HBO’s new hit Boardwalk Empire stands at the intersection of movie and television show, drawing a little from both to form a compelling series about 1920s Atlantic City and the lives of the gangsters who defy Prohibition.
So much of the pilot, which aired last week, feels like a movie. The characteristic sweeping vistas are there, a signature of executive producer and pilot director Martin Scorsese. The grandeur of the set and costumes – nearly $20 million was spent on the pilot alone – make the show feel much bigger than a regular television show. And like a movie, the 70-minute opener lags in spots, drawing out unnecessary details and forcing moments, such as when Enoch “Nucky” Thompson, the mob boss on whom the show centers, stares solemnly into a storefront with babies in incubators. (“See Babies That Weigh Less Than Three Pounds!” the sign reads. Did people really pay a quarter for these things back then?) Though I understand that there’s the symbolism of Nucky’s wanting a family, having lost his wife, it’s a little heavy-handed.
But the pace picks up greatly in the second half of the pilot. Nucky hosts a big dinner with famed mob bosses Arnold Rothstein, Johnny Torrio, “Big Jim” Colosimo and “Lucky” Luciano, with the Feds on a stakeout of the hotel’s lobby. Nucky strikes a deal to ship 500 crates of booze to New York in exchange for $60,000 from Rothstein. Meanwhile, Jimmy Darmody, Nucky’s driver and protégé (played by Michael Pitt), strikes up a conversation with Colosimo’s driver, the notorious Al Capone.
Darmody and Capone later team up to steal the shipment, killing four of Rothstein’s men in the process, setting off a series of events that define the end of the pilot as well as the second episode.
If anyone knows gangsters, it’s series creator Terence Winter. Winter was the number-two to David Chase during The Sopranos, and wrote the infamous final scene of the series. He and Scorsese team up to make a show that hearkens back to HBO’s roots, a heavy, prestigious drama a la The Sopranos or The Wire.
The strength of the series lies in Steve Buscemi’s portrayal of Nucky. He is equal parts slick and earnest, ruthless in his ambition and yet, tender at times. He develops a soft spot for Margaret Schroeder (Kelly Macdonald), the young immigrant wife with two small children and an abusive drunkard husband. When he hears of her miscarriage, there is genuine concern in his eyes and he even shows up at her hospital bed with flowers.
He also brings a sense of humor to the role. When his mistress locks herself in the bathroom, upset about an interruption from the butler, he screams, “No [Eddie, the butler] is not more important than you. Arnold Rothstein and $90,000 is more important than you!” before trying to break the heavy door down by running at it with his weak frame.
Buscemi doesn’t have the weight or presence of mob bosses like James Gandolfini’s Tony Soprano, but his character feels more nuanced. Though he’s less neurotic and paranoid than in previous roles, Buscemi still manages to convey that it could all crumble at any time, and there is a sense of vulnerability about Nucky even when he is at his coldest.
Pitt’s portrayal of a tortured war veteran trying to make it big in the mob world is equally impressive. He is equal parts boyish, creepy, forceful, cunning and weak. His eagerness to please and loyalty to Nucky conflicts with his personal ambitions, though he gets in over his head with the liquor heist, which becomes increasingly evident in the second episode. He uses the stolen money to buy a bracelet and vacuum for his wife and a necklace for his mother, but has to steal the necklace back to pay Nucky the $3,000 required for Jimmy to get his job back. Nucky blows the money at a roulette table immediately and the message is clear: Jimmy has no idea of the scale on which Nucky operates.
Already, HBO has picked up Boardwalk Empire for a second season, just 48 hours after the pilot opened to the network’s biggest audience for a series premiere (4.8 million) since 2004's Deadwood. If the show can focus less on the grandeur of the production and more on the nuances of the characters, it will be a surefire hit. And if the second episode is any indication, the show is poised to become a new Sunday night TV fixture