September 10, 2010 at 04:00 AM EDT

New Drama Top 5 Pick

In the shadow of Manhattan’s skyline, just across the East River in Brooklyn’s Greenpoint neighborhood, looms HBO’s biggest gamble ever: a 300-foot boardwalk set that re-creates Atlantic City’s famed beachfront district, circa 1920. The set’s immense $5 million price tag represents just a fraction of the reported $65 million the cable network has shelled out so far to launch the Prohibition drama Boardwalk Empire, starring Steve Buscemi. HBO feels confident about this display of largesse, as Boardwalk comes from exec producers Terence Winter — one of the writer-producers behind The Sopranos — and Martin Scorsese, the movie legend who also directed the first episode. ”Terry’s been a part of the HBO family for a long time, and then you have Marty’s vision,” says HBO president Sue Naegle. ”What better joy in life than being on set with Marty, and he’s literally making sure that the planks on the boardwalk are the right width.”

The period drama’s 12-episode first season — based on Nelson Johnson’s 2002 book Boardwalk Empire: The Birth, High Times, and Corruption of Atlantic City — follows Enoch ”Nucky” Thompson (Buscemi), Atlantic City’s upstanding treasurer by day and a bootlegging gangster by night. ”He’s good at heart,” Buscemi says of Nucky, who was inspired by the real-life Enoch ”Nucky” Johnson. ”But he’s not above going above the law.” Thompson’s reach extends to the sprawling cast, including Jimmy Darmody (Michael Pitt), Nucky’s renegade protégé; Nelson Van Alden (Michael Shannon), the pious yet violent Fed intent on taking him down; Margaret Schroeder (Kelly Macdonald), the pregnant woman he befriends; and Jimmy’s showgirl mom, Gillian (Gretchen Mol). ”We have the luxury of seeing all sides of Nucky,” says Winter. ”There are moments when you’re going to think, ‘This guy is really sweet.’ And then you’re going to think, ‘How can somebody be so cruel to his assistant?”’

While Boardwalk has an impeccable pedigree, the show’s complicated story-telling about the internecine struggles of Prohibition-era politics is not an easy sell. ”This is not the kind of show that you can do your nails or balance your checkbook while you’re watching,” Winter says. ”It’s like The Sopranos was. You’ve got to pay attention. It’s assuming that the audience is intelligent.” Naegle says HBO isn’t expecting big ratings from Boardwalk right away. ”No one’s looking for a magic number on premiere night,” she says. ”We know we made something beautiful.” Winter echoes that sentiment. ”This is exactly the show I want to do,” he says. ”I wouldn’t change anything if I were to do it all over again tomorrow. Now it’s up to the TV gods.” SEPT. 19

Steve Buscemi stars in HBO’s sprawling Prohibition drama set in Atlantic City.
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