Boardwalk Empire Blues
The reason I don’t like the HBO drama? I want it to be a show about Jewish gangsters.
Yes, yes, I know. Boardwalk Empire is very important. First of all, it is very expensive. Second of all, it is on HBO. Third of all, being very important, very expensive, and very much on HBO, it always seems to be nominated for a boatload of Emmys, further adding to its aura of importance. It has fancy costumes and complex characters and an intricate, multilevel plot structure. It’s the kind of show that by any known algorithm I should absolutely love.
I don’t. I take full responsibility for this. I feel like it’s a failing on my part, an indication of something faulty in my personal wiring, like my total lack of interest in contemporary music, or my hatred for elaborately prepared tasting menus, or how somehow the thought of an impending climate-induced apocalypse never seems quite urgent enough to me to bother unplugging my computer when I’m not using it. So, every year, I try. I gear up for the new season with my hopes high and the kind of grit and determination I usually reserve for arguing with my insurance company over my dental benefits. (When it comes to teeth, I am tireless.) And every year, about this time, I hit a wall and can’t go on.
I know I’m not the only one. Better writers than me have dedicated a great deal of time and thought to figuring out just what about Boardwalk Empire makes it seem to add up to somewhat less than the sum of its parts: the lack of a compelling protagonist? A miscast Steve Buscemi? A cast of characters who are all such rare and special flowers it becomes impossible for the audience to connect to them emotionally? I suppose I can see the validity of all these statements, but after some thought of my own, I’ve realized that my apathy toward the show Netflix consistently recommends to me ahead of even the BBC adaptation of Parade’s End and all those documentaries about the Kindertransport—which, if you know me at all, is really saying something—comes from another place entirely. It isn’t because it isn’t a quality piece of entertainment. It’s because I want Boardwalk Empire to be a show all about the Jewish gangsters.
What we get on the show is just enough to whet my appetite. I thrill every time the legendary criminal mastermind Arnold Rothstein (played by the great Michael Stuhlbarg), the man who fixed the 1919 World Series and inspired the character of Meyer Wolfsheim in The Great Gatsby, appears on screen, demurely sipping a cup of coffee and smiling quietly at something known only to himself; why do we get him in such small doses, and mainly reacting to the machinations of Nucky Thompson, the world’s most sheepish crime boss? When Meyer Lansky (Anatol Yusuf) first showed up, I let out a Belieber-esque squeal; this season he’s playing second fiddle to Gyp Rosetti (Bobby Cannavale), your standard-issue maniac killer/sex pervert (he likes women to tie him up and choke him. Snore.) I was fascinated by the character of Manny Horvitz, the garrulous kosher-butcher-cum-bloodthirsty-gangster who calls everybody “boychik” and dry-ages his enemies on meat hooks in the deep freeze, until (spoiler alert!) they let the guy with half a face (who is Anjelica Huston’s nephew and even with his Phantom of the Opera mask on, is still attractive beyond all sense) blow him away in the first episode of the new season. That was five weeks ago. I’m still sitting shiva.
Look, this isn’t because of some chauvinistic desire to force every aspect of popular culture to be All About the Jews (although it would certainly make my job here easier). Nor is it some sort of superiority/inferiority complex need to prove that We Can Be Tough, Too. The reason I am drawn to the Jewish gangsters is that they are, unlike nearly every other character on Boardwalk Empire (Handsome Two-Face Richard Harrow excluded), totally unpredictable.
I know the Irish and German aldermen with creative facial hair are going to give long, racist speeches in rooms filled with other men as they hoist beer steins in the air; I know the Sicilian guys are going to arbitrarily beat up/kill somebody in any given scene. Case in point: The second Bobby Cannavale stepped out of the car in the first scene of the first episode of the current season, I knew the poor schmuck that stopped to help him fix his tire was going to wind up dead. (The dog, on the other hand, was clearly going to be fine. If there’s one thing Hollywood has taught us, it’s that psychopaths love animals. Particularly little dogs.)
But with the Jews, I have genuinely no idea what they’re going to do. Not because they don’t add up as characters, but because there’s no distinct paradigm to follow. Sure, there have been Jewish mobsters in the movies—Once Upon a Time in America, Bugsy, Casino, Hyman Roth in the The Godfather Trilogy. A few of them are even brutal. But for the most part they stand around on the sidelines, à la Heshy from The Sopranos, being rational and businesslike while the Italians do most of the dirty work. As Boardwalk Empire admirably suggests, this was not the case in real life. Imagine a series where the Jewish gangsters were the focus, the stars. What happens to the Yiddische kop when it turns to a life of crime? Where is the line between being a good Jewish businessman and being a gangster? How did they rationalize it (or not) to themselves, to their family, to their community? How did the people who invented the concept of guilt deal with their own with no vaguely complicit priest to help them Hail Mary it away?
That’s a show I’d like to see. It’s also a show that would probably never be greenlit in America. So, I leave it to Israeli television to pick it up, make it, and Homeland-style, sell it back to the United States. Except they’ll probably turn them into Italians.
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The latest installment in Tablet’s monthly original fiction series, by the author of The Gospel of Anarchy