Atlantic City, the 1920s. Though known to the public as a legitimate political figure, Enoch ‘Nucky’ Thompson (Buscemi) is a corrupt underworld kingpin who dabbles in all manner of illegal activities. With Prohibition arriving in America, Nucky organises his own bootlegging ring with the help of right-hand man Jimmy Darmody (Pitt), whilst taking in Irish immigrant Margaret Schroeder (Macdonald) as his mistress. With Nucky’s empire growing, religious federal agent Nelson Van Alden (Shannon) becomes obsessed with bringing it down…
The latest small-screen must-see from choice network HBO, Boardwalk Empire is event television which arrived with such impressive credentials and pedigree that it was worth shouting about. For one, the pilot was directed by celebrated filmmaker Martin Scorsese (who also weighed in on casting decisions and contributed creative input at weekly meetings) and for two, showrunner Terence Winter was one of David Chase’s key writers on The Sopranos. As such, many were expecting another mob masterpiece which would finally fill the vacant throne left by Chase’s seminal mob series.
But while obviously comparable to The Sopranos for a number of reasons (aside from Winter’s involvement), Boardwalk Empire inevitably isn’t on par. Of course, it’s a similarly sprawling and densely-plotted gangster ensemble which is laced with dark humour and occasional outbursts of brutal violence (not to mention that lead Steve Buscemi once played Tony Soprano’s cousin) but it’s not nearly as engaging as one would’ve hoped. No question, it’s a lavish, sumptuous and unquestionably intelligent series which is first-rate in many respects, yet that crucial spark of life is missing, while the measured pacing frequently segues into slow and sluggish territory.
That said, the challenging, grown-up style will still appeal to fans of equally high-brow fare like Deadwood or The Wire. The same sort of demanding viewing which requires patient commitment from the viewer, Boardwalk Empire is unlikely to satisfy those looking for ‘action’ (given the lack of it), as the focus here is on political manoeuvring, power plays and complex relationships. Problem being though, even for fans of slowly-evolving big-picture storytelling (as this writer is), there’s often not enough tension in the moment to keep our ongoing interest nourished, while the majority of the characters are difficult to really care about.
This doesn’t mean that the cast isn’t sterling mind you. In the lead, perpetual character actor Steve Buscemi is fascinating as the untouchable, unofficial boss of the city, even if his Nucky isn’t nearly as likeable, charismatic or intimidating as TV’s other premier ‘villains’ (see Tony Soprano, Stringer Bell, Al Swearengen). Richard Harrow’s disfigured assassin (who wears a mask over the half of his face which is ‘missing’) offers an interesting arc, but most compelling is Michael Shannon’s rapidly-unravelling spiral as federal agent Van Alden, an obsessed man essayed intensely by one of the most interesting screen actors working today. Elsewhere, there’s familiar faces all over, with the likes of Kelly Macdonald, Michael Pitt, Gretchen Mol, Michael K. Williams (yes, Omar), Stephen Graham (wait till you see who he plays) and more making up the cast.
Disappointingly though, the setting isn’t a character in its own right as you might imagine. While the production team deserve credit for authentically recreating Atlantic City’s boardwalk circa 1920, the period feels depressing and colourless, even though a few Prohibition-set movies (such as The Untouchables and Road To Perdition) have proven that this doesn’t need to be the case. Still, Terence Winter is a class act capable of greatness and there’s enough flashes of a gripping show to give you the feeling that season two will shine when certain teething problems are ironed out…
HBO’s latest must-see isn’t quite the finished article and is for mature, high-brow viewers only, but it’s a lavish, classy and sharply-written ensemble piece which will appeal to those who like intelligent, slow-burn television. Next time should be better.