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Reviewed by Will Harris
ertain names are so inextricably linked to the silver screen that the mere idea of seeing what they can do with the medium of television is enough to make the project an instant must-see. Such was the case when it was announced that Martin Scorsese would be helming the first episode of HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire.”
Although the series, which revolves around the introduction of Prohibition to the United States and, more specifically, the effects that it had on Atlantic City, New Jersey, was certainly made intriguing to many by Scorsese’s involvement, there’s little question that it would have caught the eye of many viewers even without his presence. In addition to executive producer Terence Winter’s long history behind the scenes of “The Sopranos,” the cast includes a wide variety of famous faces and up-and-coming actors, led by the instantly-recognizable Steve Buscemi. It may have caused some to do a double-take at the idea of Buscemi serving as the frontman for “Boardwalk Empire,” given that – let’s be honest – he doesn’t exactly have a look that screams “leading man,” but his gifts as an actor are unquestioned, and he takes the role of Enoch “Nucky” Thompson, mayor of Atlantic City, and is able to impart Nucky with considerable emotional complexity.
“Boardwalk Empire” kicks off on the eve of Prohibition, and it doesn’t take long to realize that the fact that the U.S. Government has declared a moratorium on alcohol has served as a source of creative inspiration for the criminal element... and that includes the portion within the government itself. Nucky perpetually plays as many sides of the fence as he possibly can, saying whatever’s required to keep his constituents happy while brokering deals with mobsters in various territories to keep the flow of alcohol coming in despite the government’s best efforts to stop him. Beyond his business, Nucky also develops a fondness for Margaret Schroeder (Kelly Macdonald), who begins the season trapped in a marriage with an awful man and ends it in a relationship with Nucky. The specific reasons for this transition needn’t be revealed here, lest there are still some readers who haven’t investigated the series yet, but suffice it to say that it’s a long road which serves to reveal much about both parties, not only to the viewers but also the characters themselves. Margaret is a smart, strong woman whose independence is emerging simultaneous to women earning the right to vote, whereas Nucky finally learns to open up to someone for the first time since losing his wife several years earlier.
Mind you, Margaret isn’t Nucky’s only relationship. Hell, she’s not even the only one you could really describe as his significant other. (God bless Paz de la Huerta, who spends at least half of her time as Nucky’s lover, Lucy Danzinger, naked and/or in the throes of ecstasy.) He’s also part of two surrogate father/son relationships in the series, playing the father role with Jimmy Darmody (Michael Pitt), who’s come back from World War I a changed man, and serving as the son when he’s around the Commodore (Dabney Coleman). There’s a bit of irony involved in this trifecta of characters, but let’s not delve into that too deeply, either. (Seriously, we don’t want to be getting too spoiler-ific.) Let’s just say that Jimmy definitely proves to be as deep a character as Nucky himself, having returned from World War I a changed man, a transformation which adversely affects his marriage to Angela (Aleksa Paladino) and finds him refusing to acquiesce quite as quickly to Nucky’s demands.
Interacting with most of the characters in one capacity or another is Agent Nelson Van Alden, played with frightening intensity by Michael Shannon. Van Alden is out to stop the illegal alcohol distribution, originally keeping things strictly by the book, but he’s another character who evolves considerably by season’s end, turning into a disturbing individual whose actions may well be more shocking than those of the criminals he’s attempting to stop.
There are, of course, countless other characters beyond the ones cited above, including looks into the career development of the young Al Capone (Stephen Graham); an African-American crime lord named Chalky White (Michael Kenneth Williams) who’s built a reputation that’s far more impressive than someone of his race generally had in that era; and Richard Harrow (Jack Huston), who, like Jimmy, fought his way through WWI, only to return with half his face blown off yet still in possession of impeccable sniper skills.
“Boardwalk Empire” is a visual spectacle which inspires awe with each episode, but it would be untrue to suggest that it moves along at a speedy space. It’s a bit slow going as the season begins, unraveling the story in a studied manner and introducing fascinating characters and then letting them sit idly by for a bit. As things progress, however, the intricacy of the storylines pays off for those who are willing to stick it out and follow along.
Special Features: The set is sprinkled through its five discs with commentaries from stars and creators, including Winter, Buscemi, Shannon and others, and there are also featurettes which take viewers behind the scenes and into the process of putting together the series and recreating 1920s Atlantic City. (There’s CGI, of course, but the size of the boardwalk set is staggering.) The best of the bunch, however, is the modern-day tour of Atlantic City and New York City and the remaining speakeasies from the era, revealing the secret methodology of sneaking in liquor and sneaking out patrons before the law arrived.