Review by Mike Dennis
Does the show live up to the hype? Were the trailers more than just a souped-up come-on for a time-waster? Is Steve Buscemi really as badass as he seems in the trailers?
Yes, yes, and yes.
Sunday night’s premiere of Boardwalk Empire on HBO might well be the most impressive premiere in the history of television. Okay, okay, I know that’s not saying much. I’m not forgetting that this is the medium that gave us Joanie Loves Chachi and The Jerry Springer Show. But come on, you have to admit that TV has made some giant strides these last few years. The Sopranos, The Wire, Mad Men, Justified, Dexter, and several other high-caliber efforts have brought me back to series television.
With Boardwalk Empire, the story of Atlantic City at the dawn of Prohibition, HBO has clearly raised the stakes. Terence Winter, the writer of so many of the outstanding Sopranos episodes, apparently convinced Martin Scorsese to get on board as executive producer by telling him that HBO would go along with whatever he wanted to do, and cost would be no object.
Well, HBO certainly put their money where their mouth was, because I read where the premiere cost them $18 million. I think that might well be more than CBS has spent on all twelve seasons of Big Brother.
The Boardwalk set, which cost $5 million alone, takes your breath away, and I don’t even want to think about how much they spent on the hundreds and hundreds of period costumes. A quick trip to the HBO website will show the depth of their research in recreating the Atlantic City Boardwalk, circa 1920, in excruciating detail. And Scorsese himself directed the first episode.
But I digress.
The show is a winner. A big winner. Only today, three days after the premiere, HBO has ordered up a second season.
The story line begins on the evening of January 15, 1920, the day before prohibition goes into effect across the country. Atlantic City, NJ, is known as the working man’s playground, a place where a blue-collar worker can bring his family for a vacation and be treated like a king. It’s where salt water taffy and other little items are for sale, and according to some, the birthplace of real consumerism, the desire to buy things one does not need.
But Atlantic City is also a wide-open town, a center of vice and corruption. Gambling and prostitution are widespread, and of course, when the clock strikes midnight, ushering in the Prohibition Era, the booze flows more freely than ever.
At the helm of this devil’s den is Enoch “Nucky” Thompson, played with great relish by veteran character actor Steve Buscemi. Nucky’s the county treasurer, and nobody does anything in Atlantic City unless he gets his cut. His brother is the chief of police and the mayor and city councilmen are his henchmen. He has the whole city in his pocket.
Now that liquor has been criminalized, he sees the opportunity to make untold millions and he begins organizing for it. He hosts a meeting of nationally-oriented gangsters, including Arnold Rothstein, Big Jim Colosimo, and Johnny Torrio. Their underlings include Charles “Lucky” Luciano (given an edgy portrayal by Vincent Piazza) and Al Capone (an easily-unraveled Stephen Graham). Luciano and Capone are only in their early twenties but are clearly developing big ideas of their own.
Thompson agrees to sell a boatload of whiskey to Rothstein and company, but things go wrong in a hurry, thanks mainly to Jimmy Darmody, played by an intense Michael Pitt.
Darmody’s a returning World War I hero with a wife and child. He works for Nucky but feels he should be on a faster track to the big money, so he takes matters into his own hands, risking his own life and that of his young family.
Also in the mix are Margaret Schroeder, a young immigrant woman (played convincingly by Kelly Macdonald) with an abusive husband, Agent Nelson Van Alden, one of the first incorruptible G-Men assigned to enforce the nation’s prohibition laws (played with icy aloofness by Michael Shannon), and the Commodore, Nucky’s aging mentor (a great role for Dabney Coleman–and was it good to see him again!). These characters, and a few others, will give great texture to the season’s story arc as it unfolds over the next few months.
What remains to be seen is whether the quality can be maintained without Winter writing the scripts or Scorsese in the director’s chair. However, Tim Van Patten, Jeremy Podeswa, Allen Coulter, and Howard Korder, among others, are on the team, so I’m optimistic.
Buscemi, meanwhile, may have hit upon the role of a lifetime. He’s toiled for years in movies big and small, as well as certain TV projects, including The Sopranos. He’s one of those actors who always stands out, no matter what role he has. But Nucky Thompson may be the part he’s been preparing for his entire career. Thompson is half-politician, half-gangster, but as Jimmy Darmody tells him, “You can’t be half a gangster anymore.” He’s going to have to adapt to the new world of Prohibition and its easy money.
Nucky can’t go anywhere without someone asking him for something, and I can see him eventually getting plenty stressed out over this. I mean, he’s got a gangland empire to run, a whiny girlfriend to please, tough guys from out of town breathing down his neck, and associates of questionable loyalty. He’s not going to get even one minute’s rest, and it might well take a toll on him. Can anyone say “Tony Soprano”?
Clear some time on Sunday nights from now on for Boardwalk Empire. You won’t regret it.