Premiers September 19, 2010 on HBO
On The Set
Synopsis: From Terence Winter, the Emmy Award winning writer of 'The Sopranos' and Academy Award winning director Martin Scorsese comes a new HBO Original Series.
Boardwalk Empire is set in Atlantic City, New Jersey during the Prohibition era. The show is adapted from Nelson Johnson's book, Boardwalk Empire: The Birth, High Times, and Corruption of Atlantic City by Emmy award-winning screenwriter and producer Terence Winter of The Sopranos. The show is being executive produced by Martin Scorsese who also directed the first episode.
The series will detail the life and exploits of Nucky Thompson who is based on the real life person Enoch "Nucky" Johnson, the "boss" of the Republican political machine that controlled Atlantic City from 1911 to 1941. The amazing cast includes Steve Buscemi, Gretchen Mol, Michael Shannon, Michael Pitt, Michael K. Williams and Dabney Coleman.
"Boardwalk Empire" (HBO, Sept. 19): I had hoped to get to a movie or two like I usually do when I'm out at TCA, but a good chunk of my free time was devoted to watching the six hours of this period gangster drama about Atlantic City at the dawn of Prohibition. With a pilot directed by Martin Scorsese (and later episodes directed in very Scorsese-like fashion by Tim Van Patten and others), lead writing by Terry Winter (David Chase's right-hand man on "The Sopranos") and an incredible cast including Steve Buscemi, Kelly MacDonald, Michael Shannon, Michael Pitt and Michael K. Williams, "Boardwalk Empire" is clearly the best new show of the season, maybe the best new show I've seen in several seasons (and certainly stronger out of the gate than some of my other recent favorites like "Breaking Bad" and "Sons of Anarchy"), and well worth not having seen "Inception" yet.
First Look: Why you gotta watch ‘Boardwalk Empire’
I may be in love. It's tough to say yet. "Boardwalk Empire" and I have only known each other for six episodes. You have to be cautious nowadays about giving yourself over to a serialized drama, especially one as ambitious as this. There are so many ways your relationship with a TV drama can all fall apart.
I should start at the beginning. You hear HBO is doing its second New Jersey organized crime series and your ears go up. Then you hear it's set in the 1920s, Atlantic City, during Prohibition, and Martin Scorsese is producing the series and directing the pilot. You have this vision in your mind what that TV show could ideally be.
"Boardwalk Empire" is remarkably close to what you imagined.
And its success comes despite a seemingly a crucial weakness.
Steve Buscemi, as the main character, Enoch "Nucky" Thompson, a Boardwalk crime kingpin, is a bit … off. It's as if he's reading lines that were originally written for another actor, somebody of more earthy gravitas.
There's another issue too. The Boardwalk itself is a sprawling set constructed with shops on one side, and a green screen on the other (where the ocean is digitally added). There's a dreamy, unreal, strolling-around-the-deck-of-1999's-"Titanic" quality to these scenes.
So wait, you say: Both the main character AND the Boardwalk set are less-than convincing? How can this show be any good?
Because everything else in "Boardwalk Empire" is terrific. And there's a whole lot of "everything else."
The cast is sprawling. Pretty much every character works. There's little about "Boardwalk" that feels like a TV show. It's rich and cinematic (many shots remind you of "The Godfather" trilogy), heightened with unique period music. There's so much more to the show than Nucky and the Boardwalk, particularly after the first episode (directed nicely by Scorsese, his camera prowling around, though his style stays out of the way of the story). It's almost like the network watched the pilot, then decided to expand the show's scope so Buscemi didn't have to carry the whole production himself.
The scripts are well researched, perhaps past the point of showing off. The research is utilized in interesting ways -- one detail will make you feel nostalgic, another will make you laugh, and still another will leave you horrified (such as a woman using Lysol as a contraceptive after sex).
Oh, and did you know that by the fourth episode, half the show takes place in Chicago? And that the Chicago storyline is, if anything, more compelling than the action in Atlantic City? (It's taking me every ounce of my anti-spoiler convictions not to say more about this subject ... though I suspect everybody will know all about it by the time the show debuts).
Period pieces have a tough time drawing audiences. "Rome," "Deadwood," "Mad Men." As good as they were/are, attracting big numbers is a challenge. "Boardwalk Empire" might be able to break through. Not only is this an excellent organized crime drama, but the female characters are diverse and well done. That's a crucial element for any TV show to draw a large rating, and a rare quality in this particular genre (usually you have the one feisty heroine and an assortment of mob floozies … here, even a mobster's squeeze who's portrayed as colossally stupid, gorgeous, spoiled and cruel manages to generate unexpected empathy).