Is this the new Sopranos?

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For the last few months, the people at BSkyB have been going out of their way to publicise Sky Atlantic, a new channel hosting all the best television from the other side of the pond. Boardwalk Empire, created by Terence Winter, one of the men behind The Sopranos, is essentially the channel’s flagship show, having received huge critical acclaim in the US.

The story begins in Atlantic City on the eve of prohibition, with Enoch ‘Nucky’ Thompson (Steve Buscem) giving a toast to “those beautiful ignorant bastards” who have decided to ban the sale of liquor. In public, ‘Nucky’ is the city’s treasurer, a pillar of the community and preacher against the destructive powers of alcohol. In private, he is lining his own pockets, doing deals and dining with mobsters from New York and Chicago.

The most expensive television series ever made (the pilot reportedly cost $20 million); Boardwalk Empire is certainly amazing to look at, no least for its painstaking reconstruction of the Atlantic City boardwalk, adorned with billboards for products that no longer exist. As if Terrence Winter’s credentials and the show’s hefty price tag were not enough to fuel the media frenzy, the series is also produced by Mark Wahlberg and Martin Scorsese, the latter of whom directed the pilot. Evidently, HBO has put a lot of golden eggs in one basket. The question is, will it pay off?

Perhaps as a result of the excessive hype surrounding the show’s release, many British critics have been less than gushing in their analysis of the pilot, claiming that it fails to engage the viewer and relies too heavily on mob movie clichés: dark, smoke filled rooms; classical music playing gently as someone gets his face rearranged, etc.

For his part, James Purnell, former Culture Secretary, recently stated on The Review Show that he was bored of watching series about American gangsters that have no bearing on British society. While he may have a point, home-grown TV rarely offers the same quality of acting, script and cinematography that is so frequently produced by HBO and AMC. If it comes down to a choice between a well-made series in an exhausted format and a poorly-made series that tries something new, I’m pretty sure which I would watch.

To a large extent, BSkyB has taken a gamble with Sky Atlantic. Although shows such as The Wire and Mad Men have been immensely popular with critics, they have often failed to pull in the same audience figures as say Lost or Law & Order. Speaking at the Edinburgh International Book Festival back in 2009, David Simon, creator of The Wire, concluded that the series was a lesson to networks in how not to make money. Boardwalk Empire falls under the same category, and BSkyB will be hoping to attract a whole host of previously untapped subscribers in order to cover costs.

Is Boardwalk Empire the successor to The Sopranos? Honestly, it’s far too early to say. It is, however, worth noting that HBO has renewed the show for a second season. While the opening episode is far from the most gripping pilot ever made, if we have learnt anything about HBO, it is that they are masters of the slow-burner. All the ingredients are there: a strong cast; complex characters; an engaging plot. Steve Buscemi, who recently picked up a Golden Globe for his performance, is reason enough to stick with the show and he plays the duplicitous ‘Nucky’ to perfection.

Similar to The Sopranos, Boardwalk Empire is more than just a story about shady gangsters; it is a story about characters, many of whom will surely be as iconic as Tony Soprano six years down the line. The real test, at least from the perspective of BSkyB, will be whether or not the series can pull in enough viewers in the UK, and then keep them.

Ross Dickie

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