‘Boardwalk Empire’ impeccably depicts Atlantic City in the 1920s
Wed, Sep 15, 2010 (5:20 p.m.)
- Boardwalk Empire
- HBO, Sundays, 9 p.m.
There’s a certain expectation of epicness from HBO dramas, and Boardwalk Empire has the chance to be the most epic yet. The sprawling, lavish series about gangsters in Atlantic City during Prohibition starts out slowly but over time reveals an extensive world of criminals and their associates, all of whom are taking advantage of the strange new status quo that makes alcohol illegal. They’re tied together by Nucky Thompson (Steve Buscemi), the county treasurer and the boss of the local criminal operation, a mix of hardened crook and cynically glad-handing politician, and a slightly different breed of gangster than we’re used to seeing on TV.
It’s a little jarring to see the nebbishy Buscemi as a powerful, dangerous man who’s irresistible to women, but he plays things with a nice understatement, and fits in well with the genteel yet brutal tone of the show. The period detail is impeccable, and while Boardwalk is primarily about the mechanics of organized crime and its toll in both mortality and morality, it’s also a handy history lesson, with stark illustrations of the sexual and racial politics of the 1920s. This is a time often romanticized for its freewheeling partying attitudes, but Boardwalk carefully details the prices often paid for those carefree celebrations.
Buscemi is only one part of a wonderfully impressive ensemble, including possibly the highest-ever concentration of great actors named Michael (Michael Pitt, Michael Shannon, A Serious Man’s Michael Stuhlbarg, The Wire’s Michael Kenneth Williams). Perhaps not surprisingly, the show stumbles most in its depiction of female characters, who are pretty much all either whores or scolds, and Kelly Macdonald’s dour widow often drags down the characters around her. Even so, Boardwalk has all the potential to be another great HBO epic.