So last night, the most anticipated new show of the year, HBO’s Boardwalk Empire, had its big debut. The premiere was probably viewed by a gajillion people around the globe…and for good reason. A collaboration of the likes of Martin Scorsese, Terrence Winter, Mark Wahlberg and Steve Buscemi doesn’t just happen everyday, so when those popular names (along with a host of others) grace the small screen in succession, audiences pay attention. Just how good was it? Read on to find out.
The first thing that you should know is that, to the dismay of many fans, Mr. Wahlberg and Mr. Scorsese will not be contributing to each and every episode of the Prohibition-era crime drama. Wahlberg’s credit is limited to just the pilot while Scorsese, who directed the lovely inaugural entry, will serve as executive producer – which means he gets to sit back, review the dailies and reflect on his significant influence on the gangster genre while offering occasional creative pointers. No matter: with many of the producers of The Sopranos on board full time, I don’t think you’ll have to worry about the continuity of quality in this soon-to-be-classic television experience.
Now, onto the show. Boardwalk Empire begins on a gloomy night in Atlantic City in 1920, on the eve of Prohibition being mandated by the United States government. We meet Nucky Thompson, the sly city treasurer who moonlights as a bootlegger, at a women’s group rally where he is approached by a desperate housewife, as well as Jimmy Darmody, one of presumably many henchmen on his payroll. Jimmy is a WWI veteran with academic promise and little-to-no patience for the criminal hierarchy that has governed organized crime for decades. He’s got a bum leg, a family to feed and no time to waste, so when he meets the eager-to-earn Al Capone, in town with his employer on business, a profitable plan formulates.
Meanwhile, we follow Nucky as he navigates the town and conducts business. Part politician/peace-keeper, Thompson helps maintain order in the City By The Sea with the help of local enforcement (led by his brother Eli), but that’s just his public persona. When the sun goes down and the Boardwalk lights up each night, Nucky assumes the role of overlord of the underworld: Pimp, playboy, and prohibition-profiteer. But pressures from rival gangsters begin to mount and he’s forced to entertain New York mobsters like Lucky Luciano and Arnold Rothstein, who take Thompson for a financial ride. Nucky recovers from the blow, but knows that these New Yawkas are going to be a problem. He also continues to feel the effects of his charity, as Kelly MacDonald’s abused housewife has a recurring presence throughout the pilot. She brings out the “best” in Nucky, who is sympathetic to her situation; so sympathetic that he makes it his personal mission to ensure that she will not suffer another blackeye at the hands of her alcoholic husband.
All of this character definition is taking place while a sizable heist is going down. Nucky’s big-money shipment of alcohol is stolen at gun-point by Jimmy and Al, who proceed to execute all of the carriers after a deer scares the bejeezus out of Capone. This leads to Nucky’s justifiable panic attack and temporary moment of relief/astonishment when he learns that Jimmy is responsible for the stick-up. Though he’s compensated, he learns that there’s ultimately no one that he can trust in Atlantic City and, as it’s unofficial ruler, he’ll have to be smarter, faster and more ruthless than ever if he wants to stay on top.
When I first heard about Boardwalk Empire, I was enamored with excitement. The creative talent is a virtual dream team of filmmakers and the pilot did not disappoint. Martin Scorsese’s masterful direction buoyed a relatively formulaic opening episode. The production design was perhaps my favorite element in the program; the massive Boardwalk set, erected on the shores of Brighton Beach in Brooklyn, NY are some of the most period accurate that I’ve ever seen on television and many of Marty’s cinematic trademarks made it onto the screen, making the pilot especially nostalgic for film buffs like myself.
Of course, the technical components of the show won’t likely overshadow the phenomenal acting that has become a hallmark of HBO’s original programming. Steve Buscemi, Michael Pitt, Michael Stuhlbarg and (especially) Stephen Graham bring gritty authenticity to the series; we haven’t seen visceral performances like these since the heydays of Tony Soprano & Co. My only concern regarding the future of Boardwalk Empire lies in the creative fatigue department. Can Scorsese and Winter, along with series directors/contributors Tim Van Patten, Allen Coulter and others keep up with the high level of quality that HBO and fans have set? Further, with a reported budget of $30 million on the pilot, will Boardwalk Empire suffer the same financial fate as HBO’s Rome, a show with a large audience but not enough money to maintain it’s cost? Time will tell. Check back on Monday for next week’s recap of Boardwalk Empire.