Martin Scorsese directs the first episode of HBO’s latest foray into the world of organized crime, bringing a cinematic style to a small screen venture. Featuring a stellar cast of quality thespians, ”Boardwalk Empire promises to thrill fans of old-school gangster pictures.

Lets see if it delivered with it’s first episode, the most expensive pilot ever shot at $30 million. That’s a lot to live up to…

The Players

Episode Title: “Boardwalk Empire”

Steve Buscemi plays Enoch “Nucky” Thompson (modeled after actual politician Enoch Johnson), the corrupt treasurer of Atlantic City who sees in Prohibition the opportunity for massive personal profit in the form of bootlegging. He establishes alliances with the likes of Arnold Rothstein and Lucky Luciano, while his young friend and driver, Jimmy (played by Michael Pitt), fresh back from WWI, struggles to support a family. A seemingly routine bootlegging operation is botched when Jimmy, along with a gentleman by the name of Al Capone, takes matters into his own hands.

The Good

  • Familiar Faces: “Boardwalk Empire” will be worth returning to each week, if only to watch an amazing cast in action. Steve Buscemi is so tremendously talented that film buffs often forget that half the characters he’s ever played are high-strung weasels. Sure, he’s a weasel here, a politician with nothing resembling high moral aspirations, but he also exhibits a rarely seen sensitive side in scenes which allude to his character’s deceased wife.
  • Breaking Out: For another skilled actor, Michael Pitt, this series just might represent a big break; he skillfully performs a demanding balancing act, one that requires him to be a sympathetic family-man who also doesn’t have any problems with killing others if it means getting ahead. The “I was a good man until the war turned me into a murderer” excuse he drops is unconvincing, but that’s more the writer’s fault than his. Kelly Macdonald plays the role of a battered, naive wife, and she does it so well that it is impossible to think this is the same woman who played a feisty underage seductress in Trainspotting.
  • Scorsese Style: Whereas HBO’s best program (and arguably the best TV show ever), The Wire,” was shot in a gritty, realistic style, “Boardwalk Empire” is all Hollywood, taking its cue from the great crime flicks of yesteryear. The staging is strictly choreographed, the cinematography is dynamic, and the violence is almost comically brutal. The approach taken here suits the material.
  • The Devil’s in the Details: The production team must have had a ball recreating Prohibition-era Atlantic City, and it shows. Everything from the hats the men wear to the label on a bottle of recently-distilled whiskey seems to have been painstakingly considered. The camera often lingers far too long on vintage advertisements and old-fashioned storefronts; with The Godfather, Coppolla knew that the best way to make an impressive period film is to not point out the fact that you are making a period film. However, it’s tough to blame Scorsese for being proud of what a fine job the creative team did here.

The Weird

  • Opening Credits: Sure, it’s never the most important part of a show, but both “The Sopranos” and “The Wire” featured opening credits sequences which prepped audiences for the world they were about to enter. Here, we’ve got Steve Buscemi looking like he just smoked more weed than a Dave Matthews concert-goer, staring at the ocean while dozens of computer-generated bottles of liquor are carried in by waves. A bizarre rock-guitar tune accompanies this dull scene. For a show about the free-wheeling town of Atlantic City, they certainly went with a dull choice here.

The Bad

  • CGI: CGI is obviously a fantastic tool for filmmakers, but the fact of the matter is, it’s doesn’t always add to it. The sets here are often augmented with background details that have clearly been animated in, and they draw the viewer out of the illusion. On any show, this is distracting, but on a show that takes place a little less than a century ago, it’s definitely going to be worse.
  • Stock Characters: Did gangsters and politicians in 1919 really talk like this? Yeah, to an extent, probably. But “Boardwalk Empire” has been just as much inspired by the movies as it has been by history, and as a result, some elements ring false. For every convincing performance, there is some minor character whose stereotypical Edward G. Robinson impression seems forced.


A gift to anyone who loves gangsters, while also indicating that it might just have something to offer along the lines of real human drama. The pilot episode may be a little slow-moving as it introduces us to these characters and their world, but with the exposition out of the way, we can expect a great show here. Stay tuned.

Rating: 7/10

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