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Boardwalk Empire

I don’t think any television show has been quite as anticipated as Boardwalk Empire. The entire digital television channel Sky Atlantic HD seems to be be marketed around the lush period drama, and well it might be. Sure, there are plenty of things to look forward to on HBO’s British channel, but nothing has the big name appeal of a period gangster television show starring Steve Buscemi and directed by Martin Scorsese. That combination was influential enough to secure the show a place on the family’s television planner, a huge vote of confidence if ever there was one – we like to watch stuff together, but a television show takes a lot of commitment (simply because it means getting everybody in the same room roughly once a week). Did Boardwalk Empire live up to the promise it offered? I think it’s too early break open the proverbial Champagne, but all indications so far are good.

Tonight we're going to party like it's 1920...

The most obvious point of comparison seems to be that other great HBO crime drama, The Sopranos. I’m going to be a bit of a charlatan and confess I’ve yet to watch the entire show (I’m waiting for the blu ray boxset), but I’ve seen enough (more than half) to know that it was good. However, I don’t get the vibe from Boardwalk Empire that it’s attempting to emulate that great mobster saga of our time. Instead, Boardwalk Empire feels more like Deadwood, the often underrated Western that the channel produced a few years back.

Like Deadwood, this show is based around an extended community rather than a family unit. The show has a central character who controls that community by virtue of both his official station and his illegal activities. It is rich in period detail, but never indulges shallow nostalgia. The opening scene reminds us, for example, that the United States of 1920 was “a nation which will, god willing, this year give its women the right to vote.”

Don't 'Noch Temperance...

There are constant reminders that there’s a disturbing truth buried beneath the stylish facade – perhaps the country needs to ply itself with booze to avoid facing that ultimate realisation. In a powerful moment, Enoch, our lead character stumbles across a storefront charging 25c to see premature babies in incubators – something of a morbid mix between a circus freakshow and a charity shop, underscoring the contrasts of the time. Later on, Enoch seeks counsel from an old friend about a gangster with a Jewish name – only to receive an anti-Semitic pamphlet in response.

The series manages to cram a lot of material into its opening episode. Granted, the minute runs about half-an-hour longer than the rest of the episodes in the season, but it doesn’t miss a beat in setting itself up. It economically introduces the show’s expansive cast and gives us a wonderful sense of historical context. There are seeds planted for what I expect will be future developments (Omar comin’, I guess). And it never feels cluttered or crowded – the audience is never lost. Even my mother, who will admit that she wrestles with expansive ensembles, could see who was doing what and why.

Treadin' the Boards...

The flip side of that coin is that nobody except the lead character gets any real development. Enoch “Knock” Thompson looks to be a fascinating creation. He’s a man caught between two worlds – his role as city treasurer and his position as supplier of the illegal booze. He’s generous and polite to his constituents, but he’s also ruthless and smooth with his business associates. He mourns the loss of a wife, but has no difficulty with female companionship. In short, he’s a big contradiction, and the opening episode calls him on it. “You can’t be half a gangster,” his lieutenant advises, “not anymore.” That’s a fascinating dramatic hook – Enoch doesn’t seem like too bad a guy, despite his illicit dealings (he actually seems like a nicer guy than most HBO leads), so it’ll be fascinating to see how he reacts when stuff hits the fan (as it undoubtedly will).

Buscemi is great in the role. I had my doubts about the skinny character actor in a leading role – he’s always struck me as a stronger supporting player. However, his performance here hits all the right notes. There’s a sense that he’s a lot tougher than he lets on, and that there’s a mean streak hiding behind his wonderful anecdotes and polite gestures. Despite the lush setting and superb production values, Buscemi’s central performance is perhaps the best reason to watch the show and is (I suspect) what will bring me back week-in and week-out.

The Greatest Show in Town?

His supporting cast is solid. We know who everybody is, but we only have a real sense of a few people surrounding him. I’m most looking forward, however, to getting to know the FBI agent played by the always superb Michael Shannon. One of the episode’s best scenes features Van Alden on the phone to a younger agent, identifying all the big city mobsters who have drifted into the hotel lobby. The younger agent is having trouble matching names to faces, with Van Alden growing increasingly frustrated. This was the point at which my mom put her hand up and conceded that it was like watching a movie with her, and myself and my dad nodded silently. It’s just a great scene, and one of several which help lighten the mood and illustrate that the show isn’t taking itself too seriously.

I have to admit, though, I’m a little fascinated with how the show plans to blend reality and fiction. In the opening eighty minutes, real gangsters like Al Capone and “Lucky” Luciano mingle with original creations like Enoch Thompson. Of course, Thompson is based on the real life Atlantic City political boss and mobster Enoch Johnson, but the character was fictionalised so the creator could take historical liberties. It’ll be interesting to see how fact and fiction overlap in the coming weeks.

Take this gangster outside and smoke 'im...

The production, as has come to be expected from HBO, is fabulous. It reportedly cost $20m, but it looks even better than that. I sincerely hope the rest of the season can live up to the standard set, but the show is dripping with period detail. It’s clearly fashioned with a lot of love, and it shines through every single shot of the show. It genuinely looks impressive – you could almost put it on the big screen, it’s that good.

So, I’m in. It looks great, it’s well cast and it has an interesting premise. Let’s just see how the opening season develops, but I can see this becoming a family favourite.

2 Responses

  1. Buscemi is great in any role

    • He is indeed, but I’ve always associated him with supporting roles in Coens films. However, even the greatest actor can struggle to carry a TV show, because it’s a different medium (see James Woods in Shark, for example) – it was great to see Buscemi could do it so effortlessly.

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