Both these series are pitched to HBO’s hip left-liberal audience—an audience that prides itself on its pacifism, its social responsibility, its concern for the weak, its unflinching gaze at the American past, and its willingness to make sacrifices to advance its generally collectivist agenda. One would think therefore that the relief of human suffering (as in the healing professions) and a strict adherence to the rule of law would be moral anchors for the evaluation of their edgy productions. Sadly, this is not the case with two of HBO’s most lauded series: In Treatment and Boardwalk Empire.
First, In Treatment: the first two seasons were adapted from an Israeli series; the third season, completed last week, was not. In the last episode, Paul Weston, a clinical psychologist, doubts whether or not he should remain in his profession, for he has no objective way to evaluate the accuracy of what his clients are telling him. This is postmodernist uncertainty and existentialist despair, pure and simple. Whereas at least one of his patients in season one (the teen-age gymnast) was pulled back from the brink of suicide through therapy, in season three, Sunil, the Indian father-in-law of the blonde and assertive “Julia,” has tread lightly on the truth in order to get himself deported back to his home country, thus triggering a failure of nerve in Paul. We are left hanging in the season finale, as Paul, rejected as a sexual partner by his latest female therapist, melts into the Brooklyn street, a street inhabited by hoi polloi. Such a dim view of therapy can only bolster the anti-psychiatry movement that does not base its critique on something persuasive, such as the clinical emphasis on the immediate family as opposed to the family as it operates in an abundance of confusing and failed institutions (schools, the justice system, state-imposed bureaucratic rules that strangle production and innovation in general).
Boardwalk Empire purports to represent the social history of Atlantic City as it existed in the year that Prohibition was passed–1919 onward. It is, however, yet another tinsel town story of civic corruption that sends a double message, very much like The Sopranos. On the one hand, we are supposed to be revolted by the graphic mayhem, decadence, racism, ethnocentrism, and sexism, while on the other hand, we are likely to identify with the criminals (and their wardrobes), simply because that is how stories work when the writers are sophisticated. Just as Tony Soprano had a mean mother, Enoch “Nucky” Thompson (the character based on city boss Enoch Johnson), had a malicious, violent father. The most obnoxious character in this first season was not a killer politician or bootlegger, it was the Calvinist federal agent from the Internal Revenue division, assigned to enforce the Volstead Act. He is a sadomasochist, a Puritan, and a murderer who takes the law into his own hands as he drowns his second-in-command, a Jew who is secretly working for Nucky, while black Baptists look on without intervening in the gradual dunking and murder of the Jew who refuses to convert to Christianity. If the Jew disbelieves in fallen flesh and original sin, the opening titles– inspired by Magritte’s iconic figure of the ultimate bourgeois–will bring the optimistic liberal back to the guilt that is appropriate for the worldly and the damned. [See Magritte’s The Healer, illustrated above. So much for the amelioration of suffering in the social practice of “liberals.”]
By comparison with agent Van Alden (an old Dutch-American name), Nucky and his chief lieutenant, a returning wounded veteran of the first world war, are model citizens, for they are home-loving and monogamous; the audience will side with these amiable Irishmen against their Italian and Jewish thug enemies. That is how stories work. Even if the protagonists are anti-heroes, their “good” sides and damaging family histories will encourage the audience to identify with them. (Recall the anxiety that many fans experienced at the ambiguous ending of The Sopranos.) The audience will root for them, just as they root for the lawless celebrities and political leaders who are standing up for “law and order” in today’s endlessly cynical political culture —a culture that condemns the Puritans as narcissists and killjoys, while elevating the pornography of sex and violence as some kind of artistic breakthrough in mass entertainment.