TV Review: Boardwalk Empire Season 1 (2010)
"You can't be half a gangster Nucky, not anymore"
With TV stations like HBO and AMC consistently putting out ten or twelve episodes for each shows season, every episode a movie level quality affair, not to mention made for TV movies and Emmy sweeping miniseries, I'm starting a new review category called little BIG screen for just such entertainments.
The first is HBO's Boardwalk Empire, season 1.
Boardwalk Empire is a show created by The Sopranos alum Terence Winter. Martin Scorsese stepped in to help get it off the ground and even directed the first episode, which was nice.
I gotta say, as brilliant a company as HBO is and as good as their track record is, it usually takes me a few episodes to really get into their series. Even The Sopranos, in my opinion, the greatest show of all time, took me three or four episodes before it had really sunk its teeth into me. Boardwalk Empire is no different and to be honest, as cool as it was that Scorsese directed the first episode of the show, he couldn't have picked a more boring episode to direct. It's truly one of those episodes that does nothing but establish characters, show you around town a little and give you a feel for the place. No excitement, no big bang (no pun intended, but more on that later) right out of the gate, just a show that leaves you feeling very underwhelmed. There is enough promise there though to keep you coming back for more, and as the show goes on, while it doesn't necessarily pick up in speed or intensity too much, it does get its hooks in you. Not in a Sopranos or Deadwood way maybe, but it does nonetheless.
The show's based on historical events, with some Hollywood embellishments and fictional sidetracks of course, a balancing act which HBO has always excelled at, and some of these real life people are getting supporting roles for maybe the first time in their adapted lives. Al Capone, Lucky Luciano and Meyer Lansky all have small parts to play in the series next to the much lesser known likes of Enoch 'Nucky' Thompson. It's fascinating to see how they weave in and out of the narrative though and considering the show mainly takes place in Atlantic City, rather than Chicago or New York, it makes sense they don't have bigger roles.
Probably one of HBO's biggest strengths, along with storytelling, is casting. HBO's original series are some of most well cast series that have ever been made, and Boardwalk Empire is no exception. The shows main character, 'Nucky' Thompson, is played by Steve Buscemi, and I for one am glad this guy has finally landed a leading role in something big, after years and years as a great and memorable character actor. He deserves this, he's well cast and he plays the character wonderfully. Indie movie darling Michael Pitt plays a young war vet henchmen type who works for Thompson and this is probably his best performance yet. Vincent Piazza as Lucky Luciano, Michael Stuhlbarg as Arnold Rothstein, Michael Shannon as FBI agent Nelson Van Alden, Jack Huston as Richard Harrow and especially, as far as I'm concerned, the best performance of the bunch, Stephen Graham as a young Al Capone, all played to perfection.
To say this show is meant for adults is almost an understatement and HBO continues its love affair with lots of sex and boobs in the series it produces. In fact, the amount of sex in this show is probably the main reason I doubt I'll revisit it. Of course they've got the bad language and bloody violence sprinkled in there too, but the sex stuff goes a little overboard here I think.
But it isn't all sex and boredom, there are legitimately exciting episodes, or parts of episodes anyway, as this show deals mainly with the supply of alcohol to Atlantic City during prohibition and that means gunfights to steal liquor shipments, double crosses and executions. When the story focuses on the Al Capone character here and there is when it's most entertaining.
The other storyline the show follows, almost as much as the bootlegging, is politics. Specifically Thompson's preparation for the upcoming mayoral election, which takes place in the last episode, and his need to have the Republican side win so that he can have the mayor in his pocket and go on running the city. Not surprisingly, the political stuff is when the show is at its slowest and most boring. It's an integral part of the storyline and the politics and bootlegging do cross paths in more than one way on more than one occasion, but for the most part it's what dragged the show down the most for me.
I really like the whole prohibition/bootlegging part of American history. It bred some fascinating stories and introduced some fascinating characters into American crime. If you're not interested in this though, or politics, or even in Atlantic City near the turn of the last century, this show's probably not for you. Or if sex, nudity and violence make you uncomfortable, this show's really not for you. But if any of that does interest you and you are a fan of other HBO shows and fantastic ensemble acting, then you'll want to check this out.
Just don't forget to cover your eyes during the naughty bits!