I am a subscriber to the public satellite broadcaster British Sky Broadcasting, formed by the merger of Sky Television and British Satellite Broadcasting in 1990, in which News Corporation has a 39.1% stake. News Corporation, whose chief executive officer is Rupert Murdoch, is the third largest media conglomerate in the world, after Disney and Time/Warner. I have been a subscriber since 2007 when I moved into a rented house that already had a dish erected on the roof. Before that, I was a subscriber to the cable service NTL, because I had an aesthetic aversion to satellite dishes, but the sheer convenience of the ready-erected dish on the roof of a house I didn’t own turned me. I have always found Sky’s service friendly and accessible, and have enjoyed both the minimum and near-maximum (minus sport) packages they offer. Indeed, I have added and subtracted packages all the way along, to suit my needs and financial situation. I am not here to sell you a Sky subscription, any more than I am trying to sell you a holiday cottage in Ireland when I refer to time I have spent there. I wish to review the newly-launched channel Sky Atlantic, and I do not wish to be accused, as I was on Twitter on Tuesday, of selling anything.
You don’t need Sky Atlantic, but since existing subscribers didn’t have to lift a finger to receive it, I have now got it, and I am happy about that, as I prefer US drama to UK drama, on the whole. It’s a great shame that the BBC couldn’t compete with Sky’s deep pockets when bidding for Mad Men, the second greatest current US drama on television, but the BBC can’t win: if it paid out a whopping sum it would be accused of commercial opportunism and wasting the licence-fee-payer’s money on profligate luxuries that very few people actually watch. (I think it got 500,000 viewers on BBC4 and that’s after media hype money could not buy.)
I remember, about ten years ago, then-boss Elisabeth Murdoch’s dream of turning Sky into a “British HBO”, showing quality drama both imported and homemade. It was around the time that she commissioned longer-than-average runs of new Brit sitcoms Baddiel’s Syndrome (13 episodes, compared to the standard six or eight for a new show) and Time Gentlemen, Please (two series of 22 and 14 episodes). It never happened. But now, with multiple Sky-branded channels in the portfolio, Sky Atlantic has been made possible. The deal it has struck with HBO means it sits on a vast back-catalogue of iconic shows past and present, ranging from The Sopranos to Entourage, plus assorted other big network names from the olden days like ER and Star Trek and 24. But there’s nothing to review there. Most of us who love the cream of long-form US drama have learned to wait for the DVD box set. It’s proven to be the most satisfying method of consuming them. I might not have fallen in love with Battlestar Galactica and The Wire if I hadn’t been able to gorge on them.
The jewel in the crown of Sky Atlantic’s launch has been Martin Scorsese’s Boardwalk Empire, a series that has been so comprehensively fanfared most of us feel like we’ve already seen it. They showed the pilot on launch night (uniquely directed – rather than just executive produced – by Scorsese), and Ep2 on the following night. Ep3 we have to wait until Saturday for. It is set in Atlantic City in the 20s, so it feels as if the whole show has been tailor made to show off a channel with Atlantic in the name. Either that or they named the channel after the show for maximum synchronicity. Either way, if it’s a channel-defining show, we’re in safe, if predictable hands. Created not by Scorsese but by Terence Winter, and with some episodes directed or co-written by Tim Van Patten, both alumni of The Sopranos (what a catalyst that show turned out to be), it takes place on the same famous boardwalk where Tony Soprano once trod, except 80 years before. It’s another gangster fable. If it feels derivative, and it does, it’s derivative of the best work of its own creators. Scorsese wrote these clichés. They’re his to feed off, and Winter’s and Van Patten’s to adapt, having paid explicit homage in The Sopranos to the great gangster movies of the past.
John Crace gave a mealy-mouthed assessment of the first episode in the Guardian. I fear he was reacting against the hype, which is understandable. Although many of his complaints have been erased by Ep2 – he felt character development was perfunctory and that the whole thing was a little flat – I personally really enjoyed it. And I speak as someone who thought Scorsese had gone well off the boil and actively disliked The Departed and Shutter Island. He managed to filter a bit of both into Boardwalk, but the material was so much stronger. Despite the period difference it felt more like Goodfellas. It goes without saying that Steve Buscemi carries off central protagonist Nucky Thompson with weaselly aplomb. He’s been a leading man for many of us for years, as we’ve watched him squished away in supporting roles. An inveterate scene-stealer (whose heart didn’t leap every time his private eye turned up on 30 Rock?), he’s no Soprano. Indeed, he was squished away in a supporting role in The Sopranos, but that was close to a one-man show, where all orbited Gandolfini, and here, so far, it’s much more multi-character.
There are a lot of actors called Michael to watch. I’m already fascinated by Michael Shannon as the gruff-voiced G-man; and associate/nemesis Rothstein, played by Michael Stuhlbarg; not to mention Michael Pitt as Leonardo Di Caprio, and briefly-glimpsed Michael Kenneth Williams (Omar!), of whom I am hoping to see more. The ladies don’t get much to do yet, beyond wiggle their bosoms and speak like Lina Lamont in Singin’ In The Rain, and Kelly McDonald – the statutory Brit! – has yet to dig in with her Irish accent, but there’s a long way to go yet. Those unwilling or unable to subscribe to Sky will be able to buy it in a box soon, no doubt.
Overshadowed in all the fuss about Boardwalk was another premiere on Tuesday night: Blue Bloods. A much less showy piece of work, it’s a much more standard, contemporary, shakycam police procedural, set in New York, and with the various narrative strands very clearly telegraphed in Ep1 by creators Robin Green and Mitchell Burgess (more Sopranos alumni!), but it’s up my alleyway, I’ll be honest. Tom Selleck is perfectly cast as the doughty patriarch of an Irish-American police dynasty, with his eldest Donnie Wahlberg (older brother of one of Boardwalk Empire‘s exec producers, Marky Mark) proving something of a handful in terms of playing by the rules. Bridget Moynihan is the daughter who just happens to be a DA, and Will Estes is the younger brother, a rookie cop. Don’t look like much here – another New York cop show?! – but we have everything. I’m in.
Commercial break over. Back to the action.
While we’re here, in the rough vicinity of imported US drama, may I make a plea about the show I consider to be the greatest currently on TV: Breaking Bad? The valiant FX are currently re-airing season one of this dazzlingly different saga about a chemistry teacher in Albuquerque with inoperable cancer who takes to cooking meth with an ex-student in order to provide for his family after his death. They don’t have season two; that belongs to Five, who showed it to little acclaim last year and thus haven’t bothered shelling out for season three. This show has won its star, Bryan Cranston, three successive Emmys. It’s a pretty big deal for a cable show in the US, where it draws audiences of up to two million to AMC, but here, it does fuck all. I have seasons one and two on box set. But right now, no UK broadcaster seems interested in buying season three. This is a crime. I know there are nefarious ways of accessing foreign telly, but I choose not to use these methods as I am a law-abiding citizen. The DVD is not listed yet on Amazon. What am I to do? Go and live in America? Is that what you want, UK broadcasters? Must I threaten to leave the country like the bankers always do? And then not see my threat through to fruition, like the bankers always don’t? SOMEBODY BUY THIS PROGRAMME PLEASE!
Am I wrong? Is Breaking Bad not the finest and most original non-sci-fi drama America has produced this century? I have seen season one three times and I’m still enjoying it again on FX. You can get FX without subscribing to Sky, by the way. But you need to subscribe to a provider. And FX is owned by Fox, which is also owned by Rupert Murdoch. That bastard.