Boardwalk Empire: A Little Rag Time In Our Time


So I may be a little late to the party when talking about this amazing show. Already deep into the second season and after 30 nominations recognizing the cast and crew of this dramatic, thrilling, fictionalized historic time piece I am finally writing about Boardwalk Empire. It is one of the best shows to air in television history right there next to AMC’s Mad Men.

The setting of Boardwalk Empire is a long-lost Atlantic City, a lost American culture of sharp dressed men, short-haired bobbied women, during the time of prohibition. The latter of which is a time we still find ourselves living in. There are so many deep correlations between the second decade of the 21st century and that of the Roaring Twenties.

(D.E.A. Agents Burning Marijuana)

(Prohibition Officers Dumping Beer)

We work tirelessly to redefine ourselves, to build ourselves up from a pile of nothing to “Isn’t he something…” Here we are surviving this century’s first great war, living in yet another age of prohibition but this time it is our southern border running red not the Atlantic coastline or our northern front. The prosperity of the 1990’s is long gone, easily comparable to the of the 20’s. Our soldiers are coming home to a great depression, social strife and potential upheaval, the world is in a flat spin and the pilots have long ejected.

What makes Boardwalk so compelling to watch over and over again is the plot line’s general ability to pull you in and intoxicate the mind with the sort of back room dealings and danger in bureaucratic play which actively reminds us that the grass was not greener in that time. That the same instability and anxiety we feel today is a shared experience with men and women whose faces in photos have faded or yellowed over time. Though we no longer smuggle alcohol across boarders and the drugs of choice being muled around are heavy narcotics the inspiration is all the same. The American government has created a black market, the under world’s racket is driven by insanely high inflationary mark ups in prices and an outrageous demand driven by escapism from the harsh realities we have always lived in as a society and the wheelers and dealers do it because they want a fortune equal in worth to that of the great robber barons and captains of industry like John D. Rockefeller, B.C. Forbes, Morgan and Carnegie (probably more so Tony Montana then the priors).

Enoch "Nucky" Johnson on the left, Steve Bucemi right playing Enoch "Nucky" Thompson

Like the tried and trusted methods of the Treasurer of Atlantic City (main character Enoch “Nucky” Thompson); things today still get solved with money; people get bought, pressured into making ill-fated decisions based on party lines, favors and blackmail. The game of gentleman gangster is still a vibrant lifestyle here in the states. A friend told me it was rather far fetch that a Princeton drop out like Jimmy Darmody could exist that I was rather naive to put some belief into the notion that his character is not entirely a work of fictional. His argument being that men of the ivy would never find themselves in a position where they had to murder in cold blood. I quickly pulled up a photo of Theodore Roosevelt in full military uniform to educate this friend on how naive a position he found himself backing and to really drive the point home and add insult to injury i quipped “I mean Yale is to CIA as puppy is to dog.”

Soldier in Boardwalk known for a tick and savagely brutal scar from WW1

For anyone even slightly curious about the era, yet has no energy to read Gatsby or Wikipedia, Boardwalk is for you. The colors, the clothing, the larger than life personae of the underworld that are wildly mainstream, and the sins of a nation depicted  beautifully and without reservation provides great Sunday night entertainment. What makes it different from The Sopranos is that this era, these people are at the birth of a new kind of crime culture one embraced by rappers, small time crooks peddling cocaine at clubs, young politicians who have seen The God Father and have an uncontrollable taste for the good life in our day and age.

This is the lost generation found. Boardwalk Empire is a mirror held up to our faces, showing us that the only difference between us and them is time; that it all repeats itself, the wars, the hardships, the poor policy, the corruption, the escapism, our love affair with capitalism.

Also if you have a bit of time watch The Boss a new series that is more a modern-day version of Boardwalk Empire. The bottom line is this, you are really cheating yourself out of a great American story and a damn amazing cast. Watch it or sleep with the fishes. Sunday 10PM EST only on HBO

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