I just finished watching the first season of Boardwalk Empire. So much of it was extremely impressive: the sets and costumes, the direction of the pilot by Scorsese, the… um… the… er…
I’m not for a minute saying that BE is crap – far from it – but it’s not great either: the characters are a bit vague and not particularly exciting; there’s no real thrill when supervillain Ace Rothstein appears, or indeed when the bloke who played Omar in The Wire shows up; the plotting is fine, but not that compelling; situations (the gunman with half a face) deliver far less than they promise; the dynamics tend to go round in pointless circles (the Al Capone plotline, for example); and worst of all, Steve Buscemi is miscast as Nucky. He’s not intimidating or at all credible as the person who runs bootleg-era Atlantic City in the face of gangsters and the law. Oh, and Kelly MacDonald is a bloody awful actor, and her plotline is pretty boring.
Oh, I think I just made it sound crap. I really don’t mean that, I just mean that it’s not good enough to be considered great. We’ve been very fortunate in the last ten years to have been fed a mouthwatering diet of televisual perfection in shows like The Wire, The Sopranos and Game of Thrones. That means that anything that falls short of that standard does so under the glaring spotlight of what is now possible in the medium of the TV serial, especially when it comes laden with the hype, budget, cast and ambition of Boardwalk Empire.
We now expect plotlines to intertwine with graceful, invisible ease. We want all characters to be complex, well-rounded and brilliantly portrayed. We notice when ten or twenty hours of drama is not conveyed with absolute consistency. In short, we have our antennae set for great and when anything falls short, it’s a disappointment, even if it’s actually pretty good.
That might be unfair, but it’s only a version of what happens in many areas of life. In the 70s, British people were happy with the prawn cocktail, steak and chips and black forest gateau of a Bernie Inn. Now if your soup hasn’t been passed through fractional distillation then the chef isn’t really trying. The standard is high and those who only meet the greatness of a couple of decades ago are dismissed as not up to scratch. In the 80s newspapers were grim, black-and-white affairs with a couple of pages of sport and maybe 25 pages overall. Nowadays they’re all-singing, all-dancing colourful daily digests of absolutely everything of note that has happened in the world, complete with online and ipad versions that link to clips and appear by magic on your at your bedside during the night. Animation used to be super impressive if it featured any degree of 3-D (remember the delight at this shot from 1992?). Now if you can’t see every hair on a dog move in a gust of wind or each glint of light catching on a dandelion spore you’re a halfwitted hack who needs to go back to marker pen school.
So does quality only exist in the context of other things or is there an ultimate standard of anything that we can look to? If there had been no Dickens, Shakespeare or anyone good, would we revere the work of Jeffrey Archer? Would the absence of The Beatles elevate Steps? Would my son’s finger paintings look better without the context of Michelangelo?
That’s it, isn’t it? Really bloody great stuff just ruins it for the merely good. No matter how fantastic you are, if there’s someone a bit better you’re suddenly worse, without your work changing at all.
I guess we’ll all just have to be brilliant. But, unfortunately, when everyone’s brilliant, no one is.