Jersey Shore, The Early Years
By ALESSANDRA STANLEY
The New York Times
Published: September 16, 2010
A scene from “Boardwalk Empire” set on the recreated Atlantic City Boardwalk. The series begins on Sunday on HBO.
On the eve of St. Patrick’s Day 1920 the city treasurer in Atlantic City is busy finessing Prohibition, but his brother, the sheriff, is focused on delivering a speech to the Ancient Order of the Celts. He brandishes a pamphlet he picked up in a course at the Y.M.C.A.: “Public Speaking and Influencing Men in Business” by Dale Carnagey.
Long before he wrote “How to Win Friends and Influence People,” Dale Carnegie published advice under his real name, Carnagey. That kind of historical fastidiousness runs throughout “Boardwalk Empire,” a new series beginning Sunday on HBO about bootleggers at the dawn of the Jazz Age. It’s a period drama with an irresistible pedigree: Terence Winter, a lead writer of “The Sopranos,” created it, and Martin Scorsese, one of its executive producers, directed the first episode.
As is Mr. Scorsese’s wont, the attention to detail, like the cinematography, is lavish, exquisite and unswerving. It is also a little constricting. In the first few episodes, characters adhere so carefully to type they trip into caricature. Accuracy isn’t always the same as plausibility; imagined history can sometimes be more persuasive than fact.
“Boardwalk Empire” is a well conceived, beautifully made series that has every reason to be great. Who doesn’t want to watch rum runners and gangsters on HBO? Yet, surprisingly, given the extraordinary talent and money behind it, “Boardwalk Empire” falls short. The series gets better and more engrossing with time, but it takes more than a few episodes for it to clear its throat, establish its bona fides and fall into storytelling stride. One possible reason is that the star, Steve Buscemi, is hard to accept in the lead role of Enoch Thompson, known as Nucky, Atlantic City’s dashingly corrupt treasurer. Nucky, half political boss, half gangster, is a dandified fixer who can charm suffragettes and terrify bootleggers and ward heelers.
Mr. Buscemi, who played Tony Soprano’s cousin in “The Sopranos,” is a distinguished character actor and certainly a distinctive one: bug-eyed and cadaverous, he speaks in a tinny voice that sounds like a 33 1/3 r.p.m. record played at 45. Mr. Buscemi manages to tamp down the comedy of his mien, but it takes a lot of squinting to see him as a powerbroker straddling two worlds.
Nucky is supposed to be a persuasive liar who can preach teetotalism to the Women’s Temperance League with a straight face. Mr. Buscemi, however, looks shifty and disingenuous — that is only supposed to be apparent after Nucky leaves the stage and reaches for his flask.
Nucky is based on a real-life Atlantic City political boss, Nucky Johnson, but the fictional version inevitably evokes Tony Soprano. Like that other New Jersey mobster, Nucky is the sum of many contradictions. He is an extrovert with an inner life, an egotist with wry self-awareness, a vicious killer and bully with a soft spot for smart women and newborns, a snob with no bias against blacks, Jews or Germans. Nucky is a bad man surrounded by people who are even worse, and he is the viewer’s pivot in all the upheaval, excitement and lawlessness that was the age of Prohibition.
Mr. Winter is aware of the pitfalls of the role. “If we wanted the real Nucky, we would have cast Jimmy Gandolfini,” Mr. Winter recently told The New York Times. “But by Episode 12 you’re going to think nobody else could have done it but Steve.” Twelve episodes is quite a long time, and it isn’t until the fifth episode that it seems like Mr. Buscemi (pictured at right) will pull it off at all.
There is plenty to watch along the way. “Boardwalk Empire” is a “Ragtime” of an adventure story that mixes fictional characters with real ones, though the historical ones are mostly gangsters: Arnold Rothstein (Michael Stuhlbarg), Big Jim Colosimo (Frank Crudele), Lucky Luciano (Vincent Piazza) and, in one of the best performances of all, Al Capone (Stephen Graham).
Nucky has a protégé, Jimmy (Michael Pitt), who left Princeton to fight in World War I and returns changed by combat and in a rush to make up for lost time.
Living like a pasha in the Ritz-Carlton, Nucky has an entourage that includes a proper German valet and a highly improper mistress (Paz de la Huerta), a former showgirl who swears like a sailor but talks in a gooey baby voice. Nucky, who winces at uncouth behavior, also befriends an attractive, intelligent and pregnant Irish immigrant, Margaret (Kelly Macdonald). Margaret has two small children and an abusive louse of a husband who gives her black eyes but can’t destroy her love of reading; Henry James and George Sand are among her favorites.
Nucky has business dealings with mobsters in Chicago and New York, as well as with elected officials in Washington and Trenton, but he also has a few enemies, including most ominously an Internal Revenue agent, Nelson Van Alden (Michael Shannon), an Eliot Ness-like zealot and strict Roman Catholic who suspects that Nucky is a kingpin of the illegal alcohol trade. As with many other characters, Nelson’s costumes, posture and enunciation are period perfect, but he is so tightly bound into the archetype of the 1920s federal agent that he seems one-dimensional.
Characters intersect and, with time, divert from type, but they don’t interact with the same layered intensity that drove “The Sopranos” and “The Wire.” At heart “Boardwalk Empire” is a cops and robbers tale and its thrills rest on the skill of the filmmaking.
Mr. Scorsese’s cinematic style in the first episode is as distinctive and effective as it was in “Goodfellas” or “The Departed”: long tracking shots and slow, exalted pans from ceiling to floor. The violence is shockingly brutal and, of course, lyrical; in one scene, a man lies dead in a pool of blood as a Caruso record plays on a blood-splattered gramophone.
The sets and period clothes are richly and ingeniously recreated, down to the litter on the boardwalk and the wisps of silk and velvet chiffon on a rack in a lingerie store. Sometimes exactitude verges on pedanticism. When Margaret, worried about pregnancy, reads a Margaret Sanger pamphlet on family planning, the camera lingers on the title, “Family Limitations.” It’s a level of precision that signals insecurity. The series is based on a history book, Nelson Johnson’s “Boardwalk Empire: The Birth, High Times, and Corruption of Atlantic City.” Perhaps because the people who adapted the book didn’t live in those times or grow up around people who did, they lack the confidence to improvise.
Its not absolutely necessary for a show’s creators to have a personal connection to their work. David Milch didn’t grow up in a Gold Rush town, but “Deadwood” brilliantly alchemized fact into fiction. More often, though, they do: Matt Weiner siphoned childhood memories for “Mad Men,” David Chase drew on his Italian-American heritage in “The Sopranos,” and David Simon used his reporting experience in Baltimore for “The Wire.” Mr. Simon’s new HBO series, “Treme,” isn’t nearly as extraordinary, and that could be because he and his colleagues are respectful fans of New Orleans, not natives with a license to riff.
“Boardwalk Empire” is an artful reworking of the gangster myth, but it isn’t a great work of art. After telling the Women’s Temperance League a poignant hard-luck tale, Nucky turns to Jimmy and says, “Never let the truth get in the way of a good story.” “Boardwalk Empire” doesn’t always follow this advice.
HBO, Sunday nights at 9, Eastern and Pacific times; 8, Central time.
Created by Terence Winter; pilot directed by Martin Scorsese and written by Mr. Winter; Mr. Winter, Mr. Scorsese, Tim Van Patten, Stephen Levinson and Mark Wahlberg, executive producers; Gene Kelly and Lawrence Konner, co-executive producers; Rudd Simmons and Rick Yorn, producers (series); David Coats- worth, producer (pilot); Howard Korder and Margaret Nagle, supervising pro- ducers.
WITH: Steve Buscemi (Nucky Thomp- son), Michael Pitt (Jimmy Darmody), Kelly Macdonald (Margaret Schroeder), Michael Shannon (Agent Nelson Van Al- den), Dabney Coleman (Commodore Louis Kaestner), Shea Whigham (Sheriff Elias Thompson), Anthony Laciura (Ed- die Kessler), Stephen Graham (Al Ca- pone), Aleksa Palladino (Angela Darmo- dy), Michael Stuhlbarg (Arnold Roth- stein), Vincent Piazza (Lucky Luciano), Paz de la Huerta (Lucy Danziger), Paul Sparks (Mickey Doyle), Michael Kenneth Williams (Chalky White), Gretchen Mol (Gillian), Greg Antonacci (Johnny Tor- rio) and Frank Crudele (Big Jim Colosi- mo).
A version of this review appeared in print on September 17, 2010, on page C1 of the New York edition.