Even in the dramatic rise of American television there are some standout examples of the very highest quality, when we see the particular alignment of a strong and creative producer, an actor perfect for the leading role and the creation of a seductive and intriguing world. Boardwalk Empire is one such show, and one of the finest programmes on HBO, or any other channel at the moment.
It is to America’s past we turn to again for our weekly fix, following the recently cancelled Pan Am and with Mad Man still going strong, something is clearly striking a chord with the television audience, meaing that looking back is the way forward. Sopranos man Terence Winter has taken the book Boardwalk Empire: The Birth, High Times, and Corruption of Atlantic City by Nelson Johnson and created a sprawling epic set in the America of the 1920s, facing an uncertain future, and doing so in style. The world is changing and those in power are fighting to keep it that way.
The grand scope of the series is evident from its first moments as Scorsese’s pilot episode offers a magisterial parade of bent cops sloshing down the last seconds of legal drinking and the streetwise kids eager to catch the eye of the gang bosses eating at the best tables while the various creatures of the criminal labyrinth roam around looking for any advantage to take. The boardwalk itself is a stunning piece of work, though at times it looks a little too detailed and too deliberate (the behind the scenes documentary is a jaw dropping experience, even in these days of routine CGI enhancement).
The characters Winter has formulated seduce you into a multi-layered narrative with stories crossing in and out of each other, informing some, giving context and power to others. There’s not a moment wasted which is a true delight as there’s nothing which drags a show down more than episodes focusing on needless character background, or an hour spent sniffing around the motives of a secondary character. It feels as if we’ve stumbled into this world which is so well rendered and the characters so marvellously drawn that it’s easy to fall for the show.
Steve Buscemi has never been better with the whole boardwalk revolving around his magnificent Enoch ‘Nucky’ Thompson, he always brings some interesting to every role but in his performance as the quiet king of the boardwalk he is given the chance to create a character of real depth and is a magnetic presence. He is the man around which the other character orbit, and he has a fine co-star with Kelly MacDonald’s turn as the broken and brave Margaret. Michael Shannon contains a torrent of rage and confusion under the mask of righteousness and e brings a menace and complexity to a role that could have easily fallen under the wheels of the obvious.
With only twelve episodes the first season of Boardwalk Empire feels a lot longer, thanks in part to a 50+ minute running time, but also because the sheer amount of narrative and character developement packed in there means there is a tangible sense of immersing oneself into the world. Several times the credits began and I felt myself readjusting to the twenty-first century.
It’s one of the finest shows on the box at the moment, deep and fearless and with a tight grip on the stories which are playing out. Season Two has already played in the States and here on Sky and I’m told very good things. If anything I want to see more of Steven Graham’s exceptional take on Al Capone, but honestly I’d be happy to spend a little longer just killing time on the boardwalk.
Boardwalk Empire Season 1 is out on DVD and Blu-ray now. It’s your next TV addiction, and well worth every penny.