Don’t shoot the messenger, but when the 63rd Annual Primetime Emmy Awards come around next year, Mad Men fans are going to be sorely disappointed when Boardwalk Empire stops a fourth win for Outstanding Drama. While charming and commanding Don Draper is the king of advertising in the 60’s, entrepreneurial and motivated Nucky Thompson (played effortlessly by Steve Buscemi) is God over Atlantic City in the 20’s. In Martin Scorsese’s period drama series on HBO, the world of underground crime, prohibition of alcohol, racism, and the origins of several of history’s most prominent criminals are explored in a way never before seen on the big or small screen. Find out why it would be a capital crime to miss this amazing new series below!
Without revealing key plot points and spoiling the series for viewers, the first six episodes are riddled with bullets, sex, violence and the most in depth look into prohibition and the underground crime wave fighting against it. Though this is certainly Nucky Thompson’s show, the series gives time to the criminal upstarts and early work of such famed criminals as Al Capone and Charles “Lucky” Luciano (Vincent Piazza). Meanwhile, recently returned solider Jimmy Darmody (Michael Pitt) is struggling with post-tramautic stress while doing his best to provide for his family by working for Nucky and his crime syndicate (though he may be on the verge of moving too quickly into his own criminal endeavors). On the outside of Nucky’s territory, bosses like Arnold Rothstein (Michael Stuhlbarg) don’t seem to be too pleased with Nucky’s reign over Atlantic City and the way he does business.
But the way Nucky does business seems to be the least of his problems as the FBI, led by chief investigator Van Alden (Michael Shannon) is closing in on the covered illegal business dealings that fuel Nucky’s constant re-election as the town treasurer. Though what Nucky does may in fact be illegal, there’s something stopping him from being a full fledged gangster. Greater than his problem with the feds may be his constant recollection of an unknown tragedy in his past. Perhaps a family that he once had that has suddenly been given more prominence in his head by his encounter with the proper, conservative and wholly smart young Irish lady Margaret Schroeder (Kelly Macdonald) who seems vulnerable, but isn’t afraid to hold her own against even the most powerful men in town. She’s far removed from Nucky’s current fling, the ditsy, bitchy and seductive Luck (Paz de la Huerta) and seems to remind him of a time before his rise to power.
Anyone doubting Buscemi’s presence as a tough criminal mastermind is paying too much attention to his scrawny body type and charming demeanor and completely ignoring his previous work in films like Reservoir Dogs and Con-Air. The man is an intimidating force on screen and it’s not hard to understand why he’s risen to the power he holds over Atlantic City and all its businesses sending a percentage of their profits his way all the time. Though he’s not afraid to get his hands dirty (only when he has to), he’s all smiles as he has the eyes of Suffragettes (women advocates for their own voting rights) and the African American population as he panders to them charmingly for their votes.
However prominent Nucky’s story is in Boardwalk Empire, this story is driven by the amazing ensemble cast that brings all of the characters to life famously. Stephen Graham is pitch perfect and the loud, impulsive and violent Al Capone in one of his youngest iterations on screen. Meanwhile, Vincent Piazza plays the hot headed, but much less invasive “Lucky” Luciano who doesn’t seem to get along very well with Nucky. Michael Shannon is a strong presence as an intense man dedicated to the Lord and the FBI as he shifts his focus from Arnold Rothstein, played with great subtlety by Michale Stuhlbarg, to the bigger fish that is Nucky Thompson. The conflict which kicks off in the pilot (and launches Van Alden’s investigation) is set in motion by eager yet troubled Jimmy Darmody who takes a risky opportunity to make big leaps for himself and his family’s well-being. Darmody is brought to life by young Michael Pitt, an actor who evokes a style not unlike Leonardo DiCaprio, but with a little less gravitas.
Only so much can be said about the series story arcs within these first six episodes without going into spoiler territory, so let me just say that this world of underground crime in Atlantic City has substance, drama, romance and plenty of action for everyone. Audiences will love the way Capone gives a “statement” to a Chicago tribune reporter or the amazing monologue given by Chalky White, an African American man of crime played by Michael K. Williams who works wonders with short amounts of screentime as a supporting character who makes a brief appearance in the pilot, but becomes much more prominent as the series goes on. Perhaps my only complaint about the series progression is that some of Scorsese’s signature style is lost after the pilot. That’s not to say directors Timothy Van Patten, Jeremy Podeswa and Alan Taylor aren’t up to the task of continued quality on the series, but those who know what power Scorsese injected into the historical period drama in films like Gangs of New York know that it’s not easy to measure up to that kind of direction.
As far as the writing from Terence Winter, who knows all about crime from his days working on The Sopranos, knows how to utilize the ensemble nature of the story by developing his characters slowly, subtly and by assuming the audience actually has the smarts to figure things out on their own. He’s written excellent characters all moving through their own story in pursuit of the American dream, even if that means coming to terms with a nightmare (even if that means becoming one) every now and then. In a genre normally so full of cliches, Winter’s writing is perfect for Scorsese’s consistently fresh and realistic take on organized crime that is riveting and captivating 100% of the time.
THE FINAL WORD: In the story of organized crime, the only real despicable offense would be ignoring this amazing series from Martin Scorsese and Terence Winter who paint a gritty, dark and remarkably picture of Atlantic City in the 1920’s with a cast of characters who feed off of each other both in performance and story. The period drama rivals the attention to detail and stunning performances that have made Mad Men so successful. If you miss Boardwalk Empire, you’ll be sentenced to life in a prison without seeing one of the greatest television dramas to hit both HBO and the entire run of television programming.
Boardwalk Empire premieres Sunday, September 19 at 9/8c on HBO.