well, that got shit fast: homeland vs. boardwalk empire
Each week “Revision” holds two TV shows up to the light to figure out if they are friends or foes.
**Warning: contains spoilers.**
I remember when both Boardwalk Empire and Homeland first came out. They were the kind of shows I would rave to my friends about. Boardwalk Empire was the flagship of cable-TV brilliance, its lush production values and high melodrama rivalled only by Breaking Bad and maybe Mad Men. Homeland executed a concept with originality and panache that in the hands of someone else (24) would have felt bigoted and familiar—and reminded everyone that Claire Danes can act.
And I couldn’t care less what either show does next. Because they both now totally suck. And this is not the slow descent into failure epitomised by The Simpsons, when you don’t realise that the show is actually unwatchable until a season or two after the quality starts to dip; this is avert-your-eyes, flaming car-wreck crashing and burning, a previously brilliant show suddenly having the rug pulled out from under it. Both shows retained all of their important creatives, neither was in financial trouble. It’s proof that making good TV is almost always just a happy accident, an alignment of the cable stars that somehow churns out an engaging and intelligent show. One small shift and suddenly… bad TV.
Let’s start with Homeland, because its failure was the more brutal of the two. A fresh face on the block for Showtime, which has always emphasised the titillation potential of cable TV over the narrative possibilities, Homeland seemed like the first really grown-up mainstream American show about terrorism. Its focus was tight, its characters were fascinatingly drawn and impeccably acted, its cliffhangers were foaming-at-the-mouth addictive. A U.S. marine is released from eight years of captivity by Islamic extremists; an intelligence agent suspects him of turning against his home country, but her reliability is undermined by mental health problems; the slow build up to, and execution of, an attack at the end of the series brings the narratives together. Dust off your hands, breathe out. A tightly-wound, immensely satisfying piece of TV, no loose ends left flapping in the wind.
Except at the last minute the show couldn’t pull the trigger. Brody, the sleeper-cell marine, fails in his mission—which has very interesting narrative implications for Carrie, the CIA agent who was right about him all along, but who now looks crazy—but it doesn’t make sense for the show as a whole. Sure, in cynical TV-land terms, it should have been predictable that Brody wouldn’t die; he was a main character. But Homeland was just unpredictable enough that you could believe it would fearlessly pull the plug on one of its leads, like other great shows before it (The Wire, Game of Thrones). And so, the second season has a lot of explaining to do, and suddenly a show that relies on believability (which was admittedly already being stretched, though not unpleasantly) is suddenly having a terrorist running for vice president and having an affair with a government operative. Geeze.
Boardwalk Empire suffered a subtler kind of death. Whereas Homeland made too many brash changes to its formula, Boardwalk doggedly carried on in its own tradition, slowly bleeding itself of all interest until it was a pale, anaemic corpse barely dragging itself from episode to episode with predictable gushes of violence and sex. The thing about Boardwalk, something that is also true of The Sopranos and Oz, is that gang violence can only sustain interest for so long. Ultimately the vengeance and double-crossings and lack of morality becomes repetitive, and hollow. The second season of Boardwalk manoeuvred the main character’s right-hand man into direct opposition with him, creating a gang-war in which we root for both sides and each violent act has a personal sting behind it; that was interesting. But season three replays the same plot with a previously unknown character, a psychopath whose role each episode is reduced to simply being a ticking bomb who will inevitably explode and murder some innocent bystander in a horrifically violent fashion.
And here I think I reach the root of the problem. That both of these shows, while great in their own way, were nevertheless imperfect to begin with. And that’s fine; but as they weakened, their inherent flaws became more and more difficult to ignore. I could excuse Boardwalk‘s excessive sex and violence because it was used for important emotional and narrative reasons. Homeland‘s reductive politics was excusable because it was nevertheless morally complex and sympathetic to both sides of the conflict. But as my interest waned, Boardwalk‘s glacial storytelling was no longer rewarding, but painful. Its reliance on explicit sexuality and violence became farcical as the extreme images lost any kind of connection to anything higher. Homeland‘s little transgressions of realism suddenly were no longer enjoyable flights of fancy, but ridiculously bad writing that totally pulled me out of the story.
We all have thing that we overlook in our favourite shows. Even Breaking Bad, Girls, Game of Thrones have aspects that bore us, or offend us—but there comes a point when the bad outweighs the good. It’s disappointing that Homeland and Boardwalk Empire flamed out so quickly; but ultimately they sowed the seeds of their own destruction from their first episodes.
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