“Boardwalk Empire” is HBO’s shot at regaining the title of “Channel with the Best Original Show” from AMC. Needless to say, they have a lot riding on taking the crown back; try watching “Hung” for premium channel prices when you can see “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad” episodes for free. Do you like that? Didn’t think so.
Scorcese answers the call by reverting back to a tried-and-true formula: the HBO crime drama. And to make sure that the noodles stick to the wall, they hire a first class director and get a real movie star to play the lead.
“Boardwalk Empire” tells the story of Nucky Thompson (Steve Buscemi), the de-facto leader of Atlantic City who also controls the flow of alcohol during prohibition. His position, the choice between playing the role of gangster and public servant, is the core conflict of the show. Thankfully, he seems to lean toward the side of the gangster. He is assisted in this process by his young cousin Jimmy Darmody (Michael Pitt), a veteran and a scholar seeking to make his mark on the world. The other key character is an ordinary woman involved in the temperance movement, Isabelle Jeunet (Anna Katarina). The most interesting character, slipped into the show in an understated way, is the young Al Capone (Stephen Graham), as fresh out of the Army, working as hired muscle and vaguely discontented with the leadership of the organized crime of the day. The show will be worth watching just to see how they develop his character into the icon he becomes.
Since only the first episode has aired, I can’t make any grand proclamations about whether this will be a flop or a great piece of television. What I can say is that there is tremendous potential in the show. It could very easily be the boost that HBO needs. It could also, if handled poorly, disappoint the fan who chooses to invest his time into the new show’s world and characters. My observations upon watching the first episode are that the plot is paced too quickly, the characters seem flat and there is no solid hook.
Not much about the characters seems relatable, unless you’re a battered wife, someone who turned down a Princeton education to fight a war, a murderous sociopath or the boss of a corrupt city. But we have all made the types of choices these characters have to make: do we stay in our relationship for the good of the children? Do we turn down personal advancement for a sense of higher duty? Will we do anything to make a quick buck? The answer to some of those questions is yes. To make the show work on more than a conceptual level, we need something that brings the characters down to earth. Something like Tony Soprano’s panic attacks or Walt White’s divorce. Nothing yet has been written in stone and if the season is paced well, my fears could be unfounded. I just hope that Martin Scorsese is aware of the differences between a great movie and a great television series.
The show’s world is dark, so full of grey and brown tones that even the sparkle of the boardwalk’s flashing lights and colorful paint can’t pull away from them. As you would expect from a combination of the Scorsese and HBO, the cinematography and lighting are beautiful. There is a look the show has created for itself and it pulls you into the setting wonderfully, it’s more cinematic than anything else on television today.
The supporting cast is very good, and while there are a few fresh faces there are also some HBO regulars, such as Michael K. Williams, known as Omar from “The Wire.” The show is very watchable, but some viewers might find it to be paced too slowly for them. I say wait. Sit down. Enjoy the time you spend watching the screen. I think HBO might have a hit on their hands. This could easily end up being the most important show on TV this fall.