m going to Hell, Nuck. I’m nothing but a murderer,” he explains to his employer. But Nucky has to embrace what Jimmy brings to the business if he is going to successfully face the challenge Luciano and Capone represent. “You can’t be half a gangster,” he tells him. “Not any more.”

And so the slide begins. Nucky’s instructions become more and more violent as he seeks to preserve his business interests while limiting his exposure to federal investigators. Hot on his tail is Agent Van Elden, a character who shows us what Christianity looks like in the 1920s. Straight-laced and staunchly moralistic, Van Elden frowns on drink and any hint of a bribe. He tries to recruit Jimmy to his cause telling him fighting crime is a ‘godly pursuit’. “You go to church?” he asks the driver, “Then you’d understand.” But at the same time we see a hint of longing in Van Elden for a woman other than his wife, as well as a tendency to cut corners to accomplish the ‘greater good’. And we know that if he continues to give in to those temptations his life will soon be as hopelessly compromised as Nucky.

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Boardwalk Empire makes for fascinating viewing, showing us just how much attitudes have changed since the roaring 20s. We no longer blame the Jews for the problems of international finance; nor do we tolerate well-dressed spruikers inviting us to, “Join your brothers and sisters in the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan … a Christian, fraternal organisation!” But familiar attitudes remain. Nucky’s empire is ordered by a pragmatism that is well at home in the 21st century. His conscience is allowed to affect his actions, but only so far as it doesn’t interfere with profit margins. His good intentions are being swamped by the evil he’s allowed to prosper. And we know that Nucky’s downward slide is just as certain as a promise the Apostle Paul made to the Galatians, gangsters and Australians alike:

“Do not be deceived. God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows. The one who sows to please his sinful nature, from that nature will reap destruction; the one who sows to please the Spirit, from that Spirit will reap eternal life.” (Galatians 6:7,8)