'Boardwalk Empire': A Man Apart

HBO's glossy new Prohibition-era gangster series has a powerful lead in Steve Buscemi's Atlantic City operator, but a story that takes several episodes to catch fire.

Boardwalk Empire

Airtime: Sundays, 9pm ET
Cast: Steve Buscemi, Michael Pitt, Kelly Macdonald, Paz de la Huerta, Michael K. Williams, Shea Wingham, Michael Stuhlbarg, Michael Shannon
Subtitle: Series Premiere
Network: HBO
Director: Martin Scorsese, Timothy Van Patten, Allen Coulter
Air date: 2010-09-19

You know who dies for their country? Fuckin' rubes, that's who.

-- Nucky Thompson (Steve Buscemi)

He's all right. He's just from Brooklyn is all.

-- Jimmy Darmody (Michael Pitt), about his friend Al Capone

In the Atlantic City of Boardwalk Empire, it's easy enough to figure out what's going on. All you have to do is ask Nucky (Steve Buscemi). What and who he doesn't know in town aren't worth knowing. Ostensibly the county treasurer, Nucky appears to be the financial conduit for just about all the business going on in the up-and-coming Eastern seaboard resort town, circa 1920.

He gets a cut of everything (stiffly grinning suited gents bearing cash-fattened envelopes parade into his office daily), and hobnobs with the cream of the organized crime world. Though Nucky likes to think he's not one of them, he's reminded that he is, following a monumentally mismanaged hijacking of bootlegged booze that leaves five dead and his would-be protégé Jimmy (Michael Pitt) presses some cash into his hand and says, "You can't be half a gangster."

We first see Nucky at what seems to be the dawn of a grand new era. Immediately after wooing the women at the Temperance League with fanciful stories of his hard-luck childhood, he ducks out to his Packard, knocks back a drink, and immediately gets to work deciding how booze is going to flow in and out of Atlantic City once Prohibition is enacted at midnight. It's like a New Year's Eve for criminals, only the too-rational Nucky doesn't see it as anything else than great business.

And then, right under his nose, Jimmy hijacks 10s of thousands of dollars' worth of Canadian Club whiskey that Nucky promised to ace New York gambler Arnold Rothstein (Michael Stuhlbarg, sociopathically cool to the touch). Problem being that the new friend Jimmy brought along for the job gets spooked and they gun down all the witnesses. Jimmy's friend (Stephen Graham) is uncannily calm as he executes the witnesses. A few minutes later, he introduces himself: "Al Capone."

From this bloody mistake springs a maze of new problems for Nucky, but also an opportunity. He takes pity on a constituent, the mousy teetotaler Margaret (Kelly Macdonald), whose husband drinks, gambles, beats her, and essentially acts as a walking advertisement for the necessity of Prohibition. (While the series has fun illustrating how hopelessly impossible the Volstead Act was to enforce from the start, it's intelligent enough to show how the whole temperance movement, whatever its unintended side effects, was rooted in efforts toward women's empowerment.) Deciding to deliver a message to Margaret's husband, Nucky has his not-so-smart brother Eli (Shea Whigham), who just happens to be sheriff, kill the husband, dump him in the ocean, and when his body washes up, blame him for Jimmy and Al's killings.

This network of pride and pain is drawn from a novel by Nelson Johnson by Sopranos writer Terence Winter, and introduced in the curiously sprawling opening episode, premiering on 19 September and directed by Martin Scorsese. The look he establishes right away is one people will recognize from his later film work, high-gloss fantasy with designer outfits and a dark pulpy thrill. The episode includes as well a few jarring notes, in the form of some flashbacks and editing freezes, as well as some violent scenes where the camera is jammed right into the action -- the blood literally coats the camera lens.

Once Timothy Van Patten and Allen Coulter take over the series' direction, its style is more pedestrian, and so, unfortunately are many of the story developments. Much of the early episodes is taken up by brief, unmemorable introductions. From the mobsters drinking illicit hooch at Nucky's soirees to their wives and girlfriends (with the exception of Margaret, interesting female roles are grimly lacking), it's hard to keep straight who's who. Worse, their comings and goings are framed by a too-predictable checklist of cultural milestone (the Ziegfeld Follies, opium dens, and so on), as well as standard crime-drama mechanics (a couple of brutal torture scenes). It isn't until episodes four and five that Winter's scripts start to catch fire with the occasional flick of humor and tighten up the dangling plotlines.

When it's not footnoting history, the series focuses closely on Nucky, who is the definition of a man apart. Still mourning his dead wife and surrounded by glad-handers and boon-seekers, he resides in a ritzy hotel on the Boardwalk. To Van Alden (Michael Shannon), a Bible-thumping federal agent trying to enforce Prohibition with few men and fewer resources, Nucky "lives like a Pharaoh." But his wealth doesn't seem to help him deal with his girlfriend, Lucy (Paz de la Huerta), giggly, mean, and slightly insane, like some toxic combination of Asia Argento and Jennifer Tilly.

Nucky treats most of those in his circle with cool contempt, and after being treated to several hours' worth of their drunken misogyny and misanthropy, we see why. Nucky only cares about the green, which is why he's able to garner so much of the black vote. Here he's interacting with Chalky White (Michael K. Williams), a crime boss who runs the black part of town and is a close confederate of Nucky's. He helps to remind us that the 1920s were not all about giddy flappers and Italian gangsters. Until the introduction of a surprising storyline about the Atlantic City chapter of the Ku Klux Klan, the show's exploration of race and racism at the time is even more stunted than its take on women's concerns.

Nucky, of course, sees all such context only in relation to his own desires. Dyspeptic and grave-faced, Nucky remains isolated. Jimmy is nothing short of a dud, due in part to Pitt's one-note performance, but also to the character's lack of motivation: why is he hanging around? At least there are signs that his showgirl mother, Gilliam (Gretchen Mol), will be another malevolent and untrustworthy matron in the Sopranos mold.

The action is set to move to gangster playgrounds like New York and Chicago, and introduce some dangerous romantic entanglements. If Boardwalk Empire doesn’t begin in the most thought-provoking manner, its multiple, ready-to-expand stories suggest many avenues to explore.


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