Sundays, 9 p.m.
Put “Martin Scorsese” in the same sentence with “crime flick,” and people are going to pack movie theaters. Now that his moniker is attached to (“it’s not TV it’s”) HBO, we have a show that commands our attention.
With the premiere episode of Boardwalk Empire, of which he is an executive producer, Scorsese proves once again that he’s the brass knuckles king. Although it’s the only episode he directed in Season 1, it’s a beauty. One example among many of this visual feast: the shot of a mock funeral for ol’ John Barleycorn on the eve of Prohibition.
Scorsese built quite a template in the pilot episode for others, such as Sopranos director Tim Van Patten, to follow. But he’s not the only reason to have confidence in this chronicle of Prohibition-era crime in Atlantic City. Boardwalk Empire is the brainchild of Terence Winter, a co-executive producer of the show and a Sopranos veteran who spared little expense in his depiction of boardwalk life in the 1920s. His one apparent concession to budget concerns was to take a cue from the HBO miniseries John Adams and use digital imaging wherever building convincing period backgrounds was prohibitively expensive. As with John Adams, you’d have to be exceptionally sharp-eyed to spot the difference.
Of course, story, characters and cast are the real meat and potatoes of a series, and these are all note-perfect. Steve Buscemi was an excellent choice to play political fixer/ demi-gangster Enoch “Nucky” Thompson (based on real-life 1920s Jersey racketeer Enoch “Nucky” Johnson). His brand of charisma in this role may be unique; never before would I have thought to use “bland” as a compliment. But when he’s performing his duties as a glad-handing pol, that’s exactly him. Small in stature, nasal of voice, and lacking leading-man looks, Buscemi is deliberately nonthreatening as he presents the public face of graft-ridden Jersey politics for the common rube; Nucky kisses ass and babies with a rote discipline that quickly turns funny.
But Buscemi shifts from nice-guy political hack to Edward G. Robinson in the instant it takes to get out of earshot of the nice old ladies who lobbied to ban booze. The buggy eyes go from sympathy-soft to laser-focused, and the nasal voice takes on a razor-sharp tone that lets you know someone’s getting rubbed out tonight.
The writers have wisely given Nucky some sympathetic points, too. Though it’s just part of his job, Nucky seems to have affection for some of those people to whom he lends a hand. One of those is Margaret (Kelly Macdonald), a pretty young immigrant mother living in fear of an abusive, drunk husband. Another of Nucky’s human projects, James “Jimmy” Darmody (Michael Pitt), is a former college boy and Great War vet who is so obviously the Michael Corleone of this tale that you have to wonder if he’s a deliberate tribute to The Godfather. Young, handsome Darmody presents a smart commentary on the effects of war on the human psyche. As we learn, war changed him in a way that may be beneficial to Nucky in his criminal enterprise. Jimmy saw and did things in Germany that earned him accolades as a hero, but Jimmy knows what he really is: a murderer.
“I didn’t care anymore,” he tells Nucky. And neither do some of Darmody’s young-gun peers, including such real-life figures as Lucky Luciano (Vincent Piazza) and Al Capone (a pudgy, perfect Stephen Graham). But Boardwalk Empire doesn’t exist just to evoke classic films and history’s outlaws. From the looks of the pilot, it may very well turn out to be a classic, and, for a change, a show that actually lives up to expectations.