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Dead Tree Alert: Boardwalk Empire Review

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My review of HBO’s Boardwalk Empire, premiering Sunday night, is in the new print TIME. (There’s also a bonus Web exclusive of pretty pictures from the set.) We went with the same “Jersey Shore” headline as did the New York Times, Newsweek, and, I am guessing, your cousin’s blog. I am not proud of this.

As long as we’re doing obvious TV references, though, I want to stress a point I didn’t get to elaborate on at length in the review. While The Sopranos is the instant comparison for this show—given the state, the subject matter, and HBO’s history—this is not “the next Sopranos.” The more I watched the show, the more I thought the real analogies are more like Rome and, especially, Deadwood.

The Sopranos was a postscript to the mob genre, set in the mundane modern world of therapy, mob movies and commercialism. Boardwalk Empire, especially as it deepens in its later episodes (I’ve seen six), is the genre itself, in its formative years. But beyond that, like Deadwood, it’s a founding myth—a gold-rush story, really. It shows how time of flux and chaos enable people, within or outside the law, to gain power and amass fortunes. And, more than that, to set the rules for the generations that will follow. Deadwood was a show about how a fledgling society creates law and rules; Rome, about the changing of a republic into an empire; Boardwalk Empire is about the founding of a culture (of an about-to-boom post-WWI America) and about the creation of an economy.

Having helped build up the expectations for the show, I should put one slight caveat on them: I actually didn’t love the show after the first episode, the epic, Martin Scorsese-directed pilot. It’s really good: but it was really good in pretty much exactly ways that I expected it to be good—it wasn’t an out-of-left-field surprise, a rethinking of a genre like The Sopranos was. By three or four episodes in, though, I could see the show developing its own vision and voice, one I hope (and expect) will be with us on TV for quite a while.