Boardwalk Empire premiered on Sunday night with a lavish pilot directed by Martin Scorsese that zoomed in on Atlantic City in the 1920s. Prohibition has just gone into effect, and the city’s corrupt treasurer — Steve Buscemi’s oily, funny, nihilistic, knobby-kneed Nucky Thompson – is handing out favors and calling in markers right and left. You barely need to check the credits to know that Scorsese directed, because even the planks in the boardwalk gleam with Scorsese’s beautiful, cynical rot. And the fact that the series was created by a graduate of The Sopranos – well, writer-producer Terence Winter has taken what he learned about the allure of amorality and really runs with it here.
Based on a real-life Nucky – Johnson, not Thompson – and on Nelson Johnson’s book of the same title, Boardwalk Empire moves immediately into action-adventure territory. This proves to be a calculated error, since the series would benefit from more scene-setting, in the creation of a world in the manner of (to take just the first HBO comparison that’s most appropriate) Deadwood. The first few hours, even beyond the Scorsese opener, seem leery of dwelling on the historical details that made Atlantic City distinctive during this era. Which is probably one reason why the production felt it necessary to insert title cards such as “Chicago” and “New York City” when the scene changes — the show itself doesn’t do enough to make Atlantic City a distinctive character in its own drama.
The crucial element that will probably determine whether many viewers stick with Boardwalk is whether you want to see Buscemi as the series’ central figure week after week. There’s no denying Buscemi’s power as a character actor over the years — the guy is simply terrific in rattled-man role in movies from Reservoir Dogs to his own Trees Lounge. But does Buscemi’s Nucky carry as much weight (no pun intended) as James Gandolfini’s Tony Soprano or Ian McShane’s Al Swearengen in Deadwood? Having seen a half-dozen Boardwalks, I’d have to say…it’s still hard to say. Which may sound like waffling, but I’m trying to be fair. Early on, Buscemi seems like a bantam-weight star presence, but there are moments, especially in his tender scenes with Kelly Macdonald and his rampaging ones with Michael Pitt, where he’s a riveting blast. Still, the series itself rarely positions him to be as dynamic a figure as Stephen Graham’s explosive Al Capone eventually becomes.
Buscemi’s shifty-eyed fixer has no scruples about ordering beat-downs, but he also has a soft heart for a few people who impress him. One is Michael Pitt’s Jimmy Darmody, a smart but indigent World War I vet who’ll do as he’s told with tortured loyalty in order to rise in Nucky’s operation. The other is Kelly Macdonald’s Margaret, a poor, honest woman trapped in an abusive marriage whom Nucky helps out for reasons that remain a poignant mystery in the early hours of the series. It becomes clear that it’s Jimmy and Margaret, each in very different ways, who are going to carry Boardwalk’s most emotional subplots. Nucky’s opposite number, by contrast, is the government Prohibition Agent Nelson Van Alden, played with a bulldog glare by Michael Shannon — he’s every bit as buttoned up as one of Nucky’s suits.
What bodes well for Boardwalk Empire as a weekly series is that this week’s debut is probably the least typical (the showiest, the slowest) of the episodes I’ve seen. The production becomes more sleek, emotionally complex, and sly in its subsequent hours.
Is this show better than its important Prohibition-era gangster predecents like William Wellman’s The Public Enemy (1931) or Howard Hawks’ Scarface (1932)? No, it is not. Boardwalk lacks those films’ narrative momentum – both movies put the roar in The Roaring 20s – and Buscemi doesn’t possess the feral energy of Enemy’s Jimmy Cagney or the brute force of Scarface’s Paul Muni.
Boardwalk is very much a gangster saga for our times. (It even finds a role for one of the great modern gangsters: Michael Kenneth Williams – the magnificent Omar in The Wire – plays Chalky White, a bootlegger.) What Buscemi brings to this production is his gift for transferring neurotic self-consciousness into a man of action. He may fret about retaining his empire, but you believe Nucky Thompson is a scrawny lord of venality, from his stiff linen collar right down to his immaculate spats.
Still, I’d say Boardwalk Empire has its work cut out for it as a big cable-audience-pleaser, although I wish it the best of luck.
What did you think of the premiere? Will you keep watching?