Walking HBO's Boardwalk Empire

Steve Buscemi plays politician-gangster Nucky Thompson in HBO's "Boardwalk Empire."  (Abbot Genser/HBO)
Steve Buscemi plays politician-gangster Nucky Thompson in HBO's "Boardwalk Empire." (Abbot Genser/HBO)

It’s Sunday night and HBO is back in New Jersey with mobsters, corrupt politicians and, of course, plenty of sex, violence and language that you don’t find outside of pay TV.

But it’s not “The Sopranos,” though it does have an operatic feel, complete with Caruso music. “Boardwalk Empire” inhabits a completely different world, both historically and cinematically.

The time is the early days of Prohibition and the director of the first episode is Martin Scorsese, who’s also a co-producer along with Terence Winter, one of the main writers of “The Sopranos.” It’s a marriage made in gangster heaven, if that’s not a contradiction in terms.

Scorsese picks up where he left off with “Gangs of New York,” capturing the time and place with exquisite artistry. With apologies to The Drifters, you can almost smell the ocean air and wish you were strolling the boardwalk. The same is true for the interior shots of glamorous night club life.

Other things are changing besides the liquor laws. Ragtime is turning into jazz and the program is particularly clued in to changing images of women.

Scorsese has always been fascinated by how his characters live within the code of whatever group they’re part of, whether it’s the mob or the upper class elites of Edith Wharton’s New York City. Here, the only rules are the ones that can be enforced by the enormously corrupt town treasurer Enoch “Nucky” Thompson,  played by Steve Buscemi, a “Sopranos” alumnus as well as cult indie favorite.

Buscenmi, alas, is not a great leading man. With all these other alpha males around – Arnold Rothstein, Lucky Luciano, Al Capone – I just don’t buy him as a man that others would follow into battle. Obviously, the producers are going for an anti-Tony Soprano, but it doesn’t work. He’s more reminiscent of Pete Campbell, the oily associate on “Mad Men” where the series needs more of a Don Draper type.

Fortunately, the other acting on the show is often breathtaking. The great stage actor Michael Stuhlbarg is a jaw-droppingly fastidious Arnold Rothstein. British actor Stephen Graham is a Joe Pesci-like Al Capone as the series sometimes shifts to Chicago and an almost unrecognizable Dabney Coleman is Nucky’s mentor. Then there’s the impossibly handsome Michael Pitt, home from World War I and anxious to move up the corporate mob ladder.

But the most interesting character on the show is Kelly Macdonald’s Margaret Schroeder, an immigrant from Ireland, and someone who actually has a rich interior life. She is trying to balance her feminism with the realization that Nucky is her only ticket out of poverty and servitude. She’s also the one most emblematic of the themes of the show. Do you try to leave an ethical life or do you get along the best way you can?

And the only supposedly ethical guy in the show is Michael Shannon’s federal agent Nelson Van Alden, a character who operates as much like a religiously maniacal member of the Taliban as one of Elliot Ness’s untouchables.

Of course, Prohibition itself was a byproduct of American Puritanism. Instead of making the country a better place, it just opened the door for organized crime. It’s the kind of irony that these HBO shows revel in. If “Boardwalk Empire” isn’t one of the best, it’ll still find me in front of the set on Sunday nights.

This program aired on September 14, 2010. The audio for this program is not available.

Headshot of Ed Siegel

Ed Siegel Critic-At-Large
Ed Siegel is critic-at-large for WBUR.



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