CNBC's new six-part docuseries Empires of New York follows five larger-than-life New Yorkers who came to symbolize naked individualism and American excess in the 1980s. It’s essentially five rise-and-fall stories that parallel the fortunes of New York in the Eighties, the city itself being the sixth star of the show.
The people featured in Empires of New York are Wall Street arbitrage titan Ivan Boesky, hotelier Leona Helmsley, mob boss John Gotti, prosecutor/politician Rudolph Giuliani, and real estate developer Donald J. Trump. The first thing to note about this list is that Trump and Giuliani are the only two names on it that haven’t gone to jail. (And the chorus said, “…. yet.”) The second thing to note is that these five people were singled out not because they're historically significant figures but because they got so much goddam press at the time.
It is true that the two non-felons went on to political careers of some note, and it’s probably also true that the only reason this TV series got made is because Giuliani and Trump are still in the news (although I don’t think CNBC executives in their wildest dreams thought that they would be in the news the way they are now, as those two customers at a busy restaurant holding down the best table who refuse to leave).
But Empires of New York is about the Eighties, and presents itself as basically two cautionary tales, one about the consequences of unbridled capitalism and the other about the current president’s longstanding habit of leaving flaming dumpsters in his wake. To me, though, the more interesting lesson learned was about the perils of showing the past through the salacious lens of television. This is headline-news history, and while it features interviews with prestige journalists who covered the era for magazines and in Serious Bestsellers, they’re just window dressing for what is essentially a potboiler history of Gotham in the Reagan era.
Empires of New York sizzles with tawdry New York Post headlines and talking heads excitedly reading bits of news copy written expressly for the ears of television viewers. Most of the TV personalities we see here, not surprisingly, were employees of CNBC’s parent company back then, including John Chancellor, Jane Pauley, Ann Curry, Sue Simmons, and the network’s bowtied financial reporter Irving R. Levine. The general arc of the series is familiar to the television mind — first the adoring profile, then the dark side, then the outrageous scandals, then — cue the Law & Order sting, chank chank! — the courtroom drama, and finally the poignant coda.
Just because TV found it interesting or fascinating at the time doesn’t mean it’s relevant today. There is, of course, an exception for Trump — there always is — but we’ll get to that. First, consider the story of Ivan Boesky. An ambitious kid whose parents ran a strip club in Detroit, Boesky had a talent for making money on Wall Street, and for drawing cameras his way. He got the financial media to crown him “King of the Arbs,” and do TV profiles of him, and send photographers to show him on the phones, one receiver cupped to each ear, grinning like a cat who’d swallowed the canary. Along with his wealthy wife Seema, Boesky showed up at parties covered by the gossip media.
But as the show itself reveals in episode four, Boesky was a mere “foot soldier” to the real king of Wall Street in the Eighties, the junk-bonds king Michael Milken, who was really calling the shots. If there is a person who embodied both the creative and destructive power of Gordon Geckonomics, it was Mike Milken. But Milken was based out of L.A., and the name of the show is Empires of New York. New York media made Ivan Boesky, New York media undid Ivan Boesky, and now it remembers Ivan Boesky, kind of wistfully I might say.
Likewise, if Leona Helmsley had maneuvered her way into a hotel empire in, say, Philadelphia, while stiffing her contractors and insulting the help, I’m sure it would’ve gotten big play in the papers there and local TV … and not much beyond that.
Though billed as a rare prestige piece for CNBC, a “limited event series,” Empires of New York has the look and feel of its durable schedule-filler American Greed, especially its cheesy reenactments. (The one that imagines the meeting between Boesky and Milken, where Boesky wore a wire and picked up incriminating evidence, is so gauzy and boring you wonder why they even bothered filming it.) Paul Giamatti, who seems to be in a contest with JK Simmons to see who can make more viewers forget the Oscar-worthy portions of their careers, narrates a workmanlike script.
Empires of New York enforces a hard cutoff at January 1, 1990, before Giuliani becomes mayor, before Trump recovers from his company’s spectacular meltdown and reinvents himself as a pitchman for everything from steaks to birtherism. There is absolutely no reason for the series to end where it does, except that this is how TV does history. Maybe CNBC is copying CNN and has sequels in the works about New York in the Nineties, Aughts, and Teens.
There is a serious story to tell about the Eighties, and the fortunes of one of the world’s great cities, but it gets scant treatment here. Empires of New York is mostly a history of the Eighties that mattered to New Yorkers who were in a position to determine what mattered to the rest of the country. That is the interesting thing now. At a time when millions of Americans are following a bizarro alternate history of how the recent election turned out, how unusual it is to remember a media narrative that everybody at the time followed and everybody of a certain age can recall more or less exactly as it happened.
Empires of New York premieres on CNBC November 29th at 8:00 PM ET.
Aaron Barnhart has written about television since 1994, including 15 years as TV critic for the Kansas City Star.