The Characters May Be Bad, But These Shows are So Good
In honor of Netflix renewing “Narcos” for another two seasons, it’s as good a time as any to take a walk through a few more truly excellent TV shows about organized crime and the criminals who run it. To be clear: these are not in order of any preference. Also: there may be spoilers and we will do what we can to mark them when needed, but if it’s a show you haven’t seen, we suggest proceeding with caution.
Speaking of Narcos, you could draw a parallel line between Bryan Cranston’s Walter White and Pablo Escobar. At the end of the day, they are both men who are struggling to define their legacy in light of the struggles that surround them. There’s nothing on television that’s ever come close the excitement generated by Vince Gilligan’s landmark show, and for good reason. By the time we meet most gangsters in either film or television, they are already criminals or at least aspirant ones. By contrast, when we first meet Walt, he is a down-on-his-luck chemistry teacher who (here’s your first spoiler) somehow ends up in the desert wearing only his underwear. What follows from there is one of the most depraved and unusual downward spirals in television history. It’s worthy of all its hype.
You could say that this is the show that changed television forever. It turned Edie Falco and James Gandolfini into instant stars because their portrayals of Carmella and Tony show a much more fragile, and human, side of a crime boss and his family. Tony is not the steely stuff of mob guys in “Goodfellas” or “The Godfather.” He’s a bit of a softie, we learn in the pilot episode, one that ends with him (SPOILER COMING!) on the cot on his way to the hospital. What he thinks was a heart attack or a stroke was just a simple panic attack. This leads him to Dr. Melfi’s couch (Lorraine Bracco in a role as career defining as anything she’s ever done, including the aforementioned “Goodfellas”). The show’s great irony is that, of all things, a mobbed up Jersey guy gets into talk therapy and Prozak. It has some wobbles during its six-season run but it really shines when we see Tony struggling to maintain the balance of perfecting the dual roles of suburban father and husband and head of a powerful a crime syndicate.
While this show didn’t see the audience numbers that many HBO shows do, that’s a bit unfortunate. Taking place in prohibition-era New Jersey, “Boardwalk Empire” puts Steve Buscemi in front of a stunning support cast of stalwart actors. Buscemi’s Nucky Thomson was loosely based on Atlantic City’s real-life treasurer, and gang leader, Nucky Johnson. On the show, Thompson interacts with a who’s who of criminal overlords from the era including Meyer Lansky, Al Capone, Arnold Rothstein, Lucky Luciano, and Johnny Torrio. Nucky’s main love interest, Margaret Thompson (played by a glowing and shrewd Kelly McDonald) puts the audience squarely inside of the experience of a budding feminist in 1920s America, smartly contrasting her expectations with society’s rigid limitations. The art direction is superb, the acting glorious, and the story editing is exciting and offers more than a few unexpected twists. Academy Award winner, Sopranos veteran, and Scorcese alum Terrence Winter executive producers and he was (and is) clearly passionate and excited about the material. He’s also a stickler for detail which gives the show a keen mix of pathos and propulsion.
(available for people to rent through Netflix’s DVD service)
Fans of this Baltimore-based show should probably apologize to everyone for making that strange and appalled expression we get when we meet people who haven’t yet experienced the show. Filmed on location in Baltimore for five almost flawless seasons, it takes a documentary-like approach to its setting. It is part cop drama and part crime show, dissecting the complicated relationship between inner city drug dealers and the officers who monitor their every move. Discussing the show in any great detail takes away from its brilliance, which is simply the joy of getting swept away by it. It uses Baltimore as a single organism, exploring five facets that make it tick: the crack and heroin trade, the shipping industry, politics, public schools and local papers. The show made stars out of Michael K. Williams (who does his own brilliant turn in “Boardwalk” as the electrifying Chalky), Dominic West, Wendell Pierce and, perhaps most notably, Idris Elba.
This Netflix/BBC co-production is also a period piece, set in the mean streets of Birmingham, England starting in 1919 just after the end of World War I. Cillian Murphy is Thomas Shelby, the fictional head of the made-up Shelby family, a brutal set of thieves, horsemen, and bookmakers. Murphy is so captivating as Shelby, a gangster who is maybe the most ruthless to make this particular list, that audiences are already waiting impatiently for season four (at the time of this writing, season three was released in America in May 2016). He is flanked by a collection of brothers, who (mostly) do his bidding without hesitation. The always lovely Sophie Rundle plays his sister Ada, a sort of moral compass who conveniently overlooks many of his crimes in favor of the comforts he offers her. Helen McCrory is dazzling as the family’s makeshift matriarch, Aunt Ada, who tries to act as a buffer for Tommy’s often reckless and rash decisions. Like Tony Soprano, though, Shelby understands his business and is willing to sacrifice almost anything to move any and all obstacles in front of him. These six-episode seasons go by in a flash, so try and stretch them out at least over one weekend.