It’s a mistake, albeit an easy one, to compare Boardwalk Empire to The Sopranos; writer/creator Terence Winter served as a writer for that show, and HBO’s latest drama also revolves around New Jersey gangsters. But Boardwalk Empire, a period piece set in Prohibition-era Atlantic City, aims to be less about violent crime and more about political manipulation. Even the main character, New Jersey Treasurer Enoch “Nucky” Thompson (Steve Buscemi), is described as “half a gangster,” and the show works best when focusing on his softer side. The titular boardwalk is hardly an uncivilized frontier, but it’s every bit as muddy—ethically, at least—as Deadwood.
Jimmy (Michael Pitt, who manages to not be a poor-man’s Leonardo DiCaprio) is a Princeton-educated man just back from the Great War, but he’s too impatient to wait for his mentor, Nucky, to put his skills to good use, so he hijacks a shipment of liquor. He wants a piece of the pie, as do the high-pitched and fidgety bootlegger Mickey Doyle (Paul Sparks) and the all-business Chalky White (Michael Kenneth Williams), who provides Nucky with a steady stream of Atlantic City’s African-American votes. Even those without a criminal background find themselves skirting the law. At first, Margaret (Kelly Macdonald) just wants honest work for her husband, but her expressions reveal that she’s looking to be noticed by the deep-pocketed Nucky too—and not just because she wants to support her two children. It doesn’t take very long for Agent Van Alden (a perfectly cast Michael Shannon, who carries a much-needed gravity) to break a few laws in his attempt to bring down Nucky’s corrupt empire—oh, and perhaps to get Margaret for himself. (In one episode, he very creepily sniffs a stolen ribbon of hers; much later, he flagellates himself after looking at her requisitioned immigration file.)
That’s only a fraction of the subplots presented in the first half dozen episodes of Boardwalk Empire; the show is simply too big, especially once Jimmy sets out to work in Chicago. In one episode, Nucky rousts the KKK to appease Chalky; in the next, he wines and dines two senators; in another, he throws a banquet for St. Patrick’s Day. Who knows if we’ll ever see any of these characters again? Politically, there’s a lot of glad-handing to be done, but logically, it makes the drama too diffuse. The plots that Boardwalk Empire does settle on are too complex for a single episode, and while this style of drawn-out, season-long storytelling can work (see Treme), the writers don’t establish enough tension up front to carry the back-heavy narrative.
It’s not until the fifth episode, “Nights in Ballygan,” that we start seeing the friction between Margaret and Nucky’s wild and jealous girlfriend, Lucy (Paz de la Huerta), or the dissatisfaction Nucky’s brother, corrupt Sheriff Elias (Shea Whigham), has with being eternally eclipsed. And by that point, the show has dumped other plots entirely—shifting from Jimmy’s fallings out with his girlfriend, Angela (Aleksa Palladino), and focusing instead on his mother, Gillian (Gretchen Mol), who is still young enough to work as a showgirl and who has ties—again, as of yet unrevealed—to Nucky. Because we’re only given hints of the full picture, things like Gillian’s relationship with “Lucky” Luciano (Vincent Piazza), a tough who has been sent to kill Jimmy, seem more convenient (a way to put two characters into one plotline) than relevant.
For all the talk about the expense of recreating the boardwalk for the show, Atlantic City isn’t a character the way it could or should be; most of the action takes place in back alleys and hotel rooms. Moreover, with the exception of one nifty parallel drawn from the big Princess Anastasia hoax (in which Margaret realizes that people like her don’t suddenly wake up as princesses), the show doesn’t really use its setting to do much—certainly not in the way that Mad Men (written by another Sopranos alum) does. Yes, there’s the Women’s Temperance League, and yes, the women are often reduced to arm-candy who couldn’t possibly know anything about the League of Nations, but for the time being, these issues have been pushed to the side. Instead, Boardwalk Empire indulges little time-capsule jokes for the modern audience: For instance, isn’t it funny that men refer to blowjobs as “the French way,” and that Nucky’s never heard the term “motherfucker”?
At one point, Jimmy tells his more temperamental comrade, a young Al Capone (Stephen Graham), that you don’t seize territory all at once: You get people to concede a little piece, and then you slowly take over more and more. But Boardwalk Empire wants it all, immediately, and by episode six, it’s still reaching outward rather than looking inward. We get plenty of clever but empty anecdotes, like the murder of a billiard ball-swallowing man and the one-note appeal of a piano-playing hen) but little organic action, and even less dramatic surprise. The show also repeats itself: As if we don’t understand that Nucky is controlling, he flips out on the people who will be catering his “surprise” party; later, he tells a senator, “I do expect everything.” It’s a waste of Buscemi’s oily expressiveness to make his character so straightforward.
Still, there’s enough simmering through these first six episodes to whet one’s appetite for the next six. The Chicago sequences with Jimmy and Capone at first seem like a cheap excuse for gratuitous violence, but once the two settle into an uneasy alliance working for Johnny Torino (Greg Antonacci), the show gives them both some emotional baggage: Jimmy’s whorehouse fling with a girl named Pearl has depressed him and turned him to opium, and it turns out that Capone’s home life (he has a deaf son) explains quite a lot of his anger. Boardwalk Empire is the sort of show that makes you want to take a short walk down a long pier, not the other way around. That is, as frustrating as it may be to get anywhere, there’s at least a destination in sight.