Is Boardwalk Empire destined to be great?

My friend Steven Rubio offered an interesting couple of blog posts on the premiere of HBO’s Boardwalk Empire. You can read his first review of Sunday’s episode here, and his addendum to that post here.

What interests me most about what he wrote (so much so that I’m writing this post instead of a wordy comment on his own blog) is contained in the intro to his addendum:

There is no denying the impressive potential of Boardwalk Empire, but the way it is being trumpeted as the bellwether of HBO’s return to greatness has a tinge of sexism to it. The idea is that since the end of The Sopranos, HBO hasn’t been the same, but that Empire is just the thing to take the network back to the top.

He elaborates briefly (if you need it) by explaining the undertone of this hype is that the post-Sopranos offerings from HBO weren’t manly enough to rival the earlier phenomenon. I don’t disagree with hi analysis, but I was thinking about it differently.

I will admit, I’m in the “hype camp.” While I’m not saying Boardwalk Empire *is* the greatest show on TV after one episode, it remains in the running. More than anything else, that fact alone, placed within the larger context surrounding the hype, means it is competing in a contest where it is the sole contender.

Let me explain.

I think The Sopranos was, for HBO, the first time it seemed “pertinent” at all levels of popular culture. The Sopranos was simultaneously loved by mainstream critics and awards shows, the watercooler public, and the elite cultural analysts. It’s rare thing, historically speaking, to be widely considered the “best” show on TV as well as be the cultural phenom everyone is talking about. Right now, that post is vacant. However critically well-received shows like Mad Men are, they don’t rise to the phenomenal level of The Sopranos. Heck, more people are certainly watching and talking about Glee and a short list of other bubble-gum-for-the-brain shows ahead of Mad Men and Breaking Bad combined.

Some of the hype surrounding Boardwalk was unavoidable when you consider the last time a show held the position I describe above was probably The Sopranos. The void of a reigning champ and the recent history of HBO as the title’s home further fan the flames. Now add to that the similarity to Sopranos and the talent behind Boardwalk Empire and you get a better picture of why so much attention is being paid to it.

In many ways, at this, the first evaluative stage, the contender status is Boardwalk Empire’s to lose. Once it showed it can compete–and I think yesterday’s premiere established that–it has a much harder road of having to prove itself on its own merits. But that road is also made easier with the kind of hype the show carries.

Steven and Robert Lloyd (of the LA Times) have a lot of similar things to say about the show, with Lloyd having the advantage over us in that he has already seen six episodes. In his review he wrote:

It’s not the greatest thing since sliced bread but rather a well-made sort of sliced bread, a thing you have had before but prepared with quality ingredients by bakers who know their business. If it doesn’t seem as fresh or new or gripping as the Scorsese-Winter brand might suggest, it’s in part because it’s rooted not only in the conventions and obsessions of the director’s own canon but in a decade’s worth of “Sopranos”-influenced cable television as well.

I think this familiarity and skill is going to give Boardwalk Empire an easier time of reaching the crown than other shows. We want a show to talk about like the days of The Sopranos. We want to watch a show that we all think is the best and have little to make us think otherwise. And we want a common cultural experience, events that are so much rarer in a world of 200 channels.

Boardwalk Empire fits our assumptions about what makes a good show and then sprinkles on that names like Buscemi and Scorsese, conforming to our assumptions about what makes something great. Even the hesitation coming from the real critics (most of whom seem to be calling it really good but not great) helps set the stage for the popular opinion push we so love because it makes us think that this is a show of the people.

Again, I’m not disagreeing with Steven, or even Lloyd. I guess I am saying that I liked the show and I think it has about as right a combination of timing and ingredients to establish itself as a huge hit. Like the rest, however, I am still waiting for that to happen.

True Blood Treme

I can’t tell you how both happy and sad I feel that HBO’s “Treme” is concluding its first season this weekend. The show, so far, is top notch. Whenever people ask me about it, I keep returning to the same description: “It’s a show written for grown-ups.” That doesn’t mean the themes or topics are more “adult” than other shows; the presentation of the characters and their struggles is just so authentic and paced that I think it really rewards somebody who can take their time with TV and who likes to be respected as a viewer. I’ll miss it until its return for season 2.

The happiness comes from the fact that one of our other favorite shows–“True Blood”–is back for its third season. “True Blood”–which is the opposite of the above description–is a good time, like a roller coaster or a cold Budweiser on a summer day.

Thing is, “True Blood” airs before “Treme” and, frankly, I can’t take that. I had to watch “Treme” on DVR today, a day after it aired. Otherwise, it’s like having my ice cream before dinner. With “Treme” leaving us for awhile (and I assume, “Entourage” coming back to fill its place) it’ll just be like having some cake after my ice cream, or a donut.

Is “True Blood” about anything?

I stopped trying to read the subtext of HBO’s “True Blood” sometime around the middle part of the first season.  It wasn’t for lack of finding anything.  The vampire trope and the situations which compelled the story forward spoke to issues of race, sexuality, health and infection, as well as US history.  But, despite all the potential, there didn’t seem to be a particular focus to the whole thing, other than being a juicy and sometimes suspenseful soap opera, that is.

E25HBOside

Tonight’s episode, however, had me thinking that there’s quite of bit of interesting coalescence around the religion text and subtext.

jasonstackhouse

Jason Stackhouse, who is well-played by actor Ryan Kwanten–and miraculously wearing a shirt in the picture above–has been in a story arc stretching from the end of Season 1 into 2.  He is being recruited by the Church of the Fellowship of the Sun, a vampire-hating group of Christian Bible-thumpers.  Not too covertly, since the first season they have represented the collection of religious-Conservative movements in the United States who advocate for anything intolerant, from stances against “race-mixing” to actively deplorable positions on same-sex rights and AIDS.

Tonight, we saw two instances of Jason being re-energized in his commitment to the fictional church and its (as yet unknown) “purpose” for him.  In the first scene, Sarah Newlin–wife of the church founder Steve Newlin–tries to stop Jason from leaving.  She does this by convincing him that she knows him and that they are alike.  She then shares how she is vengeful, seeking retribution for the pain vampires have inflicted upon her loved ones and, by extension, herself.  Jason, already seeing himself and Sarah as “alike,” is nudged back into line and in some level of conformity to her chosen direction.

In the second scene, church founder and leader Steve Newlin has dinner with Jason as he explains his theological reasoning behind hate–equating hate of the sinner with the love of “Christ”–while sharing his wife’s banana pudding.

In both scenes, one is drawn in by the calculated and rhetorically careful tactics employed to keep Jason “involved” and moving on the right track.  I suspect Alan Ball is offering us his version of how these kinds of organizations (ones seemingly devoted to love and “Christian fellowship” but, in practical terms, the vanguard of a hate movement directed against any number of “Christ’s children”) function and recruit.

On the surface, we might see this as an accusation against these efforts that they prey on the dumb and weak-minded.  Certainly, Jason isn’t the sharpest knife in the drawer. But tonight we also see Jason as less the baffoon than as the struggling and questioning young man seeking answers.  When left to his own inclination, and rooted in what he knows to be fact through experience, Jason tends toward tolerance and pragmatism.  However, he is also clearly hindered by his lack of formal education, often deferring to those that “know” more than him as they feed the hungry young lad egg McMuffins posing as health.

Far from an indictment of the recruitment targets of these religious movements, this is a subtle communication of empathy with them.  The knowing leaders of these causes shoulder the blame, not the hapless recruits they convince to do their bidding.

The season has only just begun, and my analysis could fall apart in two weeks when the next episode premieres, but, so far, “True Blood: Season Two” has me hooked.  Or is it glamoured?

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