Boardwalk Empire Pilot Review

Published 5 years ago by

Boardwalk Empire Boardwalk Empire Pilot Review

From modern classics like The Wire and The Sopranos to period dramas like Deadwood and Rome, HBO has an outstanding history of original programming. Last night, the network hit the jackpot again with Boardwalk Empire, an ambitious, compelling, and incredibly exciting new show about prohibition and the rise of organized crime in Atlantic City in the 1920s.

Boardwalk Empire, which was created by longtime Sopranos writer Terence Winter, is as close to a cinematic experience as TV viewers can hope to get. In the pilot episode, directed  – by none other than Martin Scorsese – viewers are treated to expansive and intricately detailed sets, fantastic costumes, and a healthy dose of trademark Scorsese style, including long tracking shots, clever jump cuts, and a brilliantly tense sequence of parallel editing.

It’s a sumptuous feast for the eyes, and a clear reminder of why HBO is so good at these kinds of shows. They have the money and they know how to use it. Of course, Boardwalk Empire doesn’t just look good; the acting and the writing are also top-notch, which is why I’m really excited for the rest of this first season.

The opening scenes of the episode set the tone for the show nicely. The first scene, which is actually a flash-forward to events that we see in full at the end of the episode, is marked by violence and deception. The show wastes no time in establishing that in Atlantic City circa 1920, if there’s booze to be had, blood will be shed to get it.

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The second scene offers a wonderful contrast. Enoch “Nucky” Thompson, the esteemed treasurer of Atlantic City (played by Steve Buscemi), is offering a speech to the Woman’s Temperance League praising them for their efforts in passing prohibition. He recalls a heartfelt story of his own struggles with an alcoholic father, earning the admiration and applause of the group. As he is led off by his protege Jimmy Darmody (played by Michael Pitt), Nucky imparts the first lesson of politics: “Never let the truth get in the way of a good story.”

Nucky is an elected official, but he’s also a liar and a criminal. He, and the rest of the Atlantic City elite, understand that prohibition doesn’t mean they have to stop selling alcohol, it simply means they get to charge ten times more for it. The city is on the cusp of becoming the place for drinking, gambling, prostitution and more, and Nucky is going to get rich because of it.

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He’s not the only one who wants in on the action though, which is where the show gets interesting. Roughly halfway through the pilot, Nucky has a dinner meeting with “friends” from New York and Chicago. The names are instantly familiar: Lucky Luciano, Arnold Rothstein, and Johnny Torrio among others. Even Al Capone appears, albeit as a much younger man with none of the power we’ve come to associate with him (though the episode makes it clear that the power is coming).

These are real criminals and they have no qualms about killing, which keeps the episode intense. The back and forth dynamic between Rothstein and Nucky is particularly interesting. Rothstein is like a more sophisticated version of Nucky: he’s had time to consolidate his power and is comfortable dealing with the business of crime, as well as the criminal act itself. Seeing how Nucky will rise to his level, so to speak, should make for an interesting plot thread throughout the first season. As Jimmy explains to him late in the episode, “You can’t be half a gangster, Nucky. Not anymore.

Speaking of Jimmy Darmody, I think that he will become my favorite character throughout the first season. As Nucky’s longtime associate, Darmody is more than aware of the ins and outs of Atlantic City politics. But he is not content to play the waiting game to rise to the top. A World War I veteran, Darmody has seen and done things that have made him into a different man. The script doesn’t do the most tactful job of handling his character (in one line, Darmody basically says, “I’m different now. I’ve seen things and done things.”) but the way Michael Pitt plays the character keeps it interesting. In one scene he’s a loving father, in another he’s a cold-blooded killer. Here is someone who is ready to step up, which could cause major problems for Nucky if he’s not ready as well.

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One other plot thread that I enjoyed, and am interested in seeing evolve, involves a beautiful Irish immigrant and her relationship with Nucky. The woman, Margaret Schroeder, is married to an abusive alcoholic gambler (who drinks and gambles thanks to Nucky’s illegal activities). She comes to Nucky for help and he kindly offers her charity. I won’t go into what happens specifically, but the way Nucky chooses to help Margaret deal with her problem, apart from giving her money, says a lot about his character and sets up an interesting dynamic that should play out in unexpected ways throughout the show.

I could go on and on talking about other characters, including the corrupt sheriff who is Nucky’s enforcer (and his brother), or the menacing Agent Nelson Van Alden (Michael Shannon), who treats the pursuit of liquor bootleggers as a Godly quest, but I will spare your eyeballs and end my review here. Suffice it to say, the pilot episode starts and ends with a bang: consider it a warning shot to the other networks: HBO is back with another hit show and they are laying claim to Sunday night.

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  1. I too absolutely loved this show. I think that this has potential to be one of HBO’s best. I really loved the story with Margaret and I also like that they’ve already introduced many other criminals from that time era. It shows how deep this show can be character wise and how this won’t run out of story like some other period shows that have come and gone. I’m just sad that this and Dexter (i’m not 100% sure so correct me if i’m wrong) are on at the same time. That sucks.

  2. I found it to be plodding at the the start. I judge the quality of the writing by how easily it is for me to predict the next event. I predicted the set up/ambush at the start, the beating of the pregnant lady, the young kid being the one who turned on “Nucky.” Entertaining, great sets, costume good feel, but the pacing the writing were slow and unimaginative respectively.

    • I get what you’re saying about the writing, but keep in mind that it was the pilot. They wanted to introduce a lot of characters and the basic plot elements very quickly, so the dialogue was much more expository than necessary. I suspect that the writing will offer more depth as the show progresses.

  3. Oh yay, yet ANOTHER gangster related show on a pay channel.


  4. Did anyone else have trouble keeping up with all the characters they introduced?

    • Yeah, it’s always a little bit tricky with a big show like this. I had similar problems with The Pacific. After a couple episodes it will get easier. I will probably rewatch the pilot on demand before the next episode just so I can have everything fresh in my mind.

        • Haha, definitely. I thought that Agent Van Alden’s character was too intense for a lot of the episode, but that scene where he’s dealing with the confused/stupid younger agent was great.

  5. I was really excited for this show, but was honestly kinda bored with the pilot. I was really hoping to see a lot more gangster stuff going on and less historical/period piece everyday life stuff. I’m gonna give it a few more weeks. I’m hoping that it was just because they needed to spend a lot of time setting up the characters/story. I would really like to see Steve Buscemi become a really bad-ass crime boss haha.

    • The multiple executions during the episode weren’t enough for you, ay? Just kidding. :-) I’m sure there will be episodes with lots of bloodshed and episodes with very little. It all depends on the narrative needs. Give it time. Hopefully, the story will become interesting enough for you that you won’t care whether someone gets killed or not.

      • I thought this this a very balanced episode… I hope they keep Al Capone as a character.

        • They definitely will. Although the show is fictional, it’s inspired by actual events. Knowing Capone’s real-life ascent to the top of Chicago crime, it only makes sense that he would be in the show for a while.

          • It would make a great side plot.

  6. Thank God for DVR and On Demand. I do hate that they are going toe to toe with Dexter which is my favorite show on TV. I was really impressed with this show though. I love Steve Buscemi in anything he is in. The cast, directing, and writing are awesome and I do believe you are right. They are putting all other networks on notice. This series is going to be epic and I can’t wait for next week.

  7. I found the beginning slow and at times boring, but then towards the middle and on to the end, it picked up considerably. The character of Jimmy is definitely a big plus. As is Mrs. Shroeder’s and Al Capone’s.

    On the down side, did we really have to see Steve Buscemi getting it on? Although the dialog during was funny. Was hoping the nudity and sexual situations would have been Michael Pitt. Oh well, a girl can hope.

    • Haha. I found the dialogue in that scene pretty amusing as well.

    • This series is really being forced down our throats as HBO subscribers.
      I find it visually interesting but kind of predictable and although I like Steve Buscemi, I just can’t see him as this lady killer he’s portraying (Nucky Thompson was tall and very imposing physically) …
      Unless power is the ultimate aphrodisiac in this 1920s world.
      Sometimes he seems like he’s being sarcastic or humorous when I’m not sure that’s what the line called for. It’s very indulgent and someone has been given the luxury of a very large budget with the result a rather hackneyed product … I like Bored to Death a lot more!

  8. It will be a few more months till I get to see it but the show looks good and I can’t wait

  9. i was underwhelmed. I know a lot of the history of that time, having not only grown up in the area but studied it profusly. Crap. Im buzzed. I cant even spell profusloousy roght. right. Ih. I mean, oh, forgive me. I can’t get into it (maybe cuz im half in the bag) But it was boring. the dialogue was lacking and i noticed some things like “We were f******”. I can’t be so sure they called it that back then. I’m not tryin to make up anyone else’s mind but for me, it just didnt grab me. I hoped it would. honestly, i did. But…and who wouldn’t want to see Buscemi as a mob guy? But knowing the history as I do, they wrote everyone as jackasses except Buscemi.

  10. having never seen he wire i can really compare, however as a big fan of the sopranos, I this this pilot was very similar to the sopranos, in that it was mainly a charter introduction show, and also exposes the viewer to what to expect from the show (violence, nudity, and humor) when i watched the sopranos pilot I was a little bored and hesitant to continue watching the show, however as with the sopranos i suspect this show will only get better as we are exposed to the charters more and story lines more deeply.

  11. Superb Acting! I have longed for another season of The Sopranos since it finished and my thirst for it has never ceased until now. Loved the show. Looking forward to the next episodes!

  12. Surely Jimmy Darmody was deliberately drawn in broad strokes and made to appear a little unimportant – so we are surprised by how the pilot concludes. We’re meant to think it’s hubris initially…