TV Review: HBO's 'Boardwalk Empire'
This Prohibition Era gangster drama combines spectacle and substance
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"Boardwalk Empire," which premieres on Sunday (Sept. 19) night, is the most instantly accessible and artistically successful new show HBO has launched in years.
I'll admit that a small part of me wonders if "Boardwalk Empire" is, in fact, too easy to embrace, too easy to be impressed by. While the network has certainly had favorites that were fully formed almost from the beginning ("The Sopranos" and "Six Feet Under" come to mind), the best HBO shows -- things like "The Wire," "Deadwood" or even something recent like "Treme" -- have often defied easy categorization and taken weeks or months or full seasons to work their way under your skin.
If something can be excellent while doing exactly the opposite of defying easy categorization, that something is "Boardwalk Empire." If you want to categorize "Boardwalk Empire" as a burly gangster epic set against the backdrop of the dawn of Prohibition? Well, that's exactly what it is. Sure, it's more nuanced than those dozen words might inherently imply, but that's almost a bonus. Terence Winter has taken the great gangster classics of the '30s and '40s, thrown in a dash of "The Untouchables" (TV or movie vintage), added a healthy dollop of "The Sopranos" and woven in a little E.L. Doctorow ("Ragtime" or "Billy Bathgate," mostly) for good measure.
"Boardwalk Empire" creates a world and does so magnificently, with an unparalleled attention to detail, but it's a world that's at least tangential to worlds you've seen before.
Does any of that make "Boardwalk Empire" any less admirable? Well, no. Familiarity needn't always breed contempt. Sometimes you can be amply respectful of something familiar done right. This would be a case in point.
More thoughts on "Boardwalk Empire" after the break...
As easy as it is to sketch out the generalities of the "Boardwalk Empire," it's much harder to write a single paragraph introducing the complete tapestry.
We begin in Atlantic City, 1920. Prohibition is hours away. To the teetotalers, Prohibition seems like the boon that will clean America up. To a new breed of criminals/businessmen, Prohibition seems like an opportunity.
At the center of things is Steve Buscemi's Nucky Thompson, Atlantic City's Treasurer and a man with his finger in every corrupt pie in the seaside mecca. Nucky's right hand man is Jimmy Darmody (Michael Pitt), a young striver and World War I veteran with a little piece of a Princeton education. Nucky has a comely, dumb-as-a-brick mistress (Paz de la Huerta), but from the pilot, he's beginning to take interest in spunky Irish immigrant and mother Margaret (Kelly Macdonald).
Into the mix, you can throw an assortment of real-life mobsters played by the superlative likes of Stephen Graham, Michael Stuhlbarg and Vincent Piazza. Many of the names will sound familiar even if you haven't been studying up on Wiseguys 101, all of them will sound familiar if you're a fan of the genre.
Then, on the outside, we have the Probation Officers, led by Michael Shannon's Van Alden, who plays as Eliot Ness, if Eliot Ness had a streak of Jack Bauer at his most sadistic.
There are whackings, nighttime raids and more menacing monologues than any show in years and as with "The Sopranos" and "The Godfather" and "Goodfellas" and nearly every good gangster drama I can think of, there are meditations on legitimate business versus illegitimate, on morality and the cost to one's soul if you rise to high on borrowed wings.
"Boardwalk Empire" is brutal, no less so than any of its ancestors that I've mentioned. The language is coarse, the nudity is frequent and when people commit violent acts, the blood flows unflinchingly.
But "Boardwalk Empire" is also beautiful. The pilot, directed by Martin Scorsese, is every bit the equal of the director's period films including "The Aviator," "Gangs of New York" or this spring's "Shutter Island." I wasn't there, so I can't tell you how flawless the show's Atlantic City Boardwalk recreation is, but based on the care put into every storefront, every light fixture, every tapestry and the font on every sign, I'm going to guess the accuracy is impressive. [And even if somebody wants to whip out a book and show me where things were altered, I'm still not going to waver in my approval.] The same care has been given to every costume and every hairstyle and to making sure that every frame showcases these efforts. Your definition of "spectacle" may vary, but it has been a long time since there was anything on the small screen to match this.
Much of the "Boardwalk Empire" premiere discussion will hinge on Scorsese, who hasn't left any tools in his case in the temporary transition from film to TV. Yes, he's constantly aware of the expectations that come from being Martin Scorsese and working in this genre, but he's also giving HBO and the people what they want. The camerawork in "Boardwalk Empire" is fluid and, well, Scorsese-esque, with the director reveling in his love for both the genre, but also for classic filmmaking. The pilot begins and ends on an iris, for Pete's sake. What's impressive is that you probably won't notice a meaningful decline in craftsmanship in subsequent episodes. It doesn't appear that anybody was required to follow the Scorsese template, but HBO has hired people who know what they're doing.
That extends to in-front-of-the-camera personnel.
The show is anchored by Buscemi in what is almost certain to become the richest part of his career. I saw one absurd review in a major paper that has extensive compliments for the show, but doubted Buscemi's plausibility as a threatening tough guy. If that reviewer happened to have previously missed "Reservoir Dogs," "The Sopranos" and "Con Air" (and not paid attention during "Boardwalk Empire") I guess that's a problem. I know he's a funny-looking guy (by objective standards), but I've never doubted Buscemi as a tough guy in any project, because I've always figured it would make sense that a dude who looks like him would have to be tough, that he'd have to find a way to make his point with his words, but also to back up those words with actions, when push comes to shove. Buscemi's Nucky has a silver tongue, but he also thinks that he's ruthless. He learns in the pilot that there are even more ruthless people out there, but rather than backing down, he adapts. And as Nucky, Buscemi has a confident swagger that totally justifies the attention he gets from the ladies. He sells it.
He's paired with Pitt, who is more conventionally pretty, but has spent most of his career playing against his looks and giving twitchy indie-affected performances with a too-cool-for-school attitude that belies the fact that most of us noticed him for the first time as the stud QB on "Dawson's Creek." If you've been turned off by Pitt's affectations before, they're less in evidence in "Boardwalk Empire" and although he still shies from any leading man polish, he's actually assertive and, when required, romantic.
In the female lead, Macdonald starts off well and only gets better as her character exhibits more and more of a spine. Viewers lamenting the lack of strong female characters in the pilot should just stick around, because Margaret isn't a pushover.
From here, I could just start listing excellent and vivid supporting performances from folks like Shannon, Graham, Dabney Coleman and Gretchen Mol. In several early episodes, Stuhlbarg -- paying 1919 World Series fixer Arnold Rothstein -- has chilling speeches that are the stuff Emmy nominations are made of. And although Michael K. Williams' presence is teased in the pilot, you have to wait til the third episode for him to get a showcase and the fourth episode before he delivers his first moment of Omar-level awesomeness.
One or two of the tertiary mobsters may go a bit hammy, but I'd be hard pressed to identify a single out-and-out poor performance.
Most great shows, they start well, but they improve and get darker. "Boardwalk Empire" starts out extremely well and it maintains that level. It remains to be seen whether the show has an extreme gear, an extra level of depth, but where it is through the five episodes I've seen is plenty good enough.
"Boardwalk Empire" premieres on Sunday, Sept. 19 at 9 p.m.