Friday, September 17, 2010
A fascinating look at 'America's Playground': Reviewing 'Boardwalk Empire'
It would have been easy to be disappointed by HBO's new drama "Boardwalk Empire," premiering Sunday at 9 p.m. After all, it has arguably the highest pedigree of any show -- broadcast or cable -- debuting this fall. It's created by Terence Winter, a writer and producer on "The Sopranos," co-executive produced by iconic auteur Martin Scorsese (who also directed the pilot) and stars a who's who of character actors, led the fantastic Steve Buscemi. It also tells a fairly riveting story, very loosely based on the non-fiction book by Nelson Johnson, about Atlantic City at the dawn of Prohibition.
Given all that, expectations were bound to be high. And high expectations are usually impossible to meet. Thankfully, "Boardwalk Empire" meets them.
The series stars Buscemi (in one of his best performances -- which is saying something) as Atlantic City treasurer Enoch "Nucky" Thompson, a power player whose smart wardrobe and smooth manners camouflage a cunning, often ruthless spirit. Based on real-life figure Nucky Johnson, Thompson is part gangster and part politician, willing to do whatever's needed to keep his city an illicit paradise for the working class.
He's the focus of the series but, like "The Sopranos," "Empire" is a rich ensemble piece, so we also delve into the lives of several other characters. There's Jimmy Darmody (Michael Pitt), Nucky's protege, who has returned from World War I with major physical and emotional scarring. He and Nucky quickly draw the attention of Nelson Van Alden (Michael Shannon), a Fed enforcing Prohibition.
The show also focuses on Nucky's burgeoning relationship with Margaret Schroeder (Kelly Macdonald), a temperance advocate with a brutish husband, and his partnership with Chalk White (Michael Kenneth Williams), leader of the local African-American community.
Throw in several real-life gangsters, including Al Capone, Arnold Rothstein and Lucky Luciano and you have a pretty sprawling piece.
But "Empire" serves its complicated subject matter well. The performances and dialogue are fairly close to flawless, with even small supporting characters given some nice development (my favorite so far is the character of Kessler, Nucky's put-upon valet, played with great wit by Anthony Laciura). And the show looks fantastic, with the gorgeous sets and clothes one would expect of a series set in the Roaring 20's.
Yes, it's slow at times, and some character don't work at all (I wanted to fling shoes at my TV every time Paz de la Huerta popped up as Nucky's bimbotic mistress Lucy).
Yet those are just small quibbles. "Empire" is smart, absorbing and ambitious. It's leagues above any new show I've seen so far (with the possible exception of FX's "Terriers"). It's definitely worth your time.