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TV Review: Martin Scorsese’s Riveting ‘Boardwalk Empire’ With Steve Buscemi

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CHICAGO – Is there any lingering doubt that we are in the golden age of television? If you need further proof of the remarkable breadth of the genre in 2010, look no further than HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire,” an amazing new dramatic series courtesy of one of cinema’s masters (Martin Scorsese) and one of television’s (“The Sopranos” veteran Terence Winter). With production values that put most feature films to shame, a depth of ensemble we’ve only seen a few times in the medium, and a storytelling ambition more common in award-winning fiction, “Boardwalk Empire” takes the sky-high expectations of this long-anticipated project and shatters them. It promises to be one of the most remarkable and addictive first seasons in the history of television.

HollywoodChicago.com Television Rating: 5.0/5.0
Television Rating: 5.0/5.0

With a density of ensemble that approaches “The Wire” and “Deadwood,” “Boardwalk Empire” refuses to hold your hand on a journey though Prohibition Era Atlantic City. Be prepared for storytelling that demands a lot of the viewer but gives even more in return. The first 70-minute episode of the series has built the most buzz due to being directed by Scorsese himself and reportedly featuring the largest budget in TV history but it’s interesting how clearly it is just the first act of a much-larger story. The premiere of “Boardwalk Empire” could play in theaters and garner several awards group nominations but it’s most jaw-dropping for not its solo accomplishments but how completely it hooks the viewer in for what promises to be epic storytelling on a weekly basis.

Boardwalk Empire
Boardwalk Empire
Photo credit: HBO

Steve Buscemi’s odd blend of malice and charm works perfectly for the actor in the lead role of Nucky Thompson, the town treasurer of Atlantic City at the inception of Prohibition. Already deeply entrenched in every aspect of boardwalk life, taking a cut from most businesses in town and “living like a Pharaoh” on the eighth floor of the Ritz-Carlton, Nucky recognized that Prohibition was not something to be seen as a hindrance but as a remarkable business opportunity. The premiere of “Boardwalk Empire” is essentially about Nucky realizing that he’s going from a slightly-corrupt politician to something much-more-complex as his town will be the port for Chicago and New York mobsters to receive their alcohol. The town is about to become the center of the criminal world and Nucky runs it all.

Boardwalk Empire
Boardwalk Empire
Photo credit: HBO

Of course, no King rules alone. Nucky’s staff includes his brother Elias (Shea Wigham), who happens to be Sheriff, and a fascinating young man named Jimmy (Michael Pitt). Nucky still sees Jimmy as the kid who gave up Princeton to go to War but he’s returned a very different person and has grown tired of still being treated like a child. He can kill the enemy but can’t drink and feels treated no differently than when he left. Jimmy’s search to find his role in the new world of Prohibition will clearly be a major driving force for the first season of “Boardwalk Empire.”

The young upstart sees opportunity when a number of the most-notable gangsters of the era pay a visit to Nucky to discuss how to funnel alcohol through his operation to theirs. Arnold Rothstein (Michael Stuhlbarg of “A Serious Man”) and Lucky Luciano (Vincent Piazza) represent the New York crime scene while a young man from Chicago appears to have the drive to turn this new era of crime to his advantage — Al Capone (Stephen Graham of “Public Enemies”). The premiere features a daring robbery that will set all of the entire criminal and federal world reeling and have a ripple effect through the season.

While Nucky and Jimmy deal with the shifting tides of power in the age of Prohibition, a federal agent (Michael Shannon) figures out the significance of Mr. Thompson and makes him his primary target. Meanwhile, a young woman (Kelly MacDonald) becomes the first casualty of this new era and an object of obsession for both the criminal and his nemesis. Both men merely want to protect her from an increasingly-dangerous society even if they fall on different sides of it.

Boardwalk Empire
Boardwalk Empire
Photo credit: HBO

If the Emmys were to give an award for casting, it should be named after the team that assembled “Boardwalk Empire.” It stars with Buscemi, but the entire ensemble feels perfectly chosen. Stuhlbarg brings an amazing brand of intellectual ferocity to a man who could fully explain to you why he’s going to kill you before he orders one of his men to do so. Graham perfectly captures the side of Capone that was completely insane. Shannon couldn’t be more perfectly-cast as a steel-jawed man of the law who clearly has his own demons. MacDonald gives the overall piece a gentle heart that it would have felt cold with otherwise. Any of the above would be deemed the best performance on most other programs and I haven’t even mentioned arguably the most-interesting on this show from the mega-talented Michael Pitt. In a way you usually only see on HBO, everyone in “Boardwalk Empire” finds a way to make an impact in just the first few episodes.

The reason for the ensemble force of “Boardwalk Empire” is in Terence Winter’s ridiculous level of talent when it comes to complex, multi-character storytelling. As he did on “The Sopranos,” he brings characters into the spotlight for enough time for them to make a thematic or plot impact and then rotates them back with the ease of our best feature filmmakers. Just as “The Sopranos” was about so much more than just a New Jersey mobster, “Boardwalk Empire” has layers of theme piled on to what is one of the most technically-remarkable television ventures you’ll ever see. The world of this show feels alive, vital, and dangerous in ways that so few programs have before. It has the dilligence of period recreation that you see on “Mad Men” and a level of production design that most 2010 films couldn’t touch.

To be fair, the premiere takes its time to find its rhythm. It’s interesting to watch Scorsese working without a concrete end-point, knowing that he is setting things up for future episodes instead of having to resolve them by the final reel. He clearly loves the space to play and sometimes gets a bit carried away with the old tunes and cultural references that even historians might have trouble understanding. But the most amazing thing about “Boardwalk Empire” is how completely it mesmerizes the viewer to the point where design and music choices merely fade into the tapestry. It may take about half an hour to hook you, but, once it does, “Boardwalk Empire” will be your most enjoyable TV vice of the new season.

‘Boardwalk Empire,’ which airs on HBO, stars Steve Buscemi, Michael Pitt, Kelly MacDonald, Michael Shannon, Stephen Graham, Shea Wigham, Vincent Piazza, Michael Stuhlbarg, and Dabney Coleman. The show was created and written by Terence Winter and the pilot was directed by Martin Scorsese. It premieres on Sunday, September 19th, 2010 at 8PM CST.

HollywoodChicago.com content director Brian Tallerico

By BRIAN TALLERICO
Content Director
HollywoodChicago.com
brian@hollywoodchicago.com

Anonymous's picture

----???

—-STILL MORE sen-to-death, done-to-death mafia
franchise slum mafia retreading from the once promising,
never spiritually fulfulling, TOO LONG RICH, Martin Scorsese.

As the entire country is being dissolved and dismantled
RED China style before our very eyes —-‘Boardwalk Empire’?
—-Keep a goin’
circle jerks n’ crystal meth —-just keep a goin’.

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