Boardwalk Empire, Sky Atlantic, Tuesday
Louis Theroux: Ultra Zionists, BBC2, Thursday
Sky Atlantic opened with a Prohibition mobster drama that looked great but failed to grip
Sunday 06 February 2011
There are certain subjects you write about with a certain degree of hesitation: Italian gangsters, media mogul Rupert Murdoch and ultra-Orthodox Jews to name a few. The ice may be wafer-thin, but we skate on regardless.
Sky Atlantic last week burst into the living rooms of Sky's 10 million subscribers with the $18m, Martin Scorsese-directed pilot episode of the HBO production Boardwalk Empire. Awarded the Golden Globe for Best Dramatic Series in the United States, the show was widely advertised before its UK screening in an attempt to sell more Sky TV packages and make those of us who don't have one feel left out.
The programme centres on the exploits of one Enoch "Nucky" Thompson, played by the always excellent Steve Buscemi. Thompson is the corrupt treasurer of Atlantic City, the East Coast playground of the rich and disreputable. It is 1920 and the "Noble Experiment" of Prohibition is being counted down in the city's casinos and speakeasys with the popping of champagne corks. Through sets as spectacularly stylish as the hucksters inhabiting them, Thompson rules the roost, dishing out kickings and taking kick-backs in equal measure.
So far, so lavish. And let's be clear, Boardwalk Empire is exactly the kind of television programme we have come to expect from the HBO stable that brought us True Blood, The Wire and In Treatment: the attention to detail, in this case period, is impressive, the central performance riveting and the plot deeply engaging.
So why the sense of disappointment? Only that – though the series picks up significantly in the coming weeks – the pilot couldn't help feeling like an exercise in diminishing returns for its director. Having done the Mob thing already (Casino, Gangs of New York, Goodfellas) and in the light of HBO's own The Sopranos (whose writer and executive producer Terence Winter is the other driving force here), Boardwalk Empire trod sluggishly over the now familiar ground of heists gone wrong, broads being mistreated and shysters hatching plans.
The clichés of the genre were all in place: the youngster (Michael Pitt's Jimmy Darmody) increasingly drawn into Mob life; the psycho, low-level gangster we know will go on to bigger things (Stephen Graham's Al Capone); and the corrupt officials who turn a blind eye. Some of the script clunked like a spatted brogue on the sidewalk, too. "The things I've seen ... the things I've done," says the doe-eyed Darmody, back from the First World War trenches with his Leonardo DiCaprio looks intact. And don't even get me started on Kelly Macdonald's Irish accent ....
But Buscemi makes it all forgivable. A man who gives with one hand and takes with both, a man who benefits from the prohibitions placed on others, a man who lives "like a Pharaoh" while his staff sweat and shine his shoes around him .... What his appeal would be to Rupert Murdoch, it's impossible to say.
Talk about skating on thin ice. When your reviewer heard that Louis Ther-oux was making a documentary called Ultra Zionists, about the Jewish settlers who believe that the West Bank was given to them by God and they have the book to prove it, my first thoughts were, "At least Theroux is Jewish. That should to some extent protect him from the barrage of accusations of anti-Semitism and being a Nazi that the online lobbyists will no doubt mount against him."
Turns out he's not. So all credit to him for walking across the metaphorical minefield and the literal warzone of one of the most disputed patches of land on the planet. What his programme showed was that the world's most ancient of animosities boils down to almost insignificant details: a pile of rubbish left outside a Jewish home, a dispute about a table being used at a Jewish party that may or may not belong to a neighbouring Arab; a tiny girl blowing raspberries at Israeli soldiers.
The banality of evil? Ultra Zionists highlighted the banality of ordinary people. It was as strong an argument for atheism as it is possible to make.
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