Fall preview: Boardwalk Empire
If you have been longing for a thrill following the strange, fading blackout in the finale of “The Sopranos,” look no further than “Boardwalk Empire.”
Terence Winter, the Emmy Award-winning writer for HBO’s lauded mafia drama, “The Sopranos,” teamed up with Academy Award-winning director Martin Scorsese (“The Departed”) to adapt the book by Nelson Johnson for HBO. The project immediately began to generate excitement, given the names attached, from both the network and the public.
The pilot episode of “Boardwalk Empire” takes place on Jan. 16, 1920. The Eighteenth Amendment has been passed and Prohibition has just begun to be enforced. In “America’s Playground” – Atlantic City, NJ – gangsters and crooked politicians are still buying and selling alcohol and serving it in their restaurants and casinos.
Leading them is corrupt city Treasurer Enoch “Nucky” Thompson, played by Steve Buscemi. Nucky’s power allows him to claim the Atlantic City boardwalk as his own.
Buscemi based his portrayal of Nucky on a real person: Nucky Johnson controlled Atlantic City during the roaring 20s and became wealthy by dealing with gangsters.
Standing by Nucky is his right-hand man, Jimmy Darmody (Michael Pitt), who has returned from World War I changed and violent. The ironically-named Chalky White (Michael Kenneth Williams) is the leader of the African-American community in Atlantic City, and he organizes deals with Nucky in exchange for votes.
Supporting gangsters such as Al Capone, Charlie “Lucky” Luciano and Arnold Rothstein make appearances, though in 1920, these famous mobsters are still learning the ropes from Nucky.
On the other side of the law is Federal Agent Van Alden (Michael Shannon), a straitlaced, puritanical lawman chasing after the bootleggers in Atlantic City. Kelly Macdonald plays Margaret Schroeder, a mysterious woman who comes to Nucky for help. Numerous showgirls and lounge singers fill out the rest of the cast.
The characters are placed into a beautiful, nostalgic setting. The feel of the times, according to Winter, was “Sex, alcohol, and jazz,” as opposed to “Sex, drugs, and rock and roll.”
According to Production Designer Bob Shaw, it took three months to build a set I that looked like the Atlantic City boardwalk did in 1920. You won’t see the Trump or the Tropicana, but quaint shops next to lavish hotel ballrooms filled with jazz swingers and swells. Scorsese and the producers give special attention to the look and feel of the set and costumes.
Buscemi’s performance seems to be the highlight of the series. As Nucky, he must be able to show greed, but also a depth: he does not want to get his hands dirty. As the lead, he has to carry the show on his shoulders. For Buscemi, who more often than not plays cameo characters in low-quality comedies, this is a stretch. Even so, his performances in past films such as “Fargo” and “Ghost World” show that he is a gifted actor. His moral performance may be the uplifting note in the series, which is sure to be violent.
Already, critics have praised “Boardwalk Empire.” The Washington Post wrote that the show “could not be any better.” It will be interesting to see how the show does with the public, who will undoubtedly compare it to the other show about New Jersey outlaws, “The Sopranos.” But on pure style and originality alone,”Boardwalk Empire” seems a success already.
The pilot episode of “Boardwalk Empire” airs on HBO on Sunday, Sept.19, at 9 p.m.
Erin Bell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.