[09/17/10 - 11:40 AM]
The Futon's First Look: "Boardwalk Empire" (HBO)
By Brian Ford Sullivan (TFC)

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(Sundays at 9:00/8:00c beginning September 19)

The network's description: "Set in 1920 at the dawn of Prohibition, this new series chronicles the life and times of "Nucky" Thompson, the undisputed leader of Atlantic City, who was equal parts politician and gangster. Steve Buscemi stars as Thompson; other cast members include Michael Pitt, Kelly Macdonald, Michael Shannon, Dabney Coleman, Shea Whigham, Anthony Laciura, Stephen Graham, Aleksa Palladino, Michael Stuhlbarg, Vincent Piazza, Paz de la Huerta, Paul Sparks, Michael Kenneth Williams and Gretchen Mol. The series was created by Terence Winter ("The Sopranos"), who also serves as executive producer with Martin Scorsese (who directed the first episode), Stephen Levinson, Mark Wahlberg and Tim Van Patten. The season kicks off Sept. 19."

What did they leave out? Gretchen Mol and Michael Kenneth Williams have blink-and-you'll-miss appearances in the pilot, but go on to have larger roles as the series progresses.

The plot in a nutshell: On the eve of Prohibition, Atlantic City treasurer Enoch "Nucky" Thompson (Steve Buscemi) finds himself about to be anointed the king of the "Boardwalk Empire." In public, he's beloved by the locals for his staunch support of the forthcoming federal mandate; while in private, he's at the nexus of the underworld's efforts to keep the alcohol flowing. And his empire is about to get even bigger so to speak: (real life) mobsters Arnold Rothstein (Michael Stuhlbarg), "Big Jim" Colosimo (Frank Crudele) and "Lucky" Luciano (Vincent Piazza) - representing interests in New York and Chicago - have just arrived, all eager to be a part of Nucky's operation.

But despite a friendly start, Rothstein and Luciano quickly begin to walk over Nucky and his interests. Even worse, the Feds - despite their Keystone Kops pedigree - are more than eager to take Nucky down. Thankfully Elias (Shea Whigham), Nucky's brother/the town's sheriff, along with Jimmy (Michael Pitt), Nucky's driver/protege, have his back. And, after a chance meeting with Al Capone (Stephen Graham), the seeds are planted to take back what's rightfully Nucky's - whether he wants it or not. It's best not to say much more than that as half the proposed fun is in the plot twists.

What works/What doesn't: The show in general is a mixed bag: just as many elements click as those that don't. In terms of the pilot, its most obvious weakness is a very slow opening 35-minutes, which give way to a slightly more compelling latter 35. If anything, "Empire" comes out of the gate overly self-indulgent - you'll need more than one hand to count the number of times Nucky's Steve Buscemi simply peers in from a window or doorway, emoting at whatever fond or painful memory said image is conjuring up. Not helping is surprisingly how little gravitas Buscemi has here: he comes across more as a sad sack victim than the self-made mogul we're told he is.

The surrounding ensemble picks up some of the slack, particularly Pitt as the young-but-world-wearing Jimmy, who gave up a bright future to go fight in WWI, only to return haunted by the things he's done and convinced he's going to hell. His relationship with Nucky is by far the show's strongest as his father figure is more than a little disappointed he chose the war over his family. On that same note, Stuhlbarg's Rothstein is amusingly full of himself, always smiling with a cat-that-ate-the-canary grin, while Michael Shannon's Van Alden, the Fed tasked with cleaning up Atlantic City, wonderfully deadpans his way through the incompetence of his peers.

They're not all winners though: Kelly Macdonald's Margaret - an abused mother of two (with one on the way) whom Nucky takes a liking to - comes across as both obvious cipher and heavy-handed cliche; while more than a few times the lack of some strong personalities leads to a regular dose of confusing-number-of-similarly-looking-pale-white-guys-itis. Overall, there's a slickness to the filmmaking that at least helps smooth out some of the rough edges. There's plenty of money on the screen too: countless extras, lovely CGI-ed exteriors and expert costuming do an amazing job of setting time and place. And while undoubtedly not completely historically accurate, there's a few nicely incorporated elements (most notably the suffrage movement's ties to Prohibition) that will undoubtedly provide some eye-opening context for that era.

The bottom line: Am I rushing to watch this show week to week? Probably not, especially with the fall season getting underway. But can I appreciate there's the potential for greatness in here? Most definitely. Hopefully the latter ramps up to compensate for the former.

  [september 2010]  


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