Boardwalk Empire's pedigree speaks for itself. It also speaks to me. The Martin Scorsese-produced, Terrence Winters-created HBO drama, starring one of our finest actors (Steve Buscemi) as the Prohibition-era kingpin of Atlantic City, originally seemed poised to become the best show on television, not to mention the natural heir to The Sopranos. To further sweeten the deal, the $18 million pilot was directed by Scorsese and the boardwalk itself is populated by a fittingly diverse cast of characters portrayed by an array of talented actors—Kelly MacDonald, Stephen Graham, and four very talented Michaels (Pitt, Shannon, Stuhlbarg, and Kenneth Michaels). Even if the result hasn't fulfilled The Sopranos's legacy in quite the way one might have hoped (if it exists at all, that honor lies somewhere between this, Breaking Bad, and Mad Men), such a criterion is ultimately a distraction from the ways in which this show stands on its own. In truth, this has to do with what may be its biggest problem: Boardwalk Empire is exactly what you expect it to be. It has yet, at this early stage in the game, to transcend the expectations its background both imbues and burdens it with, even if a degree of excellence is part and parcel of those expectations.
The show is deliberate above all else. It treats everything from boardwalk chatter to its frequent murders so matter of factly that most scenes are as tense as they are detached. This levels the playing field, so to speak, piquing our interest and inviting wariness at the same time: Who's this character we've just been introduced to, and what's his angle? Everybody has one, of course. At one point late in the season, for instance, a little person hoping to get paid double for his performance as a leprechaun at an upcoming St. Patrick's Day party is immediately told by Buscemi's Enoch "Nucky" Thompson to skip to the "by the way"—in other words, cut the niceties and say what it is he wants. Nucky is neither physically imposing nor menacingly withdrawn; he's a pragmatist who keeps things running via backroom politicking and a chess player's foresight. His game is a cerebral, more often verbal one that allows (and depends on) lesser figures getting their hands dirty in his stead. What's most remarkable about this is that everyone is aware of it: Nucky is exactly the same person with his henchman as he is with the future president of the United States. He's just so adept at giving everyone what they want while getting even more in return that few seem to mind—at least to a point. It takes a while to fully understand that this is how the quasi-gangster runs things, a realization that makes anticipating his long game a key component to watching this show.
But this is far from a one-man show. Boardwalk Empire's cast is rounded out by a rogue's gallery of extremely well-acted crooks, feds, and murderers, from Michael Shannon's slowly-unhinging, self-flagellating evangelical federal agent to Kelly Macdonald's noble immigrant—this is the sort of show that reminds us why SAG has a "best ensemble" award. For my money, the most intriguing of these is one Richard Harrow (Jack Huston), a World War I vet who wears a mask over the half of his face that's no longer there. His frail, damaged voice is made all the more intriguing by how rarely he speaks, his considerable skill as a marksman strangely fitting his unassuming appearance. Richard is the sort of character who seems destined to have a short life on this show (I say this as someone yet to see the second season); it's difficult—and sometimes a losing effort—to flesh out someone so defined by tragedy and laconicism. Boardwalk Empire jumps between its many threads with ease, developing each incrementally so as to constantly whet the viewer's appetite without fully satisfying it.
Time and reflection are kind to the show, but this has to do with the fact that certain of its subplots aren't especially memorable. Once those strands have faded from memory, we're left with the tightly crafted show that Boardwalk Empire has no excuse not to be. This first season shows promise, but it's of the sort that's wont to go unfulfilled should the show fail to find its focus. It isn't Nucky, exactly; he's the conduit through which everything flows, but the show has thus far privileged breadth over depth in such a way that works well as a means of establishing drama but not necessarily advancing it. If I'm ultimately hard on the show, take that as a sign of the enormous potential which I look forward to it making good on in the seasons to come.
IMAGE / SOUND:
Always decent, if only sometimes exemplary. Distracting CGI aside, Boardwalk Empire is a beautifully shot show; this package does the visuals justice, but doesn't quite let them breathe as one might hope. It's never noticeably lacking, but sometimes unremarkable. The audio is more impressive, creating a robust sonic environment that makes the boardwalk—and, just as often, the casinos and brothels alongside it—feel as lively and decadent as it looks.
Six audio commentaries (featuring Terence Winters, Steve Buscemi, Kenneth Williams, and Michael Shannon, among others) are the standout here. Detailed as the show is, it's worthwhile to hear about the extensive, often historically accurate production process and insights into the characters, even if Martin Scorsese's voice is conspicuously absent from the conversation. Also valuable are a series of pieces running between 20 and 30 minutes on 1920s Atlantic City, speakeasies in New York and Chicago, and the making of Boardwalk Empire itself. There's never any doubt that the show's historical backdrop looms large on the creators' minds and that this is meant to be a detailed portrait of the chosen time and the place, something that almost makes one take pause at the jigsaw-like ways the characters fit into this period milieu.
Boardwalk Empire jumps between its many threads with ease, developing each incrementally so as to constantly whet the viewer's appetite without fully satisfying it.