Ellen Gray: Two TV shows toast Prohibition

Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, whose three-episode "Prohibition" series starts Sunday.
Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, whose three-episode "Prohibition" series starts Sunday.
Posted: September 30, 2011

* PROHIBITION. 8 p.m. Sunday,

Monday and Tuesday, WHYY.

* BOARDWALK EMPIRE. 9 p.m.

Sundays, HBO.

WE DIDN'T really need Ken Burns to tell us there was nothing dry about Prohibition.

Not with HBO's "Boardwalk Empire" already partying on for its second season in a long-ago Atlantic City.

But it's nice to be sure. And there's nothing like a documentary miniseries from Burns and his producing partner, Lynn Novick, to make it clear that HBO hasn't cornered the market on colorful characters when it comes to telling the story of the 18th Amendment, one of history's better illustrations of the law of unintended consequences.

At not quite six hours over three consecutive nights starting Sunday, PBS' "Prohibition" is barely more than a gulp next to Burns benders like "Baseball" and "Jazz," but it packs a punch, both as a cautionary tale and as entertainment.

There's a little more than a half-hour this weekend when it will overlap with its somewhat fictionalized cable counterpart, but Burns, who said he didn't think he'd missed a single episode of "Boardwalk Empire's" first season, doubts HBO's worried, given that episodes are shown more than once. "And we're certainly not. And we hope that, in fact, audiences that have been enjoying them might look to us," he said this summer after I asked him about the scheduling.

For HBO subscribers, it's probably better to look at "Prohibition" as a companion piece, since learning some of the real stories is likely to make fans appreciate "Empire" all the more.

Remember George Remus (Glenn Fleshler), the lawyer-turned-bootlegger who made an appearance in this week's season premiere? His tendency to refer to himself in the third person, it turns out, wasn't just something dreamed up by the show's writers to confuse Al Capone.

According to "Prohibition," he really did talk about himself that way and went on to an increasingly colorful career that I can only hope finds its way into the HBO show somewhere down the road. It probably doesn't hurt, either, that Tom Hanks lends Remus his voice. (HBO may have more actors onscreen, but PBS can probably match it for star power: Besides Hanks, some of the more famous voices in Burns' stable belong to narrator Peter Coyote, Jeremy Irons, Paul Giamatti, Oliver Platt, John Lithgow, Samuel L. Jackson, Patricia Clarkson, Adam Arkin, Sam Waterston and Josh Lucas.)

"They've done their homework," Burns said of "Boardwalk Empire" producers.

"It's very complex and nuanced, and they've found many of not just the - sort of the primary characters, but the secondary and tertiary ones," he said.

"I've really enjoyed watching it. It's terrific. I think they have another huge hit on their hands in the mode of 'The Sopranos,' and they're not that dissimilar, you know. Americans always love to watch people who get to kill people that piss them off and women who take their clothes off at the drop of a hat," he said.

Burns is pretty sure his "Prohibition" story got started first, tracing it to a chance meeting with Daniel Okrent, author of "Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition," that took place more than six years ago.

The filmmaker said he was "pushing my then-baby cross the Brooklyn Bridge, a favorite bridge of mine, and [Okrent] was going the other way and said that the next film I should work on is 'Prohibition.' He'd already been whispering in Lynn's ear. And though we couldn't immediately do it, we benefited from his extraordinary research for his book and went off on our own tangents, but most importantly, benefited from his presence in every scene of this film to make it, we think, a lot smarter."

He's not surprised, though, that there would be two such projects about Prohibition right now.

"We're always amazed, when we've done films, that it seems to . . . fit into the zeitgeist of the moment," he said.

What zeitgeist might that be?

Well, this is how Burns introduced a session on "Prohibition" at the Television Critics Association meetings this summer:

"If I told you that I had been working with Lynn for several years on a film about single-issue political campaigns, wedge-issue campaigns that metastasized with horrible, unintended consequences, if the story was about the demonization of recent immigrants to the United States and, as always, African-Americans, if I told you we'd been working on a film that involved smear campaigns during presidential elections or unfunded congressional mandates or, more importantly, a whole group of people who felt they'd lost control of their country and wanted to take it back, you would insist that we had abandoned our historical interests and were covering the contemporary political scene. But, of course, we are only dealing with a handful . . . of the topics that are engaged" in "Prohibition."


Send email to graye@phillynews.com.

comments powered by Disqus
|
|
|
|
|