Boardwalk Empire: The Priciest Show On Earth 

HBO has played its ace with Boardwalk Empire, the cable network's not-so-subtle reminder that it invented The Critically Acclaimed Original Dramatic Series (are you listening, AMC?). With a $30-million price tag on the pilot alone (including a $10 million promotional campaign), Sunday night's premiere episode is now the most expensive in television history. Playing up Martin Scorsese's involvement (who directed only the pilot, but is one of the show's Executive Producers) the series announced itself as the television event of the year by the time three episodes had been shot. But a 9pm time slot—allowing it to sidestep competition with Mad Men—hints at a crack in its expensive veneer, as do the unrelenting visual references to its pitch perfect recreation of a post-WWI Jersey shore; which is heavy handed enough to invite suspicion that we are being distracted from a weak script. So far, Boardwalk Empire is an uneasy cocktail of pageantry and trepidation; but one that promises to go down easier with each subsequent round.

Much has been made of the boardwalk replica, which was designed from a close study of period photographs (the original Atlantic City boardwalk is all but long gone) and built over three months on the bedraggled Greenpoint waterfront. While the storefronts are painstakingly accurate, three-dimensional constructions, the multi-story background buildings and the Atlantic Ocean are digital creations. The casually discerning eye can—quite literally—see where the actual set ends and the CGI begins; but it's hard to say if this is a fault of the production design or the anachronism of a digitally enhanced era decades older than the technology used to recreate it.

We would expect a television series about the early years of American organized crime to be concerned with dark corners and hidden underbellies. While Boardwalk Empire delivers the requisite dirty dealings in smoke-filled dens, it also turns an eye towards Prohibition-era Atlantic City's appetite for bold (and often grotesque) spectacle. Premature babies with uncertain futures are entertainment at a storefront 'Infant Incubator Exhibit'; a beautiful young woman's corpse is splayed indiscreetly for unwitting—but not unnerved—spectators at a funeral parlor; crowds gather at a pier to ogle a fisherman's fresh haul, still floundering for last gasps. Champagne corks burst out in defiance at the stroke of midnight on Prohibition eve; a butler habitually enters the lead character's boudoir, compromising dress or positions be damned. Historically accurate or not, Boardwalk Empire draws a brazen, unflappable seaside community that gorges itself on the unseemly and the macabre. What this means for the protracted bloodbath to come is not entirely clear, but is clearly significant.

The pilot clocks an impressive body count for 70 minutes of relatively slow-moving establishing narrative. I counted seven unnatural deaths—including a late-term miscarriage and a trademark gangster brain-splatter, complete with accompanying Italian opera. The show's creators are far too experienced and media-savvy not to guess where critics might spot flaws, which lends all the more curious and amusing certain lines in the script (e.g. "Never let the truth get in the way of a good story") that seem to exist only for the ease of dropping them into a lede.

We are introduced to myriad characters—some real, some fictionalized, and a few who are somewhere in between—but we don't get to know any one of them very well. The cadaverous Steve Buscemi is an appropriate, if obvious, choice for the lead character of Nucky Thompson, a variation on Nucky Johnson, an infamous Atlantic City politician and racketeer. Buscemi's familiar yet otherworldly pallor and hard-won leading man status permit him an easy blend into Terence Winter's (The Sopranos) pre-mafia seascape. It was a pleasure to see the always excellent Michael Pitt as well as A Serious Man's Michael Stulbarg in critical supporting roles: Pitt as Nucky's protege, Jimmy, and Stulbarg as Arnold Rothstein. The daft and extraneous Paz de la Huerta is a foil to Kelly Macdonald's (No Country for Old Men) restrained and uber-sympathetic Margaret.

While the de la Huerta vs. Macdonald storyline treads on dangerous, canned-caricature territory, HBO knows better, and will surely give at least one of them more dimension (can you guess who?). The show opens at a meeting of the Women's Temperance League, where Nucky gives a (possibly) fictionalized account of his own suffering at the hands of an alcoholic father; the final scene is accompanied by the little-known parlor song "I Never Knew I Had a Wonderful Wife (Until the Town Went Dry)." It seems likely, then, that Boardwalk Empire plans to address the fertile but under-explored relationship between liquor legislation and gender politics (Prohibition and women's suffrage closely overlapped)—which is one of a several good reasons to stick with Boardwalk Empire for a few more episodes.


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