2009-2014: HBO’s Second Coming, or its Silver Age?

I consider myself lucky for discovering HBO’s series during their Golden Age. Starting with The Sopranos, then moving on in short order to Six Feet Under, Deadwood, The Wire and Rome, showed me the potential of ambitious TV: ambitious in terms of direction, acting, writing, structure and production values. Even a more flawed offering like CarnivĂ le seemed infinitely more daring than most regular series with their standalone episodes, 20+-episode seasons and heavy padding.

We miss you, Al.

I still love HBO’s output during that time, but the problem of getting into something during such a strong period is that whatever follows is likely to disappoint. HBO still does strong programming, and I’d count miniseries like Generation Kill and The Pacific among their best, but then there are series whose premise wasn’t enough to keep them interesting for their entire run, like In Treatment, or guilty pleasures that increasingly become more guilty and lesspleasurable, like True Blood. I haven’t seen John from Cincinatti or Luck yet, but neither sounds like it measures up to the heydays of Tony Soprano, Al Swearengen, McNulty or the Fisher family.

Boardwalk Empire is probably a good example of latter-day HBO. There’s no doubt that it’s a handsome series, with gorgeous production values. It’s well written, the cast is pretty much impeccable, it looks and sounds the part: this is quality TV. However, by comparison, it’s also average TV. For all its qualities (and there are many of them), it doesn’t have the freshness or the audacity of The Sopranos. It looks cinematic enough, but it meanders, feeling like a movie stretched out to several seasons. The same material, the same cast and crew, might be served better by a shorter format with more focus; instead, Boardwalk Empire feels somewhat rote at best and flabby at worst. Compared to so much TV, it’s still great – but compared to the pioneers, the real greats, shows that had something to prove and proved it, it can’t help but disappoint. It’s a shame, because there are moments when it’s up there with its stronger predecessors: disfigured war veteran Richard Harrow going to the woods to kill himself, or Chalky White interrogating an increasingly frightened Klansman after a racist killing. There are scenes of wit and intelligence, there are surprising and thrilling moments, and there are those insanely intense eyes of Federal Agent Nelson Van Alden: we never know from one scene to the next if Michael Shannon’s Fed is a stony-faced straight man or a psychopath waiting to happen, or both.

Crazy-ass Mike. Don't you ever change.

Most of the time, though, Boardwalk Empire feels like HBO by the book: there’s nothing wrong with it, it’s quality TV, but in being handsome and exquisitely crafted, it lacks the scathing punk attitude of The Sopranos or the squishy, pulsating heart and mock-Shakespearean grandeur of Deadwood, nor does it have the Dickensian scope of The Wire. One could argue that it’s its own thing, but I’m not sure yet what it brings to the table that is unique and that could only be done by this particular series. Boardwalk Empire is enjoyable, but it’s also strangely forgettable from one episode to the next.

Yet, there is also Treme, which was broadcast around the same time. David Simon’s series of post-Katrina New Orleans suffers by a rash comparison to The Wire – it lacks the structural focus of Simon’s Baltimore saga, which had a main case and storyline each season to peg its themes onto. Admittedly, it took me a while to get into Treme, but I’m now almost through the second season and have fallen in love with its world and characters. It’s less showy than Boardwalk Empire, which aims at the burnished looks of a Once Upon a Time in America and tries to recall mobster drama from The Untouchables (the Prohibition setting) to The Godfather (the ghost of Fredo Corleone haunts various characters), but it has attitudes, heart and a righteous anger at what ails New Orleans, both from outside and from within.

Butter wouldn't melt in his 'bone-playing mouth.

What seems flabby in Boardwalk Empire I’ve come to see as an asset in Treme: its many characters and plot strands all contribute to a portrait of a city that has been dealt a near-fatal blow but that is struggling to survive. As he did with Baltimore, Simon has crafted a passionate ode to a place and its people that does not shy away from its own faults but that is an example of essential, loving humanism. It’s not in the series’ individual moments, though there are many strong ones, but in their accumulation: each scene, each character, each moment of growth constitutes a brushstroke in Simon’s grand portrait of a city in struggle. Where Boardwalk Empire suffers from the TV format and practically calls for a more focused narrative format, Treme needs its sprawl to unfold its full effect. Simon’s rhythms and structures may not lend themselves to lean, muscular storytelling, but the way he portrays a society and culture could not function in a medium that calls for discipline and brevity. Is Treme up there with HBO’s greatest? Well, I’m not even halfway through the entire series, but I will say with confidence that few TV series have made me care as much about a place I’ve never been to and people I’ll never meet.

We’re all going crazy, buck-jumping and Breaking Bad!

Wow. Just wow. Breaking Bad season 4 (yes, as always we’re a year or so behind the US) has done the series proud. Is it better than the previous seasons? I admit, there were moments when I felt the plot was spinning its wheels somewhat – we had scenes that were variations on earlier scenes without adding anything new, usually telling us something about Walter White’s personality that we already knew – and the season didn’t always maintain its well honed balance of plot, theme and characterisation, but when it worked (and it often did), boy, did it work… and off the top of my head, and before my first coffee of the day, I could mention scenes and whole episodes that were stronger than anything that had gone before.

He won.

And “Face Off”, the final episode of the season? I would put it up there with the most tension-building denouements I’ve seen or read in any medium. The way Vince Gilligan and his team have put together the individual building blocks to arrive at this ending for one of their most memorable characters, and the way it all comes together in Tio Salamanca’s muffled bell-ringing. As I’ve said: wow.

At the same time, Walter White – who I once thought to be a man trying to do as best he could in an impossible situation – has become one of the greatest villains in any visual medium. It’s difficult to read his tone of voice when he says “I won” at the end of the episode (it’s been described as smug and triumphant, but to me Walt’s shaking voice sounded not a little scared by what he’d become), but Bryan Cranston is pretty much perfect in his depiction of the character. Almost every episode of this season could serve as a master-class for budding actors, and a depressing one too – very few people will reaching the dizzying heights of Cranston’s performance and the character he has brought to life.

Just coming off the high of Breaking Bad‘s penultimate season, it’s difficult to segue neatly into the other season we’ve just finished watching, namely season 1 of Treme. I started watching David Simon’s latest with unrealistic, unfair expectations: The Wire is still the best thing I’ve seen on TV in many ways, and since Treme shares some of the earlier series’ main actors (Wendell “Bunk” Pierce, Clarke “Cool Lester Smooth” Peters) it’s even more difficult to shake these expectations. During Treme‘s first 4-5 episodes I kept repeating the mantra, “It’s not The Wire, it’s not The Wire“, which is true but not entirely fair: some of the themes are the same, but Simon and his cast and crew go for a different feel here. The series is much more meandering; it has a few plots threaded throughout the series, but character always comes before plot in this series.

I can’t pinpoint the moment when it all clicked – there were probably different moments for different characters – but by the end of the season, as the last episode of S1 transitioned into the flashback of all the characters preparing for Katrina, it definitely had. The writers and actors of Treme are impressively astute at balancing the depressing realities of post-Katrina New Orleans, at least for these particular characters, and the flashes of hope and humanity. I’ve never understood the people accusing Simon of cynicism (being a pessimist doesn’t make you a cynic!), and his deep sense of empathy has never been stronger than in Treme.

Except perhaps with Sonny, the Dutch louse – but given time even he could turn out to be human. Simon has a history of doing that… and I’ll gladly give him time to do so.

My favourite kinds of imperialism

We’re getting close to the end of The Sopranos. Both Rome and Carnivale only have one more season to offer us. And at the speed at which we’re going through West Wing, President Bartlett will have finished his second term in record time.

How to find good, new series? Used to be, I could pretty much get three out of four HBO series on DVD and be happy for the next year or so. Even if some of them found an untimely end, the journey was absolutely worth it.

Now, though? Can’t say I’m all that interested in Hung, and I’m not sure I would enjoy Big Love (which may be due to my lack of trust in Bill Paxton’s acting abilities – “Game over, man!”, indeed…). What about all these new series starting on other channels, though? The Elmore Leonard series Justified sounds like it might be fun, and I’m definitely hoping to get Caprica, provided that it doesn’t get cancelled after one series.

However, HBO seems to be stepping up its game, with not one but three series premiering this year. The one I’m currently most excited about is the one I only found out about five minutes ago: Boardwalk Empire, by Sopranos alum Terence Winter and Martin Scorsese – yes, you read that right, the Raging Bull of mob cinema himself! Check out the trailer, which looks like the murderous bastard child of Once Upon a Time in America and The Sopranos:

Also looking quite promising, although in a more Norman-Rockwell-meets-Interracial-Slaughter way: The Pacific, which seems to be a sort of companion piece to Band of Brothers. Oh, and it stars the little kid from Jurassic Park, all grown up. Listen, boy, you should know better than to return to island jungles! (Cue bad “Doyouthinkhesaurus?” jokes about jungle warfare…) Again, let me peruse YouTube:

Finally, the creators of my favourite series (it shares the pedestal with Six Feet Under) are doing a new show on the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. It’s called Treme and it’s got the usual awesome cast of actors, including Wendell Pierce and Clarke Peters. It’ll be good to see Lester Freamon and Bunk Moreland back in action!