HBO’s Boardwalk Empire is the fall season’s most ambitious and lavish new show, with immaculate sets and elegant period costumes. Executive-produced by Terence Winter (The Sopranos) and Martin Scorsese, the crime series about 1920s gangsters in Atlantic City is also stock full of flashy real-life characters who routinely send me from the sofa to the computer, scouring Wikipedia for biographical details about the likes of Frankie Yale and Johnny Torrio. It’s like Deadwood in spats, and every Sunday night at 9 p.m., you’re pretty much guaranteed something you’ve never seen before.
Except for that scene in last Sunday’s episode, where the corrupt Commodore (Dabney Coleman) callously quizzed his overwhelmed maid with political questions to prove the inadequacy of women’s voting qualifications. The setting and the sentiment seemed vaguely familiar to an eerily similar scene in 1993’s The Remains of the Day, in which Anthony Hopkins plays the butler to a British lord who’s hosting a pre-World War II diplomatic conference. In one scene, a snobby aristocrat humiliates Hopkins with a test of current events in order to legitimize his argument that the “common man” was incapable of participating in world affairs. Scroll to 7:45 and take a look.
It’s not necessarily unusual for powerful scenes to resurface in sometimes not-so-subtle ways, perhaps because the resonance of the initial material seeps into the subconscious of the subsequent writers. In Boardwalk Empire’s case, that’s exactly what seemed to occur: “Though I saw The Remains of the Day when it came out, I had no concious memory of that particular scene when I wrote the exchange between The Commodore and Louanne,” the show’s creator Terence Winter, wrote EW in an email. “That said, they are obviously remarkably similar, so let’s call it a subconscious homage.”
Winter is hardly the first esteemed writer to inadvertently borrow a good set-up. Remember that excruciating scene in Sideways, where a pathetic wannabe writer played by Paul Giamatti makes the mistake of carrying on a late-night conversation with his ex-wife’s answering machine, which only gets worse when she actually picks up the phone? A few obsessed fans of Swingers, of course, saw that exchange, and immediately cried foul, claiming it was ripped from the sad scene in the 1996 Doug Liman film where pathetic wannabe comic Jon Favreau makes the ill-advised decision to call – and call, and call, and call – the hot girl he met at the club. (Heck, Seinfeld even made light of this phenomenon, when Elaine Benes recycled a Ziggy cartoon in The New Yorker!)
I hope it didn’t take you four miserable days to figure out the elusive original reference, as it did me, but can you recall any other instances where films or TV shows have consciously or subconsciously appropriated scenes from other works? Do you hold the homage against the more recent writer, or do you consider it a harmless foul?