It begins with a close-up of a ticking old-timey pocket watch, the shot widening to reveal a man on a boat bobbing on night-darkened waters. There’s a heap of atmospheric silver-blue haze. A foghorn sounds in the distance. Moments later, we see the shining lights in the distance that we’re told is Atlantic City, 1920. These beautiful, stylized first 30 seconds signify that this is a very big and important television event. It’s Boardwalk Empire, the new HBO series that debuts Sunday, Sept. 19–a show you’ve already seen advertised on subway platforms and bus stations, promoted before and after the campy and bloody sex froth that is True Blood and weary-seeming Entourage, written breathlessly about in papers of record and fanboy blogs alike, each bit of superhype subliminally working its way into your brain.
Boardwalk Empire, set during the dawn of Prohibition, has a pretty spiffy pedigree even for HBO: Martin Scorsese–who directed the pilot episode–is an executive producer. It was created by Terence Winter, the Sopranos writer who–after David Chase–was responsible for writing the most episodes (another Sopranos alum, Tim Van Patten, is on board as executive producer and director). Even Mark Wahlberg is involved! It would be easy to buckle under the weight of collective award-show wins and expectations, and even understandable, really, if an early backlash were to occur. Except for just one thing: It’s really, really good.
After a decade of big, blustering James Gandolfini as our Jersey boss, it’s a nice change to have Mr. Buscemi, with his pale, vulpine face and goggly eyes, morph into top dog.
Based on Nelson Johnson’s Boardwalk Empire: The Birth, High Times, and Corruption of Atlantic City, the show is unabashedly ambitious, large in scope and lavish in set. It looks incredibly expensive (reportedly the pilot alone cost close to $20 million). But its debut episode faces the same conundrum that any epic, complicated show faces: An awful lot of information and characters, along with some pesky history, have to be introduced in the first 60 minutes. (Try not to be alarmed during your first viewing–or hit Wikipedia–when names like Al Capone, Arnold Rothstein and Lucky Luciano come up. All will become a lot clearer and easier paced in episodes two and three).
At the center of it all is half-politician/half-gangster, treasurer of Atlantic City, Enoch “Nucky” Thompson, played by Steve Buscemi, who in the span of a couple of hours is able to enthrall a roomful of women with his praise of the recently passed Prohibition law and tales of a hardscrabble youth (“First rule of politics, kiddo,” he tells his protégé after exiting the town hall, “never let the truth get in the way of a good story”), before gathering with fellow city power players with the promise that Atlantic City will remain “wet as a mermaid’s twat.”
After a decade of big, blustering James Gandolfini as our go-to pop-culture reference for a Jersey boss, it’s a nice change to have Mr. Buscemi, with his pale, vulpine face and goggly eyes, morph into top dog. He’s fantastic: in one scene vacillating effortlessly between a cold, occasionally violent leader and a deeply sympathetic man. (Just watch those eyes when he pauses on the boardwalk to look at the rather disgusting Incubator Baby. Could babies be to Nucky what ducks were to Tony Soprano?). His protégé, Jimmy (Michael Pitt), a former Princeton student, has arrived back from the war a changed man: No longer content to be simply a lackey, Jimmy’s ambition is the catalyst to the plot machinations that get this series going. Mr. Pitt was simply made for the fashions of the 1920s, with his big DiCaprio-y cherub face and creepily empty eyes (it’s hard to forget his earlier roles in Murder by Numbers and Funny Games). Their relationship is fraught and confusingly paternal–one can assume all that will get untangled eventually–including the part that encompasses Gretchen Mol (remember her?) as a mysterious showgirl. Kelly MacDonald (The Girl in the Café) plays Margaret Schroeder, an Irish immigrant with firsthand knowledge of the evils of liquor who manages to catch the eye of both Nucky and the tightly wound Agent Nelson Van Alden (the always great Michael Shannon), who seems to be pursuing Prohibition offenders with a zealot’s determination.
As the series continues, more familiar faces will crop up and become important, including Dabney Coleman and The Wire‘s Michael Kenneth Williams. And, of course, there’s that $5 million set. For the modern New Jerseyite (or Jersey Shore watcher), it’s hard to imagine “AC” being a place of such glamour, but this art-directed Atlantic City is a wondrous thing to behold, from its clean boardwalks to glittering Prohibition parties. It makes one wish for a time machine. As for the plot, best to let it unfold naturally, but let’s just say it’s clear that there’s plenty of tangled corruption, relationship intrigue and crime to chew over–and just how does Al Capone end up ruling Chicago, anyway? Around the third episode, the series settles down and hits its sweet spot, with that Sopranos-like mix of stomach-turning violence, surprising poignancy and the occasionally hilarious scene (just wait for the Yiddish dentist). So it turns out that we can’t fight the hype; and dear viewer, we don’t even want to.