I don’t know about you folks, but to like a television program, I have to feel some connection to the characters in that program. I don’t necessarily have to adore every lead or cry when a character gets murdered, but I almost always have to care, in some way. Clearly everyone is different and what I am saying in this post might not apply to you. However, I have begun to notice a trend of sorts forming with a specific network and their programming that is shifting, or at least calling into question, my prevailing thoughts on how I become invested in a story.
As I was watching this Sunday’s episode of Boardwalk Empire, I realized that my gut reaction to season two is much more positive than season one. I quite liked the first season, but it took a long time to get going. This season is off to a stronger, more confident start and it sure appears as though Terrence Winter and his production team are more aware of the kind of story they want to tell this season. And really, that is the extent of the difference for me. In season two, Boardwalk Empire is a fully-formed story with a greater sense of purpose and direction, which is the primary element I think the opening dozen episodes lacked. The series’ narrative clarity makes it not only easier to understand what the heck is going on with all 618 characters, but also appreciate the larger issues and themes Winter and the rest of the staff are trying to explore.
The thing is, though, I don’t really care about anyone on Boardwalk Empire. This season has exerted a substantial amount of energy in trying to convince me that I should care about Richard, Chalky and Jimmy in particular and while I would certainly admit that I have a modicum of affinity for those three, if they were suddenly gunned down by the KKK or any other disruptive faction of Empire’s story, I wouldn’t have an emotional reaction. I’d be disappointed because the series would be less interesting, but I wouldn’t be heartbroken, if that makes sense.
And yet, it doesn’t seem to matter. I am entirely compelled by what is happening on screen during each Boardwalk Empire episode – even if I am not completely connected to those events. I am invested in the story, where it is headed and what that means for the characters as pieces of the story, but I am not invested in what actually happens to the characters themselves. This sort of detached feeling makes for an intriguing viewing experience. It allows me to focus on the things that Boardwalk Empire does very well – atmosphere, plot, theme, set design, even structure in some cases – and not get too hung up on the fact that I don’t really feel much. This is a process of artistic appreciation more than anything else.
I guess I could get hung up on the fact that I’m not emotionally tethered to Nucky Thompson or any number of characters that populate Boardwalk’s universe or even make a big fuss about the series’ inability to make me care – which is arguably the series’ biggest weakness, although it is improving in season two – and yet I think I am better off just enjoying the series in however I can. I would rather watch Boardwalk Empire with a step away from the events than not watch the series at all.
The more I thought about this viewing position, I realized that it similarly applies to a pair of other series as well, both of which that are also on HBO: Game of Thrones and Treme. If you recall, I wrote a piece describing my somewhat ambivalent reaction to Thrones’ first season this spring and although re-watching the first season this summer improved my emotional investment in the story’s characters somewhat, I still don’t care a whole lot about them. It still felt like that series’ characters were lost amid the attempts to condense a sizable novel into just 10 episodes and at times, it also felt like Thrones assumed knowledge or awareness that wasn’t there for completely new consumers of the story like myself. In that regard, Thrones and Boardwalk Empire aren’t that different, as it occasionally feels like the latter series gussies up its actors in proper clothing, drops a few names and steps back to rely entirely on its period timeline and atmosphere.
Treme is something of a different animal entirely. Whereas Thrones and Boardwalk tend to emphasize plot over character development, Treme hones in on aesthetics and verisimilitude and barely engages with the typical rhythms of television narrative. I would argue that David Simon’s look at post-Katrina New Orleans is more interested in and more adept at exploring shifts and changes in character than its two network mates, but the way in which Treme unspools its narrative and presents stakes is somewhat difficult to grab onto in an episode by episode context. Perhaps Game of Thrones and Boardwalk Empire could use some of Treme’s character focus on it could use some of their ability to move the plot along, yet Simon is trying to do something so fundamentally different that I’m not sure any exchange is necessary.
In any event, the point here is not what could make Thrones, Empire and Treme better series because ultimately, I think they are good, if not great. Nevertheless, I am curious as to why many of the series in HBO’s current crop of dramas keep me at arm’s length while still engaging and entertaining me.
Winter and Simon both worked on former HBO greats (The Sopranos* and The Wire, duh) that had characters who I could pull into my emotional orbit, so it’s not like they’re unfamiliar with how to mix the kind of thematic and narrative complexity with real character relevance as well. Moreover, I don’t really think the specificity or novelty of these three series’ settings is really the issue, because period pieces (Mad Men), sci-fi/fantasy stories (Battlestar Galactica) and region/location-specific series (Deadwood, Friday Night Lights) have all managed to create characters I truly care about in some fashion. It’s not as if past series haven’t done what these series can’t seem to do (again, at least for me personally).
*I’ve only seen the first three episodes of The Sopranos and I felt more of “something” with some of those characters than I have after two season of Treme or a season of Game of Thrones.
There’s an underlying sense of what we want from “quality television” (I know, we all hate that term) and I think that Treme, Boardwalk Empire and Game of Thrones offer basically everything on that list, from narrative and thematic complexity to stylistic and visual flourishes. But the three do lack a certain amount of emotional pathos that would allow them to exist in the highest pantheon of today’s television greats. Of course, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with being the sixth or seventh best drama series on television.
What do you folks think? Am I insane? Are there series out there you can recognize as quite good and that you can actually enjoy without much emotional investment?