Boardwalk Empire is the absolute Platonic Ideal of the modern television drama: Lavishly expensive, produced by HBO, created by a writer of The Sopranos, stamped with artistic goodwill by a cinematic icon (Martin Scorsese), featuring elliptical storylines filled with meaningless-and-yet-so-meaningful tangents and just-for-the-hell-of-it soliloquies and brutally sexy violence, all brought to life by a massive cast of theater veterans and big-screen character actors and other generally creative people who don’t mind nudity clauses.
So Boardwalk Empire is the exact polar opposite of Jersey Shore, a show which represents something like the absolute sewer-rat debasement of what used to be called “the documentary art.” Reality TV has never been particularly deep, but earlier shows in the genre resembled social experiments, and could lay claim to some sort of greater cultural utility. The Real World sought to explore the inner lives of the modern young urbanite. Survivor and Big Brother removed contestants from the comfortable context of modern society, creating extended variations on Lord of the Flies. American Idol‘s initial appeal was rooted in a widespread suspicion of the whole musical-industrial complex: The show argued that you didn’t need connections or loose morals to succeed, just a beautiful voice and a story to tell.
All of these shows quickly descended into self-parody. But Jersey Shore could never do that. The show’s series premiere already felt like a parody of The Real World. The Shore cast was mostly comprised of young twentysomethings — besides Pauly, who was almost 30, and The Situation, who was pushing 50 — and so Jersey Shore was one of the first reality shows populated entirely by people who grew up watching reality shows. The cast had no pretensions. They liked to party. They liked to drink. Every episode was — and remains — a downward spiral from stupidity to drunken stupidity, from bad ideas to worse ideas. In the third season, there was a recurring plotline about a clogged toilet. The show is a “social experiment” only in the sense that MTV appears to be testing America’s appetite for watching amoral gym-freaks bathe themselves in vomit-pool. (The early conclusions are promising.)
Visually, Jersey Shore resembles a cheap porno filmed on binder paper projected on the back wall of a flooded-out peep show. Compare that to the desktop-wallpaper beauty of Boardwalk Empire. By mixing together huge Old Hollywood-worthy sets with the foremost digital enhancements, Empire is a model for a beauty that used to be called “cinematic” before the popular cinema mostly devolved into grit-glam hyper-kineticism. And Boardwalk Empire is also about…you know, things. People talk about religion and politics and race. Characters give long, beautifully adorned speeches about their past. (Indeed, there are some characters who seem to purely exist as delivery mechanisms for great dialogue: Michael Stuhlbarg’s Arnold Rothstein, Michael K. Williams’s Chalky White, Dabney Coleman’s majestic old Commodore.)
On a deeper level, Boardwalk Empire feels like what TV should be all about: High drama, great acting, storylines that pay off by sometimes not paying off. Jersey Shore feels like what TV should not be about: People rolling around in their own filth, the constant need for subtitles because everyone is too drunk to enunciate, the creeping realization that these people are making hundreds of thousands of dollars for acting like fifth graders who just broke into their dad’s liquor cabinet. Everyone knows that Television Drama is fundamentally a more noble art form than Reality Television.
And yet, Boardwalk Empire is a consistently disappointing series, and Jersey Shore is a consistently surprisingly decent series. Not ironically good, or so-bad-it’s-good; just a decent, entertaining hour of television. And I’m not just bringing up the two shows because they happen to share a rough geographic locale. Together, the two shows provide a handy state-of-the-art-form portrait of the contemporary TV scene. At a moment when TV comedy seems to be on a creative surge, Boardwalk Empire represents the fragile state of modern TV drama, while Jersey Shore may indicate a hopeful next stage in the evolution of Reality TV.