The NPR TV critic and Rowan University professor discusses the popularity of HBO's 'Boardwalk Empire' in an exclusive interview for Atlantic City Weekly.
ATLANTIC CITY — Television Critic David Bianculli is an associate professor of TV and Film at Rowan University and TV critic for NPR’s Fresh Air as well as author of the blog TVworthwatching.com. Last year he was one of many critics around the country to declare HBO’s Boardwalk Empire the cream of the crop and the breakout show of 2010.
Of course, he cautions that there wasn’t much competition from other new shows, but he still classifies Boardwalk Empire as one of the best and most well-made shows on TV.
As Boardwalk Empire advances towards its second season premiere Sept. 25, Bianculli spoke to Atlantic City Weekly about the success of the show and the trends on TV that have us all rooting for bad guys and gangsters each week.
You named Boardwalk Empire as the best new show of 2010 and the show performed wonderfully, attracted a large audience and is nominated for numerous awards. What would you say was the secret of its success?
The big deal with this show is that it not only came with a really good lineage — you know when you have names attached like Martin Scorsese and Daniel Okrent as an advisor, you know this is going to be a really good show in theory and that they are at least going to try and get it right. But the other thing that really benefited the show was that it came out in a year when the broadcast networks delivered nothing for the fall season. I wasn’t the only critic that wrote that there is nothing new on broadcast TV that’s as good as Boardwalk Empire. It used to be that cable wouldn’t counter-program against broadcast TV, but in the last few years they’ve gotten stronger and tougher and more arrogant.
Does a show like Boardwalk Empire have to have the freedom of being on HBO to survive?
There are certain genres that lend themselves so much to a freedom of expression. A show like The Sopranos was originally pitched to a broadcast network, and if it had been made for broadcast without the violence and the language, it would have been a very different show. Later, the show was edited for broadcast reruns, and I find those edited episodes almost unwatchable. … So when you think about a show about gangsters [like Boardwalk Empire], yes, you’re going to want to paint with those colors on the palette.
It seems sometimes that anti-heroes now dominate TV. We root for bad guys like Tony Soprano and Nucky Thompson. What’s your opinion of that trend?
The anti-hero has become the norm on TV right now. All the characters that are in the center of shows these days are so flawed. A show like Breaking Bad is the most fascinating. The series was designed to start the main character out as a hero, but you’ve watched him evolve into a villain. And at what point along the way are we going to say we are no longer rooting for him? Perhaps we should already be there, but that’s not how it works. You watch TV and you root for the guy. … It’s a definite evolution of television and it’s also an expectation and acceptance from the audience that didn’t used to be there.
When Boardwalk Empire premiered, much was made about Steve Buscemi stepping out as the lead and playing that anti-hero. How’s he done and how has the rest of the cast performed?
I think he’s doing really well in this part, but part of the strength of any really good show is not only the lead, but also the strength of the people around him or her. They make the lead shine when they’re good. And the supporting cast in Boardwalk Empire is exceedingly strong. Kelly Macdonald, for example, I think is a wonderful actress and doing so much good work. But you go down the line of the supporting actors, even the very small roles, and they’re very well cast and doing great work. So you have lots of things going on in every scene and every episode with lots of good people. But if Buscemi was not good, if he wasn’t up for it, then the show wouldn’t be satisfying.
Boardwalk Empire is a period piece about the ’20s. Do you think that the show has sparked an interest in that era? Can we expect to see more shows about the gangster days?
Absolutely. Ken Burns is about to show his documentary Prohibition on PBS [Oct. 2], and he started working on it before Boardwalk Empire came out, but he’s enough of a showman to know he’s benefiting greatly from the interest in Boardwalk Empire. It’s a very interesting period. I’ve seen Burns’ documentary and in it, Al Capone is this bit player who comes to prominence. And the same thing is happening in Boardwalk Empire. He’s been sort of a prototype of a gangster, but everyone has their eyes on him. Boardwalk Empire has a very interesting mixture of the real and the fictional.
... And, of course, television will always try to copy anything successful. The problem is the imitations very rarely work. You could see a sort of Untouchables vibe in some new shows, but that’s a very hard thing to do. So the shows fail. But then television just doesn’t have any sense of memory.
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