HBO's Boardwalk Empire may be the best new TV show of the year
More than vampires or reality TV stars, we all love to watch gangsters.
The best of them are the ultimate antiheroes -- unfettered by common concerns about propriety or affordability, they take what they want, eliminate the competition and then, just to keep us in their corner, fret about it a little afterwards.
So when two masters of the modern gangster tale decide to join forces for a TV show, you know its going to be epic.
That's why HBO’s Boardwalk Empire is like a magnificent novel committed to television; a rich tapestry of characters outlining a pivotal moment in American history. It also just may be the best TV show you’ll watch this year.
The shorthand explanation: two masters of gangster fiction, GoodFellas’ Martin Scorsese and The Sopranos producer Terence Winter, found a new way to tell an old story.
Steve Buscemi is wonderfully tortured and acerbic as Enoch “Nucky” Thompson, a fictional character based on a real crime boss from 1920s-era Atlantic City history. Like his real-life inspiration, Buscemi’s Thompson straddles two worlds, using his status as the city’s treasurer to mask his total control of the town’s illegal trades – a business about to get a massive boost by the start of prohibition.
Buscemi’s Thompson is just the kind of gangster we love to root for. Rich, powerful and ruthless, he’s also got values, drawn to abused wife and mother Margaret Schroeder (Kelly Macdonald), who seems to remind him of his own dead wife. When she loses a baby after a beating from her husband, Thompson does what we wish could be done to every brutish wife-beater on this earth, helping himself out of a jam in the process.
In a TV world drowning in anti-heroes, Thompson is a new model drawn from a vintage age – a slightly dirty politician on the cusp of becoming a major crime boss, with enough humanity left to wonder what he’s losing in the process.
“(It’s) the nature of America’s love affair with the gangster as a sort of tragic hero,” said Scorsese, who directed the pilot episode airing tonight. “(Pop culture critic Robert Warsow) describes loving the gangster for doing everything he can’t do, but wanting him to pay for it at the end.”
Based on an exhaustive history book on the town with the same name, Boardwalk Empire savors the detail of the period, recreating 80-year-old Rolls Royces, burlesque shows and the complex tangle of graft powering the town’s barely-hidden illegal lquor business.
Like its high-quality rival on Sunday nights, Mad Men, Empire also enjoys playing with the dissonance between modern times and the period. As Prohibition starts in 1920, women can’t yet vote and cities are largely segregated; when Schroeder takes a job in a dress shop the French owner officiously announces she must bathe at least once a week.
And yet, much of Empire feels painfully familiar to fans of Mob movies and TV.
Thompson faces war with heavy hitters in New York City when a sale of illegal liquor goes wrong, forcing his driver Jimmy Darmody to leave for Chicago, where he hooks up with an aspiring gangster named Al Capone. The Wire’s Michael Williams makes an inspired appearance as Chalky White, the ironically-named black gangster who ensures Thompson’s election by turning out the black vote, making short work of a Ku Klux Klansman accused of lynching one of his men.
This being HBO, there’s also lots of explicit scenes, from Thompson having sex with his girlfriend (the image of Buscemi’s bare butt was seared into my eyeballs worse than any gory shootout; no mas, HBO!) to a man decapitated by a shotgun blast. And the creepiest character here is the government agent hot on Thompson’s trail, a self-flagellating moral purist who can’t connect with his distant wife and is willing to torture a dying man for information.
Though the story sags a bit as the episodes go on, it’s clear that Winter, the show’s executive producer and head writer, has uncovered a world full of delicious possibilities – topped by the slow corruption of a compelling pragmatist that might just mirror the corruption of American society in general.
Looks like we’ve all got another show to tack on the growing list of stuff we’re Tivo-ing on Sunday nights.