Every year or so, America gives us a TV series that stands out from amongst the other prime time shows; something that resists the urge to wade in the waters of mediocrity, refusing to adhere to whatever trend that happens to have swept the nation at the time. In the last decade, audiences have seen the rise of shows such as The Sopranos, The West Wing, Six Feet Under, The Wire, Lost, 24, House, Dexter, Mad Men… The list is extensive and time-consuming to consider, but the common denominator of all of these is twofold: not only are some of the most famous actors and actresses in Hollywood (and elsewhere) standing in front of the cameras, some of the biggest names are sitting behind them, and they’re bringing their wallets along for the ride.
In a culture where higher production value is a growing factor in keeping audiences captivated, it seems natural for many of Hollywood’s major players to expand their portfolios into the realm of television. This year, it was time for one of the most celebrated and successful directors of all time to step up to the plate: Martin Scorsese, with his new TV series, Boardwalk Empire. His reputation surely precedes him as a master of bringing the exploits of gangsters to the silver screen, but it seems like it was only a matter time before he planted his flag in HBO’s Sunday night line-up. This is Scorsese’s first drama pilot, chronicling the early origins of Atlantic City throughout the 1920’s, during the height of the Prohibition era. It features a large ensemble cast, including Steve Buscemi in the lead role, Michael Shannon, Michael Pitt, Stephen Graham, Kelly Macdonald and Michael Stuhlbarg.
At a glance, we can afford to be somewhat sceptical about a TV series set in the Prohibition era. After all, it has been depicted more than once throughout the previous century in film and in television. Although this has primarily been focused on the work of the ‘Untouchables’ – the famous police task force that brought gangster Al Capone to justice – and not the lives of those working on the other side of the law. Some would also argue that the greatest gangster-themed TV series has already been made, and Scorsese has some extremely large shoes to fill. What I can tell you with absolute certainty though, without reviewing the show itself, is that we have no reason to doubt Scorsese’s first foray into television. His name alone will more than likely attract masses of viewers, but Boardwalk Empire boasts some incredibly talented actors, as well as the set design and screenplay one would expect to have seen in some of Scorsese’s best films.
Is this what audiences should begin to expect, then? An hour of cinema-quality drama in an hour of television? One can only hope so. Needless to say, Scorsese is not the first to have tried bringing such high quality drama and visuals to the smaller screen. While we have seen many filmmakers involved with various TV series over the years to some success, be it James Cameron with Dark Angel or even Spike Jonze with Jackass, there is only one that truly stands out amongst the others: Steven Spielberg with the acclaimed World War II mini-series, Band of Brothers. With Spielberg overseeing the entire project as executive producer, Band of Brothers opened the doors and, arguably, set the benchmark for famous filmmakers everywhere upon venturing into television. With its gripping storyline, dazzling visuals and superb ensemble cast, it was and has remained unparalleled as a wartime drama, and is perhaps one of the highlights of Spielberg’s lengthy career.
It is that very thing that makes series like Band of Brothers, The Sopranos, The Wire, or indeed any other series that has been hailed as one of the greatest TV series of all time, so vital. They have broken through the wall and become a part of popular culture, and with a little time and a little patience, Scorsese may well be able to add Boardwalk Empire to this list, amongst his many, many other achievements.