Why Treme Shoots Down Boardwalk Empire

Sky Atlantic are spending a lot of time and money plugging HBO’s new mega-bucks series Boardwalk Empire but they’re backing the wrong horse - Treme is far, far superior.
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The BIG American drama serial is now established as part of everyone’s viewing schedule, whether it be The Sopranos, The Wire, The West Wing, Lost, Deadwood, Mad Men, Breaking Bad, True Blood etc etc we all have a favourite. They’re mostly better than anything on offer at the cinema and we invest a lot of time following as many of them as work/ sleep/ feeding the kids will allow. With Boardwalk Empire and Treme starting runs within a couple of weeks of each other on the new Murdoch (spit) sponsored Sky (spit, spit) Atlantic many will be deciding which to plump for, so let’s see how they fair head-to-head.

Boardwalk Empire portrays the (mis)adventures of the gangsters, bootleggers, flappers and feds of prohibition-era Atlantic City. It begins with the introduction of the Volstead act and shows how the corrupt officials of AC and ingenious gangsters of Chicago kept the Eastern seaboard in illicit hooch and themselves in power and pots of cash.

Treme starts in Katrina-devastated New Orleans three months after the levee broke, with the city still effectively in chaos and the main characters either trying to bring stability back to their ruined lives or railing against the apparent unwillingness of the authorities to help or take any responsibility for the situation.

Both series take the now well-established route of following many characters at once and seeing how their lives intertwine or collide. The delivery of each, though, is vastly different.

Boardwalk Empire (despite a pacey, visceral Scorsese-directed opener) is relatively stately and disappointingly predictable. Despite it being plugged as a replacement for The Sopranos its period setting and vast, detailed sets mean that it has more in common with the hugely under-appreciated Deadwood. If anything the Atlantic City set is the programme’s Achilles’ heel – it looks very impressive and almost certainly cost a fortune but it limits the scope of the action. Sure, the series is called Boardwalk Empire but so much of it is constrained to a small area round the seafront that we don’t get a rounded view of Atlantic City as a whole. Rather than enhancing the storytelling the reliance on the main set limits the scope. Occasional excursions to Chicago widen the field and bring welcome relief from the claustrophobia of the boardwalk. It has to be said, though, that the costumes and interior sets are beautiful.

Buscemi is OK as the de facto lead, AC treasurer Nucky Thompson, but hasn’t yet the displayed the kind of depth of character of a Tony Soprano or Al Swearengen or even of a comparatively minor character such as The Wire’s Bubbles or Omar.

It might seem an odd thing to complain about but everything looks over-polished, too. Apparently some of the sets were enhanced with CGI (there were some ‘bigger’ CGI shots in the opener as well) and this leaves everything looking a little too clean and unreal. Where Deadwood looked convincingly down and dirty, Atlantic City – with its shiny bright shop fronts and slightly diffused hue - seems cartoon-like and ultimately unconvincing. Perhaps less money and more imagination would have paid dividends.

The casting, too, is sometimes ropey. Buscemi is OK as the de facto lead, AC treasurer Nucky Thompson, but hasn’t yet the displayed the kind of depth of character of a Tony Soprano or Al Swearengen or even of a comparatively minor character such as The Wire’s Bubbles or Omar. Buscemi is normally excellent so this may improve. It’s initially weird seeing This Is England’s Stephen Graham as Al Capone but his casting proves absolutely spot on as he has exactly the right kind of latent insanity the part demands. Elsewhere, though, Kelly McDonald makes a limp love interest for Nucky (with a dodgy Oirish accent to boot) and Michael Pitt as Jimmy manages the tricky task of marrying Leonardo DiCaprio’s one dimensional acting with the haircut of the singer of Arcade Fire and coming up with a completely dull second string ‘lead’.

Treme, on the other hand, is supremely delivered. As with creator David Simon’s previous masterpiece, The Wire, everything seems utterly real, utterly convincing. Obviously Treme has the benefit of being set in the present day (or near enough) but this is countered by the disadvantage of being shot in a virtually post-apocalyptic city. Everything, from the shooting style to the dialogue to the editing to the acting is first class. The plotting is nothing complex but still manages to draw emotional responses from simple situations such as someone cleaning out a back street bar or not having 20 bucks to pay for a taxi. Special mention should go to the cast; some will be familiar from The Wire or other TV shows and films but many of the characters are played by genuine New Orleans citizens, some with no acting experience, and they integrate and perform seamlessly – the authenticity of their personas even providing some of the most touching moments. One very minor quibble is with the English TV anchorman gathering interviews about the town – he’s cringingly poor, unusual for a Simon project.

The main area where Treme scores big is the amazing music. The songs are phenomenal, the performances convincing and the integration into the episodes masterful. Music is obviously intrinsic to New Orleans and the producers have made sure it’s just as central to the programme. Possibly the best use of music in the history of TV.

Reading the conversations on the social networks, Boardwalk Empire is already being deserted by some underwhelmed viewers but Treme has the requisite heart and soul to stay with more dedicated viewers for years to come.

Amazingly Boardwalk Empire has won tonnes of awards and Treme only a few nominations. Most surprising is that these awards were for writing as Treme is clearly by far the better written of the two. The dialogue is utterly convincing and complex political and legal plot points are rendered entirely comprehensible. In comparison Boardwalk Empire’s writing is undemanding and often predictable; many storylines are signposted so unsubtly that you’re left genuinely deflated when there’s no unanticipated twist.

It speaks volumes for the quality of TV drama coming out of the States these days that something like Boardwalk Empire, which would have blown all of our minds 10 years ago, is seen by some as an underachiever but our expectations have been steadily raised over the past decade and the sheer amount of fantastic show means that we now have to make careful judgments about which ones we pledge our loyalty to. It’s still early days for both series (apparently Boardwalk Empire picks up halfway through the first run) and there’s absolutely nothing stopping you watching and enjoying both series but, judging by the early episodes, Treme is a far superior offering. Reading the conversations on the social networks, Boardwalk Empire is already being deserted by some underwhelmed viewers but Treme has the requisite heart and soul to stay with more dedicated viewers for years to come.

From the streets of New Orleans…

Antoine Batiste (Wendell Pierce) – You’ll recognise him as Bunk from The Wire but here he plays a disorganised, perma-skint trombonist with an ex-wife, grown kids, new wife, baby and growing list of taxi drivers all chasing him down for money.

LaDonna Batiste-Williams (Khandi Alexander) – Ex-wife of Antoine, hard working bar owner, commuting mother and sister of missing Daymo who vanished on the day of the hurricane while in the custody of the New Orleans police. Determined to find her brother and bring the police to book.

Creighton Bernette (John Goodman) – The worryingly large Goodman plays an angry English professor who is permanently on the verge of an attack of vapours about the injustice of the post-Katrina reaction of the authorities. His wife Toni (Melissa Leo) works as a civil rights lawyer, helping the New Orleans dispossessed.

Albert ‘Big Chief’ Lambreaux (Clarke Peters) – Carnival chief (just wait till you see him in his spectacular costume) Lambreaux is the stubborn old-ish man returning to his ruined home and life to make it all work again. Noble, respected and determined you really want him to make it happen.

Davis McAlary (Steve Zahn) – DJ and guitarist of questionable talent, bull-shitter and opportunist of definite renown, McAlary is a basically well-intentioned firebrand who causes more trouble than good.

Down on the Boardwalk...

Enoch ‘Nucky’ Thompson (Steve Buscemi) – Technically the treasurer of Atlantic City, Nucky pretty much runs AC and all of the organised crime in the city. Intelligent, wily and possessing a twisted sense of loyalty, he’s clean as a whistle when faced with the voting public and vicious behind closed doors.

Jimmy Darmody (Michael Pitt) – World War 1 veteran Jimmy starts off as Nucky’s protégé before siding with Al Capone and the Chicago mob and getting in deeper than he can square with his occasionally-spotted morals.

Margaret Schroeder (Kelly Macdonald) – Widow of a murdered would-be gangster, Irish immigrant Margaret is a deeply moral anti-booze campaigner who is gradually drawn into Nucky’s murky world.

Nelson Van Alden (Michael Shannon) – Ultra-straight and mega-driven prohibition agent determined to expose AC’s illegal underbelly. Frequently frustrated.

Eli Thompson (Shea Whigham) – Corrupt sheriff of Atlantic City and Nucky’s younger brother/ accomplice. Not as bright or social adept as his sibling, Eli has to learn to content himself with second place.

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