Television review: ‘Boardwalk Empire’

The participation of Martin Scorsese as an executive producer and the director of its pilot episode would make HBO’s big new “Boardwalk Empire” — which premieres Sunday — an event, regardless of whether it were any good. (As it happens, it is good, though perhaps not great; cable shows make their meaning known slowly, and even the six episodes I’ve seen seem too few to know.) Scorsese is not the first famous director of Filmland to have worked on the small screen, but among his generation he is the weightiest, and the pairing of the maker of “Goodfellas” and “Casino” with a writer from “The Sopranos” — Terence Winter, that series’ busiest writer after its creator, David Chase — would seem as natural as that of spaghetti and meatballs.

The story opens in 1920, literally on the eve of Prohibition, as Atlantic City treasurer and political kingpin Enoch “Nucky” Thompson, played by Steve Buscemi (Irish for the occasion), lays out his plan for keeping his city as wet as an unprintable metaphor while the country goes officially dry. Atlantic City was the Las Vegas of its time, and this is in many respects the origin story of the shadow world that both Scorsese and Winter have already devoted much energy to exploring. Thompson is based on the real-life Enoch Johnson, the name change perhaps indicating that — in spite of the presence of such gangland household names as Lucky Luciano (Vincent Piazza), Al Capone ( Stephen Graham) and Arnold Rothstein (Michael Stuhlbarg) — this is not to be taken as docudrama but as historical fantasia, a meditation on big characters in changing times.

There’s no question that this is one of the most interesting and accomplished shows of the new season, though it’s also true that there is not much competition this year. It’s not the greatest thing since sliced bread but rather a well-made sort of sliced bread, a thing you have had before but prepared with quality ingredients by bakers who know their business. If it doesn’t seem as fresh or new or gripping as the Scorsese-Winter brand might suggest, it’s in part because it’s rooted not only in the conventions and obsessions of the director’s own canon but in a decade’s worth of “Sopranos"-influenced cable television as well.

As in Scorsese’s other historical dramas, there is a contradictory impulse to both locate the domestic within the legendary and make myth from the course of human events. As re-created physically and digitally, the Atlantic City Boardwalk of 1920 is something both less and more than real — marvelously suggestive and patently artificial. Winter and his writing staff scrupulously — a little too scrupulously at times — signpost the era with references to vacuum cleaners and machine guns, Dale Carnegie and Sinclair Lewis, the League of Nations and the Ku Klux Klan. And as on “Deadwood” and " Mad Men,” there is an archeological approach to language. Speech does matter here: We know that abused baker’s wife Margaret Schroeder (Kelly MacDonald) is smarter than her station by her consistently proper use of “whom,” and gangster-as-Rotarian Nucky, whose formal way of talking sets him apart from the younger thugs coming up around him, is also a stickler for grammar. It’s possibly not the least of what draws those characters together.


As its creator and show-runner, the show more properly belongs to Winter than to Scorsese, but the director’s symphonic style is unmistakably evident in the pilot, which plays to his strengths — the re-creation of place, the contrapuntal choreography of crowds, passages of suspense and moments of intensity — and scants the more delicate emotional matter that dominates later episodes (many directed by “Sopranos” vets, clearly working with shorter shooting schedules and smaller budgets). The oblique angles, fast dollies into close-up, extended tracking shots; a besotted attention to color; the music-nerd soundtrack — even if you decide not to follow the series, it’s worth your while to watch this opening salvo.

As is everywhere the case in modern cable drama, morally compromised antiheroes are kept relatively attractive by making sure there’s always someone worse around. We root for Nucky’s difficult protégé Jimmy Darmody ( Michael Pitt) as opposed to, say, Jimmy’s new friend, young Al Capone, because he’s more sensitive and intelligent, not because he’s any less criminal or deadly. We side with Nucky himself, who is not above having someone killed, because he would rather not have to, and because he misses his late wife and takes people as they come. Just so, the federal agent out to bring him down ( Michael Shannon) is presented, unfortunately, as a high-strung religious nut, which is supposed to make him seem more complex but just makes him seem more of a cliché.

There’s another story here, and it’s one that cable, with its surplus of damaged males, tells over and over: Men (selfish, short-sighted, perpetually adolescent) are bad news for women. Just as in “Mad Men” or " Breaking Bad,” the female characters emerge as stronger and more sympathetic, and women’s suffrage is indeed a recurring theme here, loudly stated. At the same time, I should not have to point out to anyone who subscribes to HBO, there are a lot of naked women around. In the science of premium cable this is what’s called “giving them their money’s worth.” Nucky would doubtless see no contradiction.