Note: There is one major Season 4 spoiler for Boardwalk Empire. Be warned.
“It’s not TV, It’s HBO” is a phrase that I’ve lived by for a long time. I remember the evenings of my teenage years watching this come up on the screen and know whether it was a film on a Saturday evening or sneaking to watch Arli$$ that I was in for something special. However, something about TV right now, and more specifically HBO, is coming to light in my mind. Their formula is getting too much for me right now.
Let me begin by saying that I’m not in anyway claiming that HBO is dead. A lot of people are believing that Netflix is reinventing the game, and while they’re busy throwing a spoke or two into HBO and every other already established media distributor and producer as it relates to home entertainment they’re not innovating in the way that I’m looking to discuss, i.e. narrative.
In my lifetime I think the two shows that have elevated HBO from what would be a place I turned to in order to see movies to something else were The Sopranos and The Wire. Both shows are ones that I wasn’t able to watch immediately. I remember distinctly watching the pilot episode of The Sopranos in 1999, which would’ve made me 13-years-old, for about five or so minutes till the point where Tony runs over a man with his car who owes him money and breaks his leg in such a way that his bone is poking out. At that very moment my father called downstairs (with him watching the show himself) to tell me to shut off the TV. The Wire was debuted in 2002, making me 15-years-old, and I was able to watch an episode or two, but there were things in it that bothered my parents and didn’t like it for a while, so we skipped the first two years. It’s only after a few seasons into these shows were the floodgates of DVDs opened and I was off to the races.
Since then HBO has produced a number of shows, to name a few: Six Feet Under, Carnivale, Deadwood, Big Love, Luck, and Game of Thrones. A lot of their programming has thrived on the work of great character actors. Many ran to Big Love in hopes of catching a great Harry Dean Stanton scene, or Deadwood for a brilliant Ian McShane moment; but in the end I’m starting to step back and look at what all of these shows have in common. All of these shows are ensemble narratives thriving on coincidence and the general ramping up of a thirteen episode season where everything is going to hit the fan at about the penultimate episode.
What brought this all to light for me is Boardwalk Empire. One of the few HBO shows which I’ve gone through so many moments of just general uncertain of how much I actually care for it. I pressed play on the pilot as it was created (in some part I believe) by Martin Scorsese (the man), and at this point four seasons in I’m uncertain as to how much, if any, involvement he still has with the project. However, if you scrubbed his name from the opening credits I’m sure many would barely guess he had anything to do with it.
At the end of the second season I promised to give up because they killed James Darmody, played by Michael Pitt (an actor I wish more people knew his name and was in bigger things), and the crazed Agent Van Alden was on the run, played by Michael Shannon. There wasn’t anything else to be enthralled in. I wasn’t the biggest fan of believing that Steve Buscemi could play a gangster that someone couldn’t just come up and shoot in the face and be done with, but it keeps happening.
In this last season they added the characters of Dr. Narcisse (Jeffrey Wright) and Roy Phillips (Ron Livingston) into the mix. While Narcisse, being played wonderfully campy claiming to be Trinidadian sounding very American idea of Haitian/Jamaican, had it’s fun here and there, Roy left me confused. In previous seasons we only cared about Gillian Darmody (Gretchen Mol) only because she was mother to Jimmy, now dead, and was completely ancillary to any interesting or cool storylines. However, since Roy has appeared and seems to be sparking a romance with Gillian we’re forced to endure a plot line which seems in the whole has no point. Until the final episode where Roy reveals he’s a P.I. and has finally gotten Gillian to confess to the murder of some random guy from Season 3, who once again I barely cared about at the time.
These two very odd stories clue me into exactly what it is HBO does and uses to trick me into thinking I’m watching good television. They create a general mood, the look and feel of the show that works and then they flood it with so many convoluted tales in which intersection remains neatly controlled and almost irrelevant if not for the fact that we as an audience would be lost without it’s existence and asks me to believe it’s amazingness. I’m not saying that Boardwalk Empire or some others of HBO’s productions are downright bad television, but rather more clearly that they feel as if a distraction and a trick that makes me feel as though I feel an importance that isn’t really there.
What are your thoughts on HBO’s TV narrative formula? Problem/Paradise?