Boardwalk Empire, the HBO mobster drama set in Atlantic City at the start of Prohibition, is fascinating to watch, as expected of a series co-produced by Martin Scorcese. But does it know where it's going?
The protagonist, "Nucky" Johnson Thompson, is a machine politician who widens his operations from graft to bootlegging in the premiere episode. He cuts deals with gangsters and orders the killings of both criminals and "civilians" who rub him the wrong way. Nucky is hardly the first anti-hero to headline an American TV series, and Steve Buscemi does a fine job in the lead. After three episodes, however, Boardwalk Empire still seems like a long movie rather than a true TV series, and we're already primed to watch Nucky's fall — which is at least a couple dozen episodes from now, given that HBO has already renewed the series for a second season.
At least so far.
Buscemi's character may yet develop into someone we can identify with, but his being the least despicable guy on the show isn't enough. For comparison's sake, I came up with three anti-heroes who have worked as TV series leads for different reasons.
First, there's Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini) on The Sopranos. Tony tortures people. He strangles someone with a piano wire while on a trip with his teenage daughter to scout out colleges in New England. He orders the executions of close friends and family members. He literally snuffs out the life of one of his most loyal lieutenants. Tony is a sociopath, a fact that a lot of the show's fans wanted to overlook but which is spelled out explicitly (there's even a close-up of the word in a medical textbook) in the next-to-last episode of the series.
But The Sopranos has a strong satiric tone that is so far absent from Boardwalk. Tony is a bundle of neuroses and anxieties that most of us in contemporary society can identify with, albeit in radically different contexts. Tony has a strained marriage, disdainful kids, a guilt-inducing mother, an expensive-but-flimsy-looking McMansion, constant job insecurity, and a Prozac prescription. It so happens that he makes a living selling drugs, trafficking in prostitution, and shaking down legitimate businesses — but don't most of us make moral compromises, if not as extreme, in our lives? As viewers, we just have to translate Tony's experiences into our own problems with (hopefully) smaller stakes. And as we laugh at some of the extreme actions Tony takes to maintain a facade of normalcy, we can also shudder at the moments that hit close to home.
Then there's Walter White (Brian Cranston) on Breaking Bad. Walt is a high-school science teacher. Also a manufacturer and distributor of crystal meth. He's directly killed several people to keep in business and out of jail, and he's indirectly responsible for dozens of other deaths. He's put several family members in physical danger and put his wife at risk of imprisonment. But unlike Tony Soprano, he's not congenitally evil. (Look at his last name!) Instead, he's used bitterness and self-pity, stemming from career setbacks and a cancer diagnosis, to justify his acts. He insists to himself that he became a ("temporary"!) drug dealer to care for his family in the event of his own death, but Breaking Bad is more of a horror tale than a satire, and every move Walt makes gets him into deeper trouble. We can identify with him because still tries to protect his family (and his partner Jesse) from the worst consequences of his behavior, even as he's constantly undone by his own arrogance.
Finally, there's Al Swearengen (Ian McShane) of Deadwood, who gets second billing on the HBO series but is actually its most compelling character. By today's standards, Al may be the most vicious of all the anti-heroes mentioned here. He's a saloon owner who cheats his customers, mistreats his "working girls," and sends his goons out to beat to a pulp anyone who threatens his control of the titular mining town in 1870s South Dakota. He sells a supposedly worthless claim to a gold prospector, then kills him when the claim turns out to be valuable. He disposes of murder victims by tossing their bodies into a pen of voracious pigs.
But is Al a psychopath? Almost certainly not. To him, the untamed West is a kill-or-be-killed environment, and he doesn't seem to make a distinction between power and mere survival. But as the series progresses (sadly cut short at the end of its third season), Al's outlook gradually changes from the most brutal kind of anarchism to an acceptance of civilization and government. True, this acceptance is contingent upon his remaining the most powerful man in Deadwood, but it is progress of a sort when he stops his all-out war on the very idea of community and instead tries to shape it for his own purposes. In the episode "The Whores Can Come," for example, he's not being entirely altruistic when he allows his prostitutes to attend a town-wide funeral for a young boy, but the gesture is still a small victory for decency.
Nucky Johnson can't serve as another Al Swearengen in Boardwalk Empire, since civilization has already come to Atlantic City. And so far, he isn't as cynically entertaining as Tony Soprano or as tragic a figure as Walter White. And so far, the most sympathetic anti-hero on the show is Chalky White (Michael K. Williams), the "mayor" of Atlantic City's African-American citizens; representing a truly powerless constituency, it's easy to root for him over the white gangsters who have more friends in high places.
Have you been caught up in Boardwalk Empire's epic storytelling, and do you see Nucky Johnson as an effective anti-hero? Do you have other favorites from TV history?