The SBS premiere of acclaimed TV series Boardwalk Empire inspires an elegant prohibition-style menu of steak and marron, dazzling desserts, plus boardwalk snacks and cocktails.
To properly analyse how important a piece of modern entertainment Boardwalk Empire truly is, one is challenged by an even more daunting assessment – exactly when did television become creatively, immersively, generally, a more important medium than film?
In broad terms (and this will start furious debate from those who cite The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Hill Street Blues as turning points), it was when American cable-network HBO began programming original content under a man named Chris Albrecht. When he was upped to head of programming in 1995, he implemented a visionary slate of no-holds-barred shows that defined a new "golden age" of television. Chris Albrecht shepherded to small-screen glory such ground-breakers as Sex and the City, The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, Deadwood, Band of Brothers, The Wire and Entourage.
Television had become a two-fold drawcard for the American entertainment industry. Producers were energised by HBO’s commitment to challenging content, and pitched concepts and packaged talent, the likes of which home viewers had never seen; subscribers (and advertisers) were lapping it up. Albrecht left the network ignominiously in 2007 when HBO owners Time Warner insisted he resign after an unpleasant incident in Las Vegas, though his industry legacy remains. Without his torch-bearing vision, American television would have had no Mad Men, The West Wing or The Walking Dead. And, most certainly, no Boardwalk Empire.
The brainchild of Sopranos veteran Terence Winter, Boardwalk Empire is the archetypal television series of the new millennium, despite being set in Prohibition-era Atlantic City. The pilot episode, rich in retro-themed coolness, is directed by Hollywood royalty Martin Scorsese and was cast from a pool of character actors who stand as pillars of the thespian community (notably lead heavy Steve Buscemi as crooked politician Enoch "Nucky" Thompson), or are young stars at the height of their creativity (Kelly Macdonald and Michael Pitt, Michael Shannon and Michael Stuhlbarg). It is a show that tactfully embraces Albrecht’s boundary-pushing modern programming ethos, while embracing the great historical figures of the period (a brutal thug named Al Capone; a young up-and-comer named "Lucky" Luciano).
It differentiates itself from its nearest, critically acclaimed contemporaries by a vastness of vision, both narratively and aesthetically. Nothing on television has ever looked like Boardwalk Empire (Scorsese’s pilot reportedly cost an unprecedented US$18million) and, to date, there have been more than 40 speaking parts, brought to life by treasured bit-players such as Dabney Coleman, Gretchen Mol, Paz de la Huerta and William Forsythe.
The sweeping dramatic panorama reminds the finely aged among us of the must-see mini-series heyday of the late 1970s/early 1980s, when Roots, Rich Man, Poor Man and The Winds of War were diarised events; the brutality of its take on those in power on the take recalls classic gangster cinema, such as The Godfather series or The Untouchables.
Ultimately, Boardwalk Empire creates its own timeless legend. It is not old-school Hollywood, though it often looks like it; nor can it be classified as typical small-screen melodrama, though it engages like the very best does. As the cable-network’s iconic catchphrase promises: 'It’s not TV. It’s HBO." Thankfully, it’s on SBS.
SBS ONE will screen back-to-back episodes of Boardwalk Empire on Saturdays from 29 September at 9.30pm.
Photography by Brett Stevens