Sunday, October 17, 2010

TV's "Boardwalk Empire" Is Neither a Boardwalk Nor An Empire

[Photos: You shoulda seen Atlantic City in those days...]

Voltaire famously said of the Holy Roman Empire that it was neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire -- and I kind of feel the same way about the depiction of old Atlantic City that I am seeing in the much praised TV series "Boardwalk Empire."

TV critics have been wildly effusive about this undertaking, reporting credulously that $20 million was spent on the first episode. Two things. One, TV critics are traditionally the dumbest people in any given newsroom (and I know that's saying something) and, two, if Scorcese & Co. spent anything like $20 million on the look for this version of Atlantic City, they would have been better off spending it in a casino and not on those cheesy Disneyland-design-level sets.

They don't even remotely have the look right. Understandably, because old slattern that it always has been (evidently, one cannot use the "whore" word even metaphorically these days, lest a media hissy-fit ensue), Atlantic City willy-nilly obliterated its physical past once the casino bulldozers arrived starting in the 1970s. These days, the only place you'll readily see a real depiction of the old Atlantic City is on a commemorative-edition box of Fralinger's Salt Water Taffy.

There is one place, though. And I recommend it if you're in Atlantic City. It's the Atlantic City historical museum, tucked on the rump of old Garden Pier on the far northern end of the Boardwalk.

It will give you reason to recall the great ironic line that Burt Lancaster, playing that busted-valise of an old Boardwalk character watching the wrecking crews at work, memorably uttered in the 1980 Louis Malle movie "Atlantic City:" "You shoulda seen the Atlantic Ocean in those days."

Also, if you are in Atlantic City, do not -- repeat do not -- miss a lunch stop at the distinguished Philadelphia hoagie and cheese-steak emporium, the White House Sub Shop, a few blocks from the Boardwalk.

By the way, the TV series is based, extremely loosely, on a book of the same title by Nelson Johnson. So wildly inaccurate is the TV depiction of the corrupt Atlantic City boss Enoch "Nucky" Johnson that the character is rendered as "Nucky Thompson" in the show, even though the real Nucky has been dead, and hence incapable of suing, since 1968. And the source book is so limited in scope as a depiction of Atlantic City, incidentally, that the words "Steel Pier" and "Skinny D'Amato" do not once appear in its text. You could look them up.


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