In the Atlantic City of 1920, the boardwalk is built for gawkers, who can encounter all manner of exotica if they’re willing to pony up two bits. A quarter will get their palm read, or will get them into a midget boxing match, or closer to a room full of incubators for preemies, where according to the sign outside they can, “See Babies That Weight Less Than Three Pounds!” Or if they’re on a budget, they can gather by the dock and watch the local fisherman empty their nets with a flourish while a barker announces “the catch of the day.” And who knows? Arrive at the right time and the catch of the day might be a corpse.
In gambling parlance, HBO’s new series Boardwalk Empire is about as close as TV gets to a sure thing. It’s a drama about gangster-ridden prohibition-era New Jersey, headed up by Terence Winter, one of the most significant contributors to the success of The Sopranos, and executive produced by Martin Scorsese (who also directed the pilot). These are guys who, between them, know crime sagas, know the region, know history and know television. Throw in a cast that includes colorful, accomplished character actors Steve Buscemi, Michael Shannon, Michael Stuhlbarg and Dabney Coleman—all working with the usual budgetary and content freedoms that HBO allows—and the only real concern going into Boardwalk Empire is that it might be too good. Already, I’ve read some critics grumbling that the show is “exactly what you’d expect,” by which they mean that, yeah, sure, it’s entertaining and sophisticated and snazzy, but it’s not especially challenging. To some extent, I get where they’re coming from. Some critics prefer to root for scrappy underdogs, and touting Boardwalk Empire is more like cheering on the New York Yankees.
But hell, I’m not afraid to say it: Go Yankees! (And that’s coming from a Braves fan, so you know I’m serious.) Judging by the first episode of Boardwalk Empire—debuting tonight at 9 p.m. eastern—this is going to be one of the most reliably exciting and satisfying shows of the new TV season.
Is it perfect? Not quite. The Winter-penned Boardwalk Empire pilot is reasonably fleet about setting up the premise of the series and all the players involved, but at the outset it sacrifices subtlety in service of clarity. Characters actually stand up and say things like, “Gentleman, thanks to prohibition we’ll be able to charge more for illegal booze and we’ll all get rich! By the way, I’m the city treasurer, you’re the mayor, and that guy over there’s my brother.” Not exactly the most artful introduction.
Once all the players have been brought out of the wings though, Boardwalk Empire becomes plenty artful, with a scenario—historically based but embellished—that promises payoffs both rich and subtle in the weeks to come.
Buscemi plays Nucky Thompson, Atlantic City’s wheeler-dealer treasurer—friend to crooks and the downtrodden alike—who opens the episode by celebrating the onset of prohibition and striking deals to supply the city with case after case of Canadian Club. Helping to ease Nucky’s path: his brother, Sheriff Eli Thompson (played by Shea Whigham) and an aging AC power-broker, Commodore Louis Kaestner (played by Coleman). Working against him: a new IRS division dedicated to enforcing prohibition, represented by the stalwart Agent Nelson Van Alden (played by Shannon). Also in the first episode, Nucky learns that his “friends from Chicago” and “friends from New York” might not be so willing to let him manage the flow of liquor into and out of the territory. They’re all smiles and handshakes, but established underworld figures like Lucky Luciano and Arnold Rothstein have their own plans.
Sure, you’ve seen all this before, in movies and TV shows about how organized crime and politicians work together—now and always. Even a lot of the other characters introduced in the Boardwalk Empire pilot have a familiar air. There’s Jimmy Darmody (played by Michael Pitt), an Ivy League dropout and WWI veteran who’s frustrated that Nucky’s not fast-tracking him to the top of his organization. (The two of them have a series-defining dialogue exchange about halfway through the episode, when Jimmy says, “All I want is an opportunity,” and Nucky snaps, “This is America. Who the fuck’s stopping you?”) There’s Margaret Schroeder (Kelly MacDonald), a distraught young wife and mother who comes to Nucky for help with her drunken, abusive husband. And then there’s Chalky White (Michael Kenneth Williams) and Mickey Doyle (Paul Sparks), rival bootleggers who aren’t sure how their up-from-the-bootstrap operations square with Nucky’s grander designs.
In short, this is a story about ambition, greed, and lost innocence, played out by tough-talking ne’er-do-wells and the timid folks who become their collateral damage. Nothing especially new here, aside from the specificity of the place and the dynamic visual style.
But oh, that dynamic visual style! Scorsese only helmed Boardwalk Empire’s pilot, but he was reportedly a hands-on consultant during the production of the first season’s remaining 11 episodes, and I hope that the directors of future BEs took their cues from what Scorsese does here. He doesn’t leave any of his signature effects on the shelf: not the swift, dynamic low-angle push-ins; or the disjointed jump-cuts to indicate the passage of time; or the tracking shots through bustling casinos; or the archaic iris-in/iris-out transitions; or the freeze-frames; or the overhead shots that make characters look like pieces on a game-board. Winter’s script has some Scorsesean touches too: it begins with a bit of shocking violence and then jumps back three days to show how the story reached that point; and when the timeline catches back up to that big scene, Winter and Scorsese wring the maximum amount of tension from the moment by cross-cutting rapidly between the different staging areas for the action.
The performances in Boardwalk Empire are a pleasure to watch too—especially the interplay of the usually wired Buscemi (here playing with a little more control than usual) and the usually laid-back Pitt (here a degree or two more intense). Throughout his career, Scorsese has been fascinated by the tension between the artificiality of cinema and its capacity to document reality, and though Boardwalk Empire isn’t as fraught with friction as a Raging Bull or New York New York—both of which mix John Cassavetes-style psychodrama with Michael Powell-style floridity—there are moments when the stylization of the actors’ gestures and the cinematography rub up against something more raw, like the unfaked cry of a child actor.
Why is that significant? Because it ties back in with that stroll down the boardwalk I invited you all on at the top of this review. Boardwalk Empire isn’t just about criminals at work; it’s about a flowering sense of showmanship. Winter and Scorsese weave the popular culture of the time into the series cleverly: the local cinema is showing a short starring Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle (a year before the scandal that would derail his career); the headliner at the theater is singer/comedian Eddie Cantor (born Isidore Iskowitz); the beginning of prohibition is marked by a New Orleans style jazz funeral for booze, complete with black balloons and white men in blackface carrying a bottle-shaped casket; the music coming from the phonographs and vaudeville halls is a mix of early R&B and Tin Pan Alley, including the songs of Russian-born innuendo queen Sophie Tucker, who split the difference between those genres. Meanwhile, the show’s cast is full of characters trying to remake themselves: Nucky (whose real name is Enoch) is working to build the empire of the show’s title; bootlegger Mickey Doyle changes his name when he launches his business; Jimmy strikes up a friendship with a scrappy, scar-faced thug who introduces himself as Al Capone.
The lines between public and private, fake and real, obscurity and infamy… they’re all blurring as Boardwalk Empire opens. Everything’s on display in Atlantic City, but there’s always a back room that passersby can’t see from the storefront window. The citizens have had time to prepare for prohibition, and see it as a chance for renewal. (As one of the songs on the soundtrack says, “I never knew I had a wonderful wife until the town went dry.”) Opportunity is everywhere, but the stakes are high: as the citizens of Atlantic City refashion themselves, they risk following the path of the whiskey-boats in the show’s opening scene, and disappearing into the fog.
-HBO provided me with the first six episodes of Boardwalk Empire, but generally speaking I’m not a big one for watching ahead on shows I’m reviewing, so I’ll be writing these each week with no foreknowledge of what’s to come. For as long as the screeners keep coming though, I will be able to post these reviews as soon as an episode finishes airing. Given that this review is running before the debut, I didn’t get into too many specific plot details above, but feel free to spoiler it up in the comments. Next week’s piece and the ones to come will be fuller.
-That said, there are points I want to make about the pilot (and good scenes I want to note) that require more particulars, so you may want to wait until after you see the episode to read what’s next. Consider all the stray observations below to be Spoilers….
-We first meet Nucky when he’s delivering a speech to a temperance league about how drinking so ravaged his family that they had to eat wharf rats. Everything about the scene is niftily staged: from Margaret watching from the audience in quiet admiration to Jimmy leaning against a wall in the back and waiting for his cue to drag Nucky away on “urgent county business.” And there are payoffs to the scene, both immediate and delayed: as they leave, Jimmy baits Nucky into admitting that the wharf rat story is pure fiction; and later in the episode, the head of the temperance league gives Nucky a framed copy of the anti-booze poem she read before his speech, which he promptly tosses in the trash as soon as she’s out of sight.
-In the weeks to come, we’ll talk more about the real historical figures in the show: like Luciano, Johnny Torrio, and poor Jim Colosimo, the Chicago boss who gets slain in his own café while listening to Caruso at the end of the episode. (This is a famous incident in the history of the Chicago gangs, by the way; it happened in May of 1920.) For now though, I’m particularly fascinated by Rothstein, a man who embodies the blurring lines between crime, politics and business in the ‘20s. Rothstein’s credited with helping to put the “organized” in organized crime (as well as conspiring to fix the 1919 world series) and was known as a gambler who worked the percentages until they were overwhelmingly in his favor. He skirted legitimacy, and was never one to leave money on the table that could fit comfortably in his pocket.
-What’s interesting about Rothstein in the context of Boardwalk Empire is how far ahead he is of Nucky, who himself so far seems to be a pretty smart guy. Early in the episode, we see Nucky out-negotiating his liquor supplier (and then dismissing his man’s request that they have a drink together, saying, “I already got what I wanted, what the fuck would we talk about?”) and then we see him working his advantage to turn a $35,000 investment in Canadian Club into $60,000 from the mob. He goes to bed rich, then wakes up and learns that Rothstein was won $90,000 in one of his casinos, putting Nucky in debt to the mob. Even slicker: Rothstein made his money from Nucky without breaking any laws.
-So, is Nucky smart? Or is he too small-time? His biggest weakness seems to be his sentimentality. When he hears Margaret’s story of poverty and abuse—delivered in her lilting Irish brogue—he explains how he lost his own wife to consumption, and then hands her a pile of money to help her out, saying, “We’re all immigrants, are we not?” Then Margaret’s husband smacks her around, takes her money, and blows it in Nucky’s casino, on the same day that Rothstein’s winning his money back. You’d need a map to chart the cashflow in this episode.
-I love the shot of Jimmy peeling kids off his car when he takes Margaret home.
-When Agent Van Alden brings Jimmy in, Jimmy’s told that Van Alden and his men aren’t interested in Nucky’s election-rigging or graft… “just the liquor.” And so another theme is introduced: a preoccupation with minor vices blinding the law to the major ones.
-Very intriguing the way this episode plays out, with Jimmy and Capone massacring some men they shouldn’t have massacred, all because Capone was distracted by a deer, while at the same time the feds storm Doyle’s bootlegging operation, in the basement of a funeral home, and thus miss the real action on the other side of the woods.
-Remember this line: “Ambition can be read as impatience.” I have a feeling that’s going to be a recurring theme as the series plays on.
-The Commodore tries to help Nucky with his Rothstein problem by handing him a copy of The International Jew, by “Henry fuckin’ Ford.” Nucky’s reply? “I think my problems go beyond world finance.”
-Jimmy and Al Capone meet at the midget boxing match. Jimmy’s advice to Al? “Bet on the little guy.”