Boardwalk Empire is the latest show for HBO to premiere and to be honest, it just did not do it for me. There were definitely sparks of brilliance at times, but the key word there is sparks. The show was never consistently good, even the action, climatic scenes had points where the viewer was asking themselves, "Why show this?" Boardwalk Empire is an all too familiar show about it, it is like Mad Men, with violence thrown in. The problem though? Steve Buscemi is not Jon Hamm, and writer Terence Winter is not Matt Weiner. I am on the fence about watching this show again. While there were definitely some parts I liked, for a pilot that cost 19 million to make, it did not do a good job of sucking me in.
The critics have been falling all over themselves to praise this show, but on the strength of the first episode alone I'm rather confused as to why. The production design is impeccable but lacks personality and allure. All of the characters are archetypes with nothing unique or outstanding to recommend them against similar characters in better productions. Scorsese's direction was much like his other work over the past decade or so: a decent second rate impersonation of Martin Scorsese. The script is expertly built but humorless and uninspiring. The "conflicted" protagonist is only mildly interesting and by the end of the episode I didn't care all that much to see what happens to him next. Even as a history lesson it's only lukewarm. The scene where they explain how the bootlegged whiskey is diluted and altered to maximize profits is interesting, but other than that it's like "The Tudors" of the Prohibition era - gratuitous sleaze and lots of winking affectation every time a famous historical figure pops on screen (like the tendentious way the other driver introduces himself to Jimmy Darmody as "Al Capone" at the end of their conversation, as if it's the punchline the audience was being set up for). The best I can say about this first episode is that it is handsomely produced with decent entertainment value; definitely not the masterpiece that everyone and their mother is inexplicably claiming it to be. If not for the high level of talent involved I wouldn't consider giving the second episode a shot, but I suppose I'll check back in to see if it improves next week.
One of the problems with television, at least in my eyes, is the fixation on procedurals, traditional sitcoms and reality shows. Procedurals have lost all appeal to me, whether it's NCIS, Criminal Minds, CSI or any Law and Order spinoff. Traditional sitcom comedies, with laugh tracks, should be dead by now and somehow live on with The Big Bang Theory, Mike and Molly, Two and a Half Men and other half-assed attempts at laughs. And reality shows are self-explanatory.
It's nice when television shows such as "The Sopranos," "Mad Men" or "Breaking Bad" are able to step in and bring a sort of cinematic feel to the small screen. Sure, the ratings may not be superb for some of these shows, but the quality speaks for itself. "Boardwalk Empire" is HBO's new drama that seems likely to follow the same path as "The Sopranos": an complex network of characters with different motives, slow-burning plots that take time to build up and bursts of violence. To some, this is different than the non-stop action found on CBS procedural shows and whatnot, but here, it's the show's acting, writing and directing that pulls you in. The Prohibition era is a topic uncovered (or barely uncovered) in television, which makes the show able to cover storylines that feel fresh and interesting.
The pilot is mainly set-up, introducing characters to us so fast we barely can keep track. The main characters seem to be Nucky Thompson and his former protege, Jimmy Durmody (played by Steve Buscemi and Michael Pitt respectively). Nucky is the treasurer of Atlantic City and presents two faces to the city: the alcohol-hating man who visits temperance meetings and speaks out against liquor and the half-gangster who is attempting to make money off of Prohibition. Steve Buscemi takes a hold of the role, playing the role fervently and with great energy. You can bet next year that there'll be at least a nomination for him. With the help of his brother, Durmody and dozens of other men, he attempts to bring alcohol to one of America's busiest towns.
Many people will not like the show's slower pace. There's action scenes, sure, but not long, drawn-out gun-fights. There's quick bursts of violence followed by slow tension building. Scorsese is a master of cinema, and his eye for cinematic direction is evident here. Bits and pieces of "Gangs of New York" and "Goodfellas" is evident as we're introduced to the Boardwalk and the different stores of Atlantic City, and each character seems to have a background that will likely be fleshed out as the show goes on.
As of right now, we're inclined to side with Nucky and Michael, both men who are (as Durmody mentions near the end) "half-gangsters." Nucky is a treasurer as well as a man profiting off of Prohibition, while Durmody is a WW1 veteran who is looking to get back into business with Nucky. Together, these two lead a cast that ranges from Michael Shannon (Revolutionary Road) as a police officer tracking down people who go against Prohibition to Kelly MacDonald as a battered wife named Margeret Schroder who forms a bond with Nucky Thompson.
I've already heard some people saying they cannot get into it, but it makes me wonder how a show as wonderfully filmed and acted as this can be passed over and described as dull when there's shows out there (NCIS, CSI) that are spewing out the same plots with different characters every week. There's a reason why shows sometimes pass up action and violence for slow simmering tension (just look at "Mad Men" or "Breaking Bad") "Boardwalk Empire" is intense, interesting and seems to be headed down a similar path as "The Sopranos." I'm already hooked, and hopefully the ratings reflect the show's quality.
Boardwalk Empire's pilot aired, the first leaf of autumn fell. Scheduling it at the end of summer was a bright idea. The show won't change your life but its potential is undeniable. It has most of the materials required by a top notch entertainment production.
Steve Buscemi is a viewer magnet and when I read he would portray the protagonist, Enoch "Nucky" Thompson, I was instantly hooked. From his unique voice to his strange physical attributes the man is a pool of natural talent to himself. As expected his performance was the enlightenment of the episode. His palette of emotions painted the scenes with so many different colors and shapes that at times it was almost like watching René Magritte's surreal work in motion. Moreover it was almost perfectly integrated to well polished and designed studio sets. A few minor issues but nothing to prevent the immersion. Who's responsible ? Not Tom Jones obviously so I suspect the usual creative freaks, from the confirmed executive producers to the artistic director. But beside these visual considerations Nucky is also a deep, conflicted and intriguing character. Covering the prohibition era is not original but following one of its puppet master can only be exciting. It's the eternal battle between good and evil. If you had his power, what would you do ? Who would you be ? An incorruptible politician or an evil persona motivated by easy money and obsessed with tainted silk ? Buscemi's ambivalent acting blurred the lines between the possible answers to these questions. One minute he touches your heart and soul like a crying man, the next he parades with the devil and succumbs to temptation of the flesh.
Like a twister Buscemi & Nucky dragged with them an impressive amount of superlatives. First the editing was both original and well executed. Forget the over used reverse order concept and enjoy a puzzling sequence of scenes brilliantly blended together. Second the mix between superficial and authentic elements is fascinating. It's even mesmerized by the duality and charisma of the characters. Third the cast is charming, convincing and eclectic. My only regret is that most women are young and beautiful. In my humble opinion it made the story less credible so I hope the minor and unexploited roles will blossom. Fourth beside the drama it was also a lot of fun. The shadowing scene is already cult and was just hilarious. Let's also not forget the funny and sexy ride involving Nucky and his "friend" Angela Darmody, sweatily portrayed by Aleksa Palladino. Fifth you should also be shocked by the violence of some scenes. Faint-hearted audience, pass out.
Last but not least between these questionable and brutal moments one can only be moved by the poetry and creepiness of a few ideas. They actually reminded me of Carnivàle and its mesmerizing mythology. From the delicate babies to the girl corpse it's almost like if they were trying to send us a subliminal message. Are we the pedestrian behind the window ? Knock, knock, Nucky !
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