Arthur Smith

Assistant Curator

September 29, 2010


by Arthur Smith

The series premiere of the ballyhooed new HBO series Boardwalk Empire glares reproachfully at me from my DVR menu. Over the last week or so, I have considered hitting “play” and watching the remaining forty minutes or so…I tuned out somewhere around the scene in which the redoubtable Steve Buscemi slips a wad of cash into the hands of Kelly MacDonald’s desperate housewife character.


Mr. Buscemi is one of my favorite actors. Ms. MacDonald is lovely and affecting. The pilot’s director, Martin Scorsese, requires no adjectives at this point in his career. I was appropriately awed by the 1920s period details: the Atlantic City boardwalk painstakingly recreated at fabulous expense, the exquisite clothes, the music. The writing was intelligent, if understandably exposition-heavy, the themes compelling, the characters colorful and skillfully limned. And after twenty minutes, I’d had enough.

I’ve been struggling to understand my complete lack of enthusiasm for this show. The material is maybe a little over-familiar—I have seen a LOT of gangster stories—but in the accomplished hands of Boardwalk Empire’s creative team, that shouldn’t be a problem. The sense of the show as a fait accompli—the air of pre-sold triumph, the a priori reverence surrounding the project—is off-putting, but, they obviously have to sell this thing, and I should be able to overlook it. I think perhaps my resistance has more to do with the current trend of quality cable dramas.

Ambitious, morally ambiguous, character-based dramatic series, often featuring tortured anti-heroes, have become something of a cliché. Mad Men, The Shield, Breaking Bad, all terrific, rewarding series, share an unmistakable family resemblance: they look like their daddy, the late, great Sopranos. The kind of layered, immersive storytelling championed by that show has at this point become troublingly formulaic, and the trail blazed by Tony Soprano is today looking a bit like a cul-de-sac. It’s downright churlish to complain about the sophisticated, challenging, adult fare now available most nights of the week, but I confess to a certain fatigue. Quality overload. Narrative overdose.

I’ll get around to finishing that premiere episode, and will probably wind up loving the show. It’s precisely the sort of thing I always love. It’s just that, right now, I’d rather settle back with Eastbound and Down. It’s rude, crude, juvenile, and will never win an Emmy or Peabody Award. Bring it on. 

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Arthur Smith

Assistant Curator


Arthur Smith worked in a film archive and failed to earn a living as a professional musician before joining the Paley Center in 1997. He’s not bitter, but has unhealthy fixations on tweedy clothing and Marvel comics.


60s Pop Music, Comedy, Comic Books, Great and/or Terrible Movies, and Exotic Brunettes


Arthur Smith

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