Boardwalk Empire

has a pedigree that manages to stand out, even on a network known for
assembling the best talent and biggest budgets for its banner shows.
Optioned by Mark Wahlberg and brought to HBO, Boardwalk Empire: The Birth, High Times, and Corruption of Altantic City
by Nelson Johnson is providing the backbone source material for the
show, which stars Steve Buscemi as Enoch “Nucky” Thompson, the
Treasurer-turned-gangster of Atlantic City. The big roller behind the
camera is of course Martin Scorsese, who was hooked early as an
Executive Producer and directed the pilot episode. Terrence Winter,
rockstar writer and The Sopranos
veteran, has adapted the dense historical text of the source novel into
a focused look at the Vegas-before-Vegas world of Atlantic City in the
1920s. This Prohibition-era playground is a perfect setting to tell the
story of what happened when America went dry.

Here at CHUD
we’re going to be giving you our reaction to each episode in tag-team
style recaps each Monday after a new episode. You can expect a shifting,
rotating batch of contributors every week, each unloading hot batches
of insight. Boardwalk Empire airs at 9:00 pm EST, Sundays on HBO. Check it out
and follow along with the CHUD staff!

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EPISODE 1: Boardwalk Empire (Pilot)

“I already got what I wanted, what the fuck would we talk about?”

RENN BROWN:
There’s something wonderfully full-circle about HBO and Terrence Winter
returning to Jersey to tell gangster stories. This time, instead of a
pilot emulating the style of Martin Scorsese, they’ve brought the man
himself to deliver the series into the world, complete with a $20
million dollar budget for the best sets, costumes, and photography
available. Fill the whole thing to capacity with fine actors who will
all be orbiting around the performance of the incomparable Steve
Buscemi, and you’ve got a television event that promises to remind TV
audiences who started this whole cinema-styled programming game, and who
remains the best.


Beginning
with a beautifully evocative opening credits, the pilot for Boardwalk
Empire is all about pulling back a curtain and setting a stage. Shots,
locations, exchanged looks, single lines, background photographs, and
allusions to our own knowledge of history are all present in the pilot
to give clues as to what stories this show will tell and what themes it
will explore, but this episode needed to seat the audience and light up
those stage-lights. There’s no doubt the pilot does this wonderfully.
What we are still yet to see is what is really going to set this show
apart, aside from its incredible production value. Is
Boardwalk Empire
going to capture the imagination of America and tell us stories in ways
we’ve never seen, or is it simply going to be a good story told in the
highest-classed fashion possible?


Martin
Scorsese bring more than a gangster pedigree to this project- his
directorial hand has provided the pilot with the energy to fly through
an enormous amount of stage-setting without breezing past the subtleties
that give it that intriguing depth we seek from long-form dramas. What
characters we don’t meet, we see and get a taste for (Michael Kenneth
Williams’ Chalky White for instance). What backstory we don’t yet hear,
we get hints from locations and details (Nucky’s troubled gazes into the
Incubation Center’s window)- in fact, my favorite hinted mechanism the
pilot employed was Nucky’s relationship with the physical Boardwalk
itself, and the ripe possibilities the varied locations offer for giving
us looks into the treasurer of Atlantic City. It will be interesting to
see how the style of the show shakes out as the following directors
try to match the tone of the pilot while also discovering the show’s
unique voice.


There
are things I wished the pilot hit harder- Agent Nelson in particular
has some wonderful moments without the character ever gaining any real
traction in the episode. Ultimately though, we needed to leave the first show wanting more of Nucky and knowing he’s orbited by enough
characters to engage him on a number of dramatic levels- all of this was
accomplished superbly. Steve Buscemi is as good as you always knew he
would be, and his troubles and conflicts will be our pleasure to watch.
He’s surrounded by a ton of interesting, often scary characters- the
dangerously ambitious, dangerously warped protege (Michael Pitt as
Jimmy), the polite-yet-vicious enemy (Michael Stuhlbarg as Arnold
Rothstein), the eerily righteous and spiritually-driven Fed (Michael
Shannon as Agent Nelson), and the woman who inspires more than just
run-of-the-mill charity from Nucky* (Kelly Macdonald as Margaret). There
are dozens more characters and threads just waiting to be explored, and
while I’m still wondering if this is going to be a good TV show or
an
important TV show, I can not wait to watch every minute of it.

*There’s
no way this woman won’t be providing some serious insight into Nucky,
considering she was important enough to bookend Nucky’s appearances in
the episode.


ELISABETH RAPPE:
This was an incredible debut.  HBO shows usually start strong,
but I think this was a landmark even for the network.  Whether
it can hold fast is another matter, but it’s hard to imagine this one
stumbling. What’s really drawn me in – and did even
from the first television spots – is that we’re
finally getting to see a different corner of organized crime. 
We’ve seen New York and Chicago countless times on the big and
small screens. The Italian, Irish, and Jewish mobsters have all gotten
their screentime. Now we’re finally getting a good old
American gangster with the tale of Nucky Thompson. (He’s a
thinly veiled fictionalization of the real life Nucky Johnson
– I haven’t seen a reason why they’re
tweaking him. I’m reluctant to read too much, I like to watch
my television as cold as possible.) I love that we’re finally
out of the grim streets of the big city, and spending time in this
glittery and summery seaside town. The aesthetic of those Main Street
USA light bulbs is totally at odds with the booze and bloodshed, and it
couldn’t be more refreshing. I think that’s going to
help gloss over what might be tired gangster cliches – the
gangster with a soft spot for babies and women in trouble, if
I’m reading Nucky’s furrowed brow over Margaret
Schroeder correctly.  (And even if I’m wrong and he
turns her into a dancer or whore, that’s still cliche!) I
think Steve Buscemi only adds to this break from tradition –
he’s not as slickly handsome as the
Goodfellas or The
Godfather
cast. I guess people have doubted him as a lead, but I think
it’s perfect. Buscemi is one of those guys who is either a
saint or a slimy worm of a sinner.
Boardwalk Empire has already played
with this. He can make the Temprance League weep, because he’s
just wan enough to be pitiable, and he can make a dinner party thrill
to his bootlegging plans.


Despite
all this “It’s so unique!”, my favorite
part remains the blink-and-you-miss-it introduction of Al Capone. You
could say it was a little too
The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles, but I
dug it as a well-placed historical zing. Capone has loomed so large in
pop culture that it’s easy to forget he, like so many other
gangsters, started as someone’s errand boy. If I had one
complaint, it’s the music. It was incessant and just made me
think of the old Disney song “Minnie’s Yoo
Hoo.”  It also reminded me (unfavorably) of Martin
Scorsese’s
The Aviator – so eager to imbue the scene
with a sense of Place and Time that it yanked you right out by jamming
too much in. The costumes and sets are enough. Jangly 1920s tunes
didn’t play everywhere a person walked, and silence would
benefit this show greatly. Let’s hope it allows itself a
moment or two of that.


JEREMY BUTLER: 
Welp.  I suppose if it could talk, my cable would say “Welcome
back, Jeremy!”  The last time I tried to watch a television
show first-run was HBO’s
Generation Kill and I fell off the wagon,
unable to keep to the schedule.  Since then I kind of gave up
on TV in general, but this?  This called me back.  At
first it felt like the opportunity for an act of contrition for falling
off the
Sopranos wagon as well but the closer I got to it the more I
realized it was gonna be something special on its own terms. 
I’m kind of a sucker for prohibition-era America, what with its flappers
and speakeasies and those amazing pinstriped suits and even if you took
Boardwalk Empire strictly on its aesthetics, it delivers in spades.

But,
thankfully, this is a show that (so far) delivers on not only
aesthetics, but every fucking thing else.  Scorsese brings
his…well…Scorsese-ness to the proceedings, giving us shots and
compositions that speak to those that came before while completely being
their own thing.  A lot of that has to do with trademarks (it
was a small moment, but that little tracking shot through the supper
club towards the beginning had me stoked), but a lot of it has to do
with Marty letting the natural charisma of this story come
through.  And it all, as Renn said, orbits around
Buscemi.  The guy anchors everything and everybody and his
ability to switch between several different characters throughout the
episode without losing any of Nucky’s personality pulls us into his
orbit as well.


I’ll
admit that it’s a little tough for me to get back into the groove of TV
format and pacing, but at the end of the day that bodes well for this
series’ odds at keeping me in from start to finish.  I kept
wanting more during that hour – I wanted the steady, strident pace of a
film with its full-circle characterization and exposition delivered in
only double the time of this episode.  Instead I’m going to get
it over the course of an entire season of television.  I’ve
forgotten what that felt like and it has me thrilled.


JOSHUA MILLER:
To keep this from becoming a wearisome circle jerk of uniform praise
I’m trying to think of something negative to open
with… but it is fucking hard. I did literally groan when Al
Capone introduced himself. And I mean literally. By myself, in my
apartment, audible involuntary groaning occurred. As Rappe aptly said,
very
Young Indian Jones. I was really hoping this show
wouldn’t stoop to such silly gimmicks, but as it turned out,
it didn’t, as Capone ultimately proved more than just a lame
wink-wink cameo here. Truth is, this was one of the most solid pilots
I’ve seen in a long time. That isn’t to say it was
perfection (I found Nucky’s opening scene uninspired and
predictable, for example). But goddamn was it good. There’s so
much I’d like to say about this episode, but my colleagues
have ably touched on most of it already. So I’ll just move to
other areas…

 
I
have always greatly disliked Michael Pitt, on some occasions
aggressively so. I can already tell that
Boardwalk is the project that
is going to change that opinion. In fact, I’d say it has
already changed, and I can tell you the exact moment it happened. It was
during the Prohibition commencement party near the beginning of the
episode, when a wave of black balloons has been dropped from the
ceiling. Everyone else is dancing and laughing and having fun in a
montage of typical Scorsese gold. Pitt is trying to light his cigarette,
and has a bug up his butt about something (his angry looks from the
previous scene suggest it involves his new job duties). The subtle yet
emotive way Pitt pissily swats at those balloons… beautiful. A
very, very minor moment, but that’s what did it folks.
Whether it was Scorsese’s magic or all Pitt himself, I think
I’m a convert now.


I’ve
read some negative criticisms of the show dismissively stating that
Nucky is no Tony Soprano and that Buscemi is no Gandolfini. Sure. I
won’t disagree. But all that’s saying is that after
one episode Nucky isn’t one of the best lead
characters/performances in television history. So fuck that. The show
just started and I’m already sick of the
Sopranos comparisons. It’s
unfair to any new show, not to mention
Boardwalk reminds me far more of
Deadwood
, if we can’t resist comparing it to a previous HBO show.
Buscemi undoubtedly has the presence of supporting actor, but I think he
will surprise his critics as the show progresses and he sinks into the
part. As for Nucky, I’m already hooked. I love his shockingly
wacky relationship with his foreign assistant (Nucky asking this poor
bastard to break a door down for him was one of the highlights of the
pilot for me), I love the death stares he gave Lucky Luciano, and I love
his relationship with Pitt. I also loved the song choice for the final
scene of the episode: a humorous vaudevillian show tune about
Prohibition where man sings about how he never realized he had a great
wife until he was finally sober, playing while Nucky visits Margaret
(Kelly Macdonald) in the hospital. The metaphor here, it seemed to me,
was that Margaret has awakened something in Nucky after the seven years
of empty debauchery since his wife died. Like a drunk finally stepping
from the cloud of alcohol, part of Nucky has sobered up. Now
that’s good shit right there.


Also… Dabney fucking Coleman.

NICK NUNZIATA: When one looks back at the pilot episodes for all their favorite television programs, very rarely do they represent the full vision of the show. Characters feel thinly realized, there’s none of the benefits from familiarity and everything is still trying to find the nooks and crannies where it’ll settle. Boardwalk Empire‘s pilot is a little different by weight of the presence of Martin Scorsese and The Sopranos‘ Terence Winter pulling the strings. It’s unfair but it’s true. This show can’t just be passable to justify its existence.

And it isn’t just passable. It’s quite good. With that said, I hope Martin Scorsese’s seventy-five minute first salvo is one of the least impressive of the season. For all its great moments it felt tonally a little too light to feel on par with the very best mobster epics (which face it, it needs to be both for HBO’s sake and with the talent involved) and there were a lot of familiar moments. For a good portion of the running time it felt almost like a companion piece to The Untouchables, something which became even more resonant with a similar overheard shaving shot to Brian DePalma’s great but broad Capone flick. There were times when it felt like vintage Scorsese and others where it felt almost like a cover of a Scorsese or Coppola flick, good but lacking its own voice.

But it’s a pilot, and for a pilot it’s fantastic. Boardwalk Empire gets none of the leeway typically associated with such things, and even with that considered it still emerges as a massive success despite its flaws. Steve Buscemi is not a leading man and there are few too many moments in this episode where he uses profanity as punctuation and it feels like overcompensation. His ‘Nucky’ Thompson is a tough hook to hang such a big show on, because while it’s apparent that the character is a major cog in the machine, the characterization isn’t quite there yet. Buscemi’s approach may end up being the strength of the show in the long haul but here it was good but not as resonant and memorable as it could have been.

Michael Pitt is quite good, and that’s saying something because while the guy is in some excellent films I haven’t really pegged why he’s considered such a comer [inset The Dreamers joke here]. I’m starting to see it now and since every good gangster story needs a powderkeg character, it seems he’s up for the task. Also a standout is Michael Stuhlbarg as Arnold Rothstein, conveying an eerie balance of class and menace. Michael Shannon has a thankless task in the first episode but it’s obvious he’s going to be a nice foil for Nucky and Shea Whigham continues a streak of playing excellent shady characters. Kelly MacDonald has her work cut out for her, playing a very stereotypical role that doesn’t offer much room for error and she’s always been a weak spot in a lot of great films to me.

There’s a lot to love here: The lavish re-creation of Prohibition Atlantic City, the great Al Capone reveal, some vicious violence, some nice little touches (the way Nucky experiences regular life through storefront windows, Michael Shannon’s reactions to being saddled with subpar agents, the dinner sitdown between gangsters), and if this is as good as it’s going to get there’s another fun show to add to the mix.

But Boardwalk Empire represents something larger and it’s a shame that hype’s a bitch but the fact remains that this show can be something really special, a sort of punctuation mark on HBO’s best shows to date (The Sopranos, The Wire, Deadwood). It’s not there yet. This is a good start but it’s far from perfect.

With that said, if you are serious fan of film and understand how important it is to support television as it’s meant to be seen, you need to watch this show and not on some third-party outlet on your PC the week after. In the same manner that supporting film by plunking down cash for tickets is important so too is allowing pay cable to continue enriching our lives by actually subscribing to the channels that push the envelope. Ratings are king, and Boardwalk Empire seems to be a labor of love right in the wheelhouse of most of us whose lives are so very hardwired to this exact sort of celluloid.


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