Wednesday, September 19, 2012

"Revolution" Premiere

After watching the pilot for the new J.J. Abrams show, “Revolution,” I would describe it as “Lord of the Rings” meets “Hunger Games.”  Taking place it a world where the power has been out for 15 years, it is yet another in a long line of apocalyptic post 9/11 shows that have premiered since 2001.

At the show’s outset, we see the power go out—everything from electricity to car engines to batteries— and the lead character’s father says it will “never come back on.”  The show picks up a decade-and-a-half later and the world has devolved into a rural society reminiscent of premodern Europe before centralized governments emerged.  Militias rule and people are afraid to venture a few blocks from their homes.

After a militia kills her father when they come to arrest him, Charlie, who carries a bow a la Katniss Everdeen from “Hunger Games,” sets out to fulfill his dying wish and find her uncle. She needs him to free her brother, who was taken after her father was killed.  The militias wanted her father and are still looking for her uncle because they might have knowledge of what caused the blackout.  Along with her father’s girlfriend and a close friend of his, they leave the shire—excuse me—neighborhood—on a quest to find the uncle.

The pilot has some exciting action sequences and features an intriguing premise and an engaging mystery.  “Revolution” gets off to a strong start, but so did similar shows such as the short-lived “Flash Forward” and “The Event.”  Only time will tell if this serialized drama can maintain the audience’s interest.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

"Boardwalk Empire," Season 3, Episode 1, "Resolutions"

“Boardwalk Empire” returned last night and the show resumes eighteen months after the events of season 2.   With the death of rival Jimmy Darmody in last season’s finale, the premiere opens up new storylines for “Nucky” Thompson and his mobster allies and enemies.  Season 3 moves the audience into 1923 and the program will likely offer more references to events and trends from the Roaring 1920s.

In an early scene, Thompson meets with Attorney General Harry Daugherty and another official from President Warren Harding’s Administration.  Referring to the various newspaper accounts about “oil companies” and other potential scandals, Nucky tells them they are going down and are not going bring him with them. Thompson is describing the opening salvos of the “Teapot Dome” scandal, which would eventually besmirch Harding’s reputation after he dies in August.

The other real-life administration member attending the meeting is Andrew Mellon, who served as Treasury Secretary through the 1920s and early 1930s.  An advocate of low taxes and limited government regulation of business, he was a key architect of the economic policies of Presidents Harding, Calvin Coolidge, and Herbert Hoover.  Under his leadership, income taxes were significantly reduced from their World War I-era levels. 

After escaping arrest for murdering a fellow agent, former Treasury Agent Nelson Van Alden has moved to Chicago and taken up work as a door-to-door salesman selling electric irons.  While it is hard to imagine a worse profession for the humorless Van Alden (now under the assumed name of George Mueller), he is selling the new consumer goods of the “New Era” of the decade.  In this time, more and more new appliances were available to middle-class Americans.

Continuing references to a female pilot flying across the continent speak of the perceived openings for women during the Roaring 20s.   Though scenes of “flappers” often appeared in the media, most historians don’t believe women made significant progress during the decade.

The death of Darmody left a major hole in the show, which will apparently be filled by a new mob rival who is upset that Thompson has decided to only sell liquor to Arnold Rothstein.  It will take a few episodes to see if the show can generate some momentum.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

"Boardwalk Empire," Season 2

Season 2 of “Boardwalk Empire” continues the program’s exploration of the Roaring 20s as the show further reveals key aspects from that important decade.  Set in 1921, the season illustrates major trends in culture, technology, and politics.

The season premiere opens with a Ku Klux Klan attack on black ward leader Chalky White and his allies.  During the battle, a Klansman declares, ““Purity, sobriety, and the white Christian’s Jesus.”  With this outburst, the Klansman offers a good summary of the Invisible Empire’s agenda during the 1920s.  In this era, the Klan’s platform moved beyond enforcing segregation and white supremacy to strongly supporting Prohibition and the maintenance of traditional sexual mores.

Indeed, many rural and small town Americans were disturbed by the decline of Victorian values and the rise of a more permissive and secular urban culture. Treasury Agent Van Alden refers to Atlantic City as “Sodom” because of the hedonistic behavior of its residents and tourists.   Less than pure himself, Van Alden impregnates Nucky Thompson’s ex-girlfriend during a one-night stand.  After discovering that her husband had a child out of wedlock, Van Alden’s wife asks for a divorce, a practice that was becoming increasingly common in the 1920s.

Other signs of cultural clashes appear.  At one point, police harass a woman on the beach for wearing excessively revealing clothing, as more and more “flappers” were doing at the time.  She eventually becomes involved with Angela Darmody, whose artistic nature and embrace of sexual freedom reflects the emerging bohemian culture of the time. 

Economic growth and technological change were also hallmarks of the decade, with many contemporaries referring to the 1920s as a “New Era” that was providing unprecedented material benefits to middle-class Americans.  None of the new goods was more revolutionary than radio, which made its initial appearance at the end of season one.  Growing in importance in season 2, we see James Darmody and a large crowd listening to Jack Dempsey’s heavyweight title fight on the radio. Facilitating what many called the “Golden Age of Sports,” radio allowed the entire country to thrill to the exploits of Dempsey, Babe Ruth, Bobby Jones, Red Grange, and other icons of the decade.

Warren Harding is inaugurated as president in March 1921, ushering in a decade of conservative Republican dominance of the White House.  Nucky Thompson played a key role in Harding’s successful campaign for the Republican nomination and helped him win the presidency.  The Harding Administration was one of the most corrupt in American history, as Nucky himself discovers in a fictional plotline.  Though he initially assigns a pliant prosecutor to Nucky’s criminal case, Attorney General Harry Daugherty brings in an aggressive lawyer when a senator threatens to investigate the administration’s behavior if he doesn’t pursue Thompson.  After Harding’s death in office in 1923, the country would discover the “Teapot Dome” scandal, which was the worst presidential scandal of the 20th century prior to Watergate.

Following a failed post-World War I strike campaign, organized labor remained weak and on the defensive throughout the decade.  When black workers strike for higher wages in episode 10, local employers employed thugs to disperse them.  While it is unlikely African Americans workers would have been so bold in 1921, the rough tactics used against them were common and reflected the anti-labor climate of the time.  Major advances for unions would not come until the 1930s, with support from President Franklin Roosevelt and the collective bargaining provisions of the Wagner Act.

The show’s direction takes a dramatic change in the season finale and it will be interesting to see what producers have in mind for season 3.  It will likely begin in 1923 and I will provide episode-by -episode explications of the history in the show, beginning with the September 16th premiere.

Monday, September 10, 2012

"Boardwalk Empire," Season 1

After watching the first season of HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire,” I would describe the show as “The Sopranos” meets “Mad Men.”  Combining the Mafia intrigue of the former with the historical relevance of the latter, “Boardwalk Empire” is clearly one of the strongest shows on television today.  Set during the Roaring 1920s, the program portrays a decade of profound social and cultural change.

The program revolves around Enoch “Nucky” Thompson (Steve Buscemi), the fictional treasurer of Atlantic County and political boss of Atlantic City, New Jersey.  Like many urban bosses of the time, he maintains power through a combination of favors, intimidation, and payoffs.  With the ratification of the 18th amendment and the institution of Prohibition in January 1920, Thompson expands his empire beyond traditional businesses such as gambling and prostitution and enters the bourgeoning market for smuggling and distributing alcohol.

Like most of the late 19th century and early 20th century bosses, Thompson is an Irish American.  Arriving in the U.S. following the potato famine of the 1840s, Irish immigrants represented the first major wave of immigrants to the country and established a political base in the big cities.  In the absence of modern social welfare services, the urban political “machines” offered jobs and social services to immigrants starting a new a life in America.  At the same time, they insured their power through fraudulent elections and kickbacks to supporters. 

One of the central themes of “Boardwalk Empire” is the post-Prohibition rise of organized crime and the challenge from the “new” immigrants arriving from eastern and southern Europe through Ellis Island from 1892 to 1924.  Upstart Italian American and Jewish American mobsters want a share of the growing pie and the show features portrayals of major real-life figures in the history of the Mafia, including Al Capone, Lucky Luciano, Arnold Rothstein, and Meyer Lansky.

As with “Mad Men,” the show inserts its fictional characters into real-world events.  Shortly after the imposition of Prohibition, the states ratified the 19th amendment, giving women the right to vote. Like any savvy machine politician, Nucky courts the women’s vote and has his girlfriend, Margaret Schroder, address the League of Women Voters.  Schroder, like many suffragists, is also a strong supporter of the temperance movement.

Thompson also has allies in the African-American community, as the World War 1-era migration of blacks from the South to the North augmented their population.  While Jim Crow disenfranchised southern blacks, those living above the Mason-Dixon line could vote and political machines sought their support, though their wards often received the worst patronage jobs and public services.  Nucky’s ties to the black community are strained when a rival gang lynches one of the African-American leader’s closest allies.  Suspicion initially falls on the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan, whose numbers were growing in the North and Midwest during the decade, making it a national political force.

American involvement in World War I had only concluded two years earlier in November 1918 and “Boardwalk Empire” depicts its impact.  Thompson’s protégé, James Darmody, served with the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) in France and returns home with a serious case of post-traumatic stress syndrome, known then as “shellshock.”  Once a Princeton man, the war experience has changed Darmody to the point that he is now willing and eager to participate in the most violent parts of Thompson’s business.  He is also given to screaming bouts during his sleep as well as violent fits of tempers.  While in Chicago avoiding a murder charge, Darmody befriends another vet whose face was severely damaged during combat but survived, as many WWI vets did.  While these plot elements are consistent with the era, their inclusion no doubt reflects the many struggles post-9/11 vets have had with PTSD as well as the catastrophic physical damage some have also suffered.

Two major historical events are consistent subplots throughout the season, including the infamous Black Sox Scandal.  Huge favorites to win the 1919 World Series, eight Chicago White Sox players made agreements with gamblers to throw the series.  Among the conspirators was  “Shoeless” Joe Jackson, one of the best players in the game.  Because of the damage from the scandal, the baseball owners created the post of commissioner to restore confidence in the national pastime, hiring Judge Keenesaw Mountain Landis to fill the position.  Though the players were found not guilty in a Chicago court, Landis banned the eight players from the game for life (depicted in the 1988 film “Eight Men Out”)

Finally, the 1920 presidential election forms part of the backdrop for the season.  Thompson, a Republican, plays a key role in the GOP nomination process, lending his support to a dark horse candidate, Senator Warren Harding of Ohio.  The show accurately shows Harding as a long shot who won the nomination due to the machinations of an old-school political convention in the days before primaries decided the outcome.  Indeed, the phrase “smoke-filled rooms” derives from the negotiations that eventually gave the nod to the then-obscure senator.  The season concludes with an audience at an Atlantic City club listening to a Pittsburgh radio station declaring Harding the victor in the November general election.  In reality, the Steel City’s KDKA broadcast of the election returns was the first major radio program.

All of the specific events from the first season occurred during 1920.  Like “Mad Men,” each season takes place during one year or so from a particular decade.  I will report back analyzing the second season and will provide weekly posts on season 3, which begins on September 16.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

How Football Became the National Pastime

The incredible hype surrounding the opening weekend of the NFL reinforces how it has become the most dominant sport in the country by a large margin.  But it wasn’t always this way.  For years, baseball was the “national pastime” and the most popular sport in the nation and opening day used to attract the kind of attention that the first Sunday of football now receives. What happened?

Throughout the first six decades of the 20th century, the three most important sports in the country were baseball, boxing, and horse racing.  The World Series was the most important annual sporting event and the Super Bowl did not even exist.  College football was actually more popular than pro football until at least the 1950s.

The  “Greatest Game Ever Played,” the 1958 NFL Championship game between Johnny Unitas’ Baltimore Colts and Frank Gifford’s New York Giants, provided the coming-out party for pro football.  One of the early games on TV, it ended in dramatic fashion as the Colts’ Alan Ameche scored on an one yard run in overtime.  Many credit the exciting contest for raising the NFL’s profile.

The popularity of the sport grew during the 1960s as the rivalry between the newly-formed AFL and NFL eventually resulted in the merger that created the modern NFL at the end of the decade.  The first Super Bowl, held in 1967 as a contest between the AFL and NFL champions, was not a major event, but quickly grew in the following years.  The famous Super Bowl III victory of Joe Namath’s New York Jets, indicating the competitiveness of the AFL, was another marker in the sport’s rise.  By the early 1970s, polls showed pro football ahead of baseball in popularity.  The Super Bowl became the biggest sporting event in the nation, a virtual national holiday that even non-fans feel obliged to watch.  See >>

What else accounted for the rise?  No doubt television was instrumental.  While baseball has made a tremendous amount of money from TV, football is more suited to the medium.  NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle, who was probably the greatest pro sports commissioner, developed relationships with the broadcast networks in the 1960s that helped grow the sport.  Moreover, the wealthy owners embraced a kind of socialism, equally distributing the television money so that Green Bay could be as competitive as New York.  This helped to bring about parity between large-market and small-market teams, giving every fan hope at the start of each new season.

Still, as recently as the mid-1980s, football was still barely ahead of baseball in popularity.  In 1985, a Harris Poll showed 24 percent of fans choosing pro football as their favorite sport while 23 percent chose baseball.  By 2010, 35 percent picked the NFL while only 16 percent picked major league baseball.

A number of factors account for the growth in the gap.  Clearly, baseball’s labor strife during this time, including multiple strikes and the cancellation of the 1994 World Series, hurt the game.  At the same time, the NFL had labor peace from 1987 to 2011, with no games lost to labor stoppages in that period.

Furthermore, the meteoric growth of “fantasy football” over the last decade has cemented the sports dominance.  For the uninitiated, fantasy football leagues allow fans to own their own “team,” whose success is determined by how the individual players they choose in their preseason fantasy drafts perform on the field.  As a result, fans now have a stake in watching games that don’t involve their home team.  While this can cause conflicts in allegiance, there is little doubt fantasy football increases overall ratings for the sport.

Finally, football is a game more suited to the shorter attention spans of Generation X, raised on MTV and USA Today, and Generation Y, used to downloading music and receiving information immediately.  The languid pace of baseball, which may account for declining Little League participation, doesn’t seem to suit those 40 and under.

On a personal note, I grew up a bigger baseball fan than football fan, but in recent years my allegiances have changed.  I still love baseball, but it is a more difficult sport to follow as an adult.  I enjoyed following the batting races and memorizing statistics as a kid, but I don’t have the time anymore.  Part of the genius of football is that we can follow it by watching one day a week during the fall and winter, when the weather in most of the country precludes other activities.