In the first place, I would like to observe that the older generation had certainly pretty well ruined this world before passing it on to us. They give us this Thing, knocked to pieces, leaky, red-hot, threatening to blow up; and then they are surprised that we don’t accept it with the same attitude of pretty, decorous enthusiasm with which they received it…
– John F. Carter, “’These Wild Young People’ by One of Them,” in the Atlantic Monthly, 1920.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. In the first years of a new decade filled with technological wonders, American troops are returning home from an overseas war that was promoted as saving democracy – democracy as it was currently understood – abroad. Concurrently, self-styled progressives, hoping to transform the world into a utopian vision of Heaven on Earth, wake up each day thinking, “What can we ban today?” The wealthiest one percent create enclaves in which the laws that they force upon everyone else don’t apply to them. And a corrupt if charismatic politician seeks to find ways, via his cronies, to exploit this enormous rift in what is thought by the masses to be a free market.
America today? No, America in 1920, as prohibition begins to sink its ugly claws into the decade.
It’s easy to see how Boardwalk Empire was green-lighted at HBO. The Sopranos, focusing on a ruthless, albeit relatively minor wannabe-Godfather, was a huge hit a decade ago. AMC’s Mad Men, which was created by one of the Sopranos’ producers, is a cult favorite and hit with the critics. Why not hire another Sopranos producer and create another crime show set in New Jersey, but with the same sort of boomer-tinged historical triumphalism that fuels Mad Men?
In the opening titles of Boardwalk Empire, set to menacing, vaguely surf-rock sounding electric guitars, an infinite number of Canadian whisky bottles wash ashore while Steve Buscemi as Enoch “Nucky” Thompson, the show’s answer to Tony Soprano, scans the horizon. If there are any messages in these bottles, it’s a reminder that the past is a foreign country, its people increasingly incapable, in the eyes of the Boomers, of having gotten anything right.
To be fair though, Atlantic City hit the skids long before the 21st century. When I was a kid living in South Jersey, the prospect of an hour and a half car ride to Atlantic City always left me with a feeling of melancholy. A long car ride down route 295 and then 45 minutes on the Atlantic City Expressway, terminated in passing by numerous clapped out seaside homes, on the way to the Boardwalk itself, just before casino gambling was legalized by New Jersey and slightly revitalized the area. Slightly.
But Atlantic City in the 1920s, at least as imagined by HBO, is a sight to behold, with rich swells intermingling with down and out immigrants, and an endlessly variety of storefronts, fortune tellers, and carnival barkers. I’m happy to see the first season of Boardwalk released on DVD and Blu-Ray from HBO. I got hooked on the show in November, when it seemed to be on a continuous loop on HBO while I was back in a very different New Jersey than the one depicted in Boardwalk.
Or maybe not so different; there’s a reason why John Fund wrote an essay for the Wall Street Journal in 2004 titled “Louisiana North” calling New Jersey a “pit of corruption.” Whatever reforms current governor and GOP superstar Chris Christie is capable of, he’s got his work cut out for him.
But then, that’s long been true. In TV’s Boardwalk Empire, the mayor is a figurehead. The man who makes the resort town go is its treasurer, the character played by Buscemi, and based on a real life-life figure, Enoch L. Johnson, who lived from 1883 to 1968 – and who looked nothing like the actor playing him.