"You can't be half a gangster, Nucky. Not anymore." -- Jimmy Darmody
Nothing is what it seems in HBO's amibitious new drama "Boardwalk Empire."
There's a scene early in the premiere episode of this engrossing series when our protagonist, Enoch "Nucky" Thompson, the treasurer of Atlantic City, N.J., visits a funeral home/mortuary. There, on the slab, is a naked, dead woman, close to prep for viewing.
And there, behind the walls, is a budding bootleg business. Stills are running, spouting off ready-to-ship illegal whisky. A dap or so of formaldehyde helps things.
Welcome to Atlantic City 1920. Prohibition is now the law of the land. Things will never be the same.
"Boardwalk Empire" is grand TV -- complicated, intricate, beautifully filmed and acted. And at times difficult to follow and hard to get into it.
But I want more.
The star here is Steve Buscemi (right), who plays the knee-deep-in-corruption Nucky with snake-oil salesman shrewdness. This is the type of politician who can charm the bloomers off the ladies at a Woman's Temperance League meeting and then head to a dinner to organize his plans to control the illegal alcohol trade.
The pilot, directed by Martin Scorsese and filled to the brim with "Goodfellas"-esque action and camera work, neatly introduces a dozen or so characters and dives head-on into the organized crime created by Prohibition.
The action starts literally when Prohibition begins (there's even a fancy coutdown at the really fun looking Babette's Supper Club). The period details shine here -- and they should, since HBO reportedly spent $20 million on the pilot alone. The Boardwalk is afire with attractions (ladies from Paris ... France) and a New Orleans-esque parade, with musicians in black face staging a faux funeral for liquor.
This is where Nucky thrives, and this is the town that will continue to make Nucky rich. He has amassed a local plan to help him control inflated alcohol sales. And he has help, notably from all the town's fellow politicans, the town sheriff, who happens to be his younger brother, and his right-hand man Jimmy Darmondy (Michael Pitt), just back from World War I.
Oh, and there are gangsters coming. Lots of them. Big names, like a young Lucky Luciano and a very young Al Capone. And there's Arnold Rothstein (the guy who "allegedly" fixed the 1919 World Series and is a weird combo of teetotaler and gambler). Rothstein, the big fish of this bunch, is expertly played by Michael Stuhlbarg, best known for his work in "A Serious Man."
This is an unholy -- and unstable -- alliance, and one gets the sense that Nucky is a bit out of his league here. He can attempt to organize his illegal activites all he wants, but there's a lot he can't control. The feds, or more specifically newly minted "Prohibition agents," are already on his tail, led by holier-than-thou agent Nelson Van Alden (Michael Shannon, Oscar nominated for "Revolutionary Road").
And there's also Jimmy to consider. In his 20s, he's back from the war and hungry for action, with a young son and common-law wife at home. He doesn't want to climb the ladder like Nucky. So he feels slighted when Nucky appoints him to be just an underling for a ward boss.
And Jimmy's also being courted to join the Prohibition agents. So he does what anyone would do -- join forces with Al Capone to pull a fast one over on Rothstein's men who attempt to commander a shipment of Canadian Club. Things go awry, Prohibition-era style, and there's much murder.
Here is "Boardwalk" at it's best. It's not necessarily the violence itself (which at times was "Sopranos"-level graphic), but how the violence is mixed with the mundane and backroom politics.
We float in and out of the seemingly family friendly fun on the Boardwalk (taffy shops!) to the more adult-friendly fun (everything at Babette's) to Nucky's political dictatorship -- checking on his fellow townspeople, greeting Temperance Movement ladies and chatting with his mentor, the mysterious and briefly seen Commodore Louis Kaestner (Dabney Coleman).
And then there's the most interesting subplot, involving a beautiful Irish immigrant named Margaret Schroeder (Kelly Macdonald, left), who takes a liking to Nucky. She's hoping to a secure a job for her husband, even though he beats her and gambles away every cent they have. Margaret also happens to be pregnant with her third child.
We see another side of Nucky here -- sensitive and kind and no doubt thinking about his own dead wife. He gives Margaret money, and later, when he learns that she suffered a miscarriage after her husband beats her senseless, he visits her at the hospital.
OK, so the hospital visitation happened after Nucky told his brother -- the sheriff, mind you -- to murder Mr. Schroeder and throw him into the Atlantic. Really, really strong shades of Tony Soprano here.
That's not a bad thing, of course. "Boardwalk" is very similar to "The Sopranos" in tone, theme and characterization ("Boardwalk" is being overseen by "Sopranos" directing vet Terence Winter). In fact, there's a bit too much character-wise packed into the 1 hour, 15 min-pilot.
You have to keep track of all the feds, the gangsters, the groups of Nucky's acquantices and conspirators ... I constantly had to check on my printout of "character bios" offered by HBO. And at times, the action was too slow -- particularly in scenes involving Jimmy's family or Nucky just walking around the Boardwalk.
Then there's Nucky himself. Steve Buscemi (yes, also a "Sopranos" vet) is an excellent actor, but an odd choice for a dramatic lead.
There's times I wish Nucky was more aggresive, charismatic and confident. I'm having a hard time believing that the Nucky played by Buscemi could rule a crazy land such as Atlantic City with such an iron fist. Perhaps the character will grow more ruthless as the series goes on.
And for every complex, intriguing character, there was a character a bit overrun by TV cliche. Take Shannon's Agent Van Alden. I wanted an awesomer foil for Nucky here. Instead, we get a guy so overstuffed with God-Fearing-Married-to-the-Government milquetoast that his character felt too crammed down the viewers' throat. We get it. He's different from Nucky because he's oh-so moral.
Even Jimmy Darmody, one of the best characters, veers too often into overused Impetuous Youth trope territory. "All I want is an opportunity. This is American, ain't it?!" he yells to Nucky. This is cliched scriptwriting, ain't it?
And yet, even with its few warts, "Boardwalk Empire" unexpectedly hooked me. It's an engaging show -- a dramatically interpreted-history showcase mixed with cops-and-robbers intrigue. It's bloody, beautiful and bold.
Raise an (illegal) glass. This is some damn fine liquored-up, transportive TV.
OTHER HIGHLIGHTS FROM THE "BOARDWALK EMPIRE" PILOT
OMAR'S COMING: We don't see much of Michael Kenneth Williams (Omar from "The Wire") here. In fact, he has just one line. But it's clear he's in business with Nucky. More please!
MOST ANNOYING CHARACTER: I really couldn't stand Eddie Kessler, Nucky's constantly befuddled assistant. He seems to be there for comic relief, but his antics and misunderstandings only led me to roll my eyes. I could do without him.
LITTLE PEOPLE, LITTLE JOKE: Jimmy meets Al Capone at a midget boxing match and quips, "I'd bet on the little guy." Heh.
CINEMA PARADISO: Loved the silent film in the episode, which featured a man mourning the loss of his girlfriend liquor, burying a bottle and laying flowers on its "grave." I'd pay to see more of that.
THE BIBLE: Even in 1920, women needed their Vogue magazine. Margaret reads a copy while waiting to see Nucky.
BEST LINE OF THE NIGHT: After Nucky gives Margaret some cash, she offers to name her unborn child after him. "Enoch?" he replies. "You couldn't possibly be more cruel." The folks at Enoch Pratt Free Library may beg to differ.
What did you all of think of the premiere episode of "Boardwalk Empire"? Post your questions/comments/reactions below.