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.
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.
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.
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.