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, director Martin Scorsese and executive producer Terence Winter (The Sopranos), 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 Irish immigrant 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, re-creating 80-year-old Rolls-Royces, burlesque shows and the complex tangle of graft powering the town's barely hidden illegal liquor business.
Like another high-quality period piece, Mad Men, Empire also enjoys playing with the dissonance between the long-ago setting and modern times. As Prohibition starts in 1920, women can't yet vote, cities are largely segregated and some European immigrants are treated as badly as black people; 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 "darky" vote and makes short work of a Ku Klux Klan member accused of lynching one of his men.
This being HBO, there also are lots of explicit scenes, from Thompson having sex with his girlfriend (the image of Buscemi's bare behind 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 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.
Move over, Mad Men. Looks like we've all got another show to tack on the growing list of stuff we're Tivo-ing on Sunday nights.
Boardwalk Empire debuts at 9 tonight on HBO. Grade: A. Rating: TV-MA (mature audiences).