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Boardwalk Empire: When alcohol was outlawed, outlaws became kings

Posted on Sunday September 19, 2010, 20:33 by James White in Small Screen
Boardwalk Empire: When alcohol was outlawed, outlaws became kings

If the latest show to saunter down the pipeline from US network HBO had an actual canine pedigree, it would probably be strutting around the show ring at Crufts, lumbered with a name like Prince Masterson Von Bonio, known to his over-enthusiastic owners as Matty. You want to talk pedigree? How about the fact that Boardwalk Empire comes from the brain of Terence Winter, one of the select few that Sopranos creator David Chase treated as one of his capos. More? Try the fact that the show has recruited a cast that includes the likes of Steve Buscemi, Michael Pitt, Michael Shannon, Michael Stuhlbarg and Kelly Macdonald, not to mention a roll call of actors from other great shows such as The Wire (OMAR!)

But above all else, surely the biggest fish hooked on this particular line is Martin Scorsese. Returning to television in a directorial (and non-documentary) position for the first time since a 1986 episode of Amazing Stories, Scorsese agreed to produce the show and step behind the camera for the pilot, which, understandably, has been given plenty of attention. HBO reportedly spent $10 million advertising the thing in the US alone.

That’s not hugely surprising, since the channel is looking for another Sopranos-sized hit that can also win over the critics. True Blood is bubbling away just fine, but it has felt like nothing has ever quite stepped up to replace Chase’s New Jersey mob machinations or David Simon’s complicated, challenging work on The Wire. HBO thinks Boardwalk Empire could be it, which might be why it gifted Winter an massive budget to play with, including building an authentic recreation of Atlantic City’s boardwalk circa 1920 in a parking lot. Suffice to say, there's plenty resting on these shoulders.

So step forward Enoch “Nucky” Thompson (Buscemi), a man who straddles both sides of the law with ease, charm and, when called upon, total ruthlessness. Some know him as an upstanding figure of the community, the Atlantic country treasurer and a fine politician. While even more see him as the best fixer in the area, dabbling in all manner of illegal activities. As the story starts, Prohibition is arriving in America, meaning alcohol is outlawed throughout the States. While some see this as the end of the world, Nucky spots a rich opportunity, by making sure those who still want access to the stuff can get it.

But it’s not all plain sailing for TV’s latest antihero – true, he’s living the high life, but there are those who’d like nothing more than to see Nucky taken down, especially Prohibition officer Nelson Van Alden (Shannon), who views it as his religious mission to crack down on Thompson’s schemes.

Winter has blended history with fiction here – Nucky is largely based on a real man named Nucky Johnson, and several of the other characters are entirely invented, mostly so he and his writing staff don’t feel like they have to history.

The pilot aired for the first time in the US last night. With Scorsese at the helm it was, somewhat naturally, a thing of beauty, since this is a man who knows how to shoot mobsters and just about every other subject you care to throw at him. It’s difficult to judge without seeing how the other episodes look, but based on reports, the team behind the series has tried hard to replicate Scorsese’s sweeping, fluid camera work in subsequent shows.

But while he had a master craftsman capturing the imagery and guiding the performances, this really was Winter’s show, as we’re straight out of the gate with crackling, dialogue, and the same blend of dark humour, smooth plotting and brutal, but never gratuitous, violence.

Anchoring it all is Buscemi, at ease whether he’s glad-handing the ladies of the local temperance league, chumming it up with his fellow crooked politicians or even awkwardly sleeping with girlfriend Lucy (Paz de la Huerta). If you ever wondered what a Gollum sex scene might look like then A) you need think no further and B) I’m extremely worried about you. Nucky’s also unafraid to get his hands dirty either, especially when smashing Margaret (Macdonald)’s drunken hubby’s head into a convenient gambling table edge.

Also getting a real chance to shine here is Pitt, as Nucky’s driver, Jimmy Darmody, a young man fresh from the First World War trenches and itching to show his boss what he can do. Jimmy’s first, faltering steps into a real life of crime come with some support from a surprise extra character, one whose name I won’t reveal here (it’s more fun when you just hear it for the first time). Shannon, meanwhile, is all driven menace as the lawman dedicated to being Nucky’s nemesis.

While this first episode is largely Nucky and Jimmy’s show, everyone else warps and weaves around them perfectly, with few, if any bum notes. Aside from the occasional, all-but-unavoidable moments where there's simply too much detail to take in in one sitting, this is a successful launch, all scored with period song choices dug up by the music team.

It’s too early to tell if this Empire will rise as grandly as, say, The Sopranos or Deadwood (to which it can also be compared). Unlike a film, which gives you the complete picture within a couple of hours (give or take), shows such as Winter’s latest effort need time to grow, to mature and to unfold their tale. Still, the foundations are solid and I’m excited to see where it builds from here.

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Comments

1 His Dudeness
Posted on Monday September 20, 2010, 13:08
Does anybody know if this is getting picked up by any British channels, I've been waiting for this to start!!

2 peopleunderthestairs
Posted on Monday September 20, 2010, 13:17
It'll be on SKY, it might even be SKY BOX OFFICE :(

3 MaxxFisher
Posted on Monday September 20, 2010, 14:52
Watched it last night. It was Beautiful Looking. Great Story. Amazing Acting. Followed it up with the newest Episode of Mad Men. So I had a great night

4 Ethanial
Posted on Monday September 20, 2010, 23:08
I've spent ages trying to get Mad Men, can't do it, it's aimless and dull.
Boardwalk starts as it looks to go on, great characters, interesting stories and well handled violence. I wasn't as sickened by the sight of Buscemi near orgasming as the people on imdb, but that shouldn't stop people watching.

Also, credit to Stephen Graham, look at the guy, he started an 80's skinhead, went to help John Dillenger, now I hear his character is gonna be some hot shot in Chicago or something (Never heard of the real character he's playing...)

5 Dynamite_Dee
Posted on Tuesday September 21, 2010, 10:33
I watched the first episode and it was pretty amazing. The production values are incredible; it looked like a really expensive Hollywood movie. Stephen Graham already blew the surprise of his character during an interview on Soccer AM months ago, so I was expecting the big reveal but it was no less exciting and I hope to see a lot more of his character in coming episodes. HBO has done it again and produced a TV show that is superior to anything coming out at the cinema right now, Boardwalk Empire is already making up for the frankly disappointing Pacific. I would expect Boardwalk to appear on Sky Movies Premier in the coming months.

6 TomBowler
Posted on Tuesday September 21, 2010, 12:23
Are we getting this in australia?

7 mighty mick
Posted on Tuesday September 21, 2010, 12:55
Just watched it and I like what I'm seeing: rich, detailed setting and intriguing characters who promise to reveal further layers in episodes to come. I agree with James White, the show feels like a meeting point (both chronologically and in tone) between Deadwood and The Sopranos. And while I'm at it I must say Scorsese has a thing for gunshots in the head!

8 RedCandle
Posted on Tuesday September 21, 2010, 22:22
did anyone else have a moment of joy at omar's one second appearance??

9 simjamlmx
Posted on Wednesday September 22, 2010, 22:43
i agree with your article i thought it was great. Also i'm glad people still remember DEADWOOD as being equally as good as the brilliant sopranos and the wire.

10 jocaso
Posted on Tuesday October 12, 2010, 16:52
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