Home > #3, Media grammar > Boardwalk Empire – A Blast From the Past

Boardwalk Empire – A Blast From the Past

HBO’s critically acclaimed series, Boardwalk Empire, is a period piece set in the roaring twenties, right at the onset of Prohibition.  The show is loosely based on Atlantic City’s Nucky Johnson, the city’s racketeering and liquor smuggling gangster kingpin.  When viewed through a media grammar lens, the piece reveals many of popular social opinions of the era.  Immediately apparent is the tremendous social gap between men and women.  Women are granted the right to vote midway through the series, and are still viewed submissive objects for the most part, only achieving a small amount of power through sex.  An audience response of disgusted awe is oftentimes encountered, owing to the corruption in government which still manages to run incredibly well.  These themes of corruption and sexism contribute to the overall production desire to portray the stark contrast between the popular culture and social system of the modern era and the twenties.

The series was advertised in print publications such as People and Sports Illustrated. The music in the show is jazz and other pop music of the era, an additional area of enjoyment for me.  The show expects that the audience has a somewhat veiled desire for taboo content, showcased through its romantic portrayal of criminals and gangsters.  Viewers are drawn to these “bad boys” much like the “rebels” of pop music, going all the way back to Jim Morrison or even Elvis.  The show fills a niche in pop culture today as a gangster era drama, but it also allows for a sort of outlet for some of the common emotions today.  By watching shows like Boardwalk Empire, one is able to moonlight as a dashing rebel who cares not for the laws of the “common” man.  It provides an escape from the mundane everyday, something which many shows today strive for.

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  1. January 13, 2011 at 4:45 pm

    Excellent analysis of how HBO marshals its “guilty pleasure” attraction through 1920s-era romanticism for gangsters and crime. Great job. (I finally looked up Jack Whyte today, btw – interesting!)

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