“Boardwalk Empire” is the most talked about show of the fall. The show, set in 1920 Atlantic City, follows Enoch “Nucky” Thompson’s (Steve Buscemi) ambition to obtain and sell alcohol in his city. Nucky is a corrupt politician, now seeking to turn Prohibition into a profitable business venture. On the eve of Prohibition, he ensured that Atlantic City would not go dry, and liquor would continue to flow.
The pilot, which premiered Sunday, Sept. 19th, was directed by Oscar-winning director, Martin Scorsese. I had been looking forward to this program all summer. The show airs on HBO, and they did a fantastic job whetting viewers’ appetites with clips and teasers. In addition to these tastes of the show, critics who had seen the pilot raved.
In some ways, I was hooked before the show even began. Such anticipation can lead to disappointment. I am pleased to report that “Boardwalk Empire” is spectacular. Unsurprisingly, the Scorsese-directed pilot is visually stunning, and the 80-minute episode often feels like a film (the slower pacing of the storyline notwithstanding). Scorsese also takes a number of risks with camera angles and framing certain violent scenes.
Without spoiling the plot, one scene has a character shot directly in front of the camera, with the blood and brain matter covering the lens. It was an extraordinary scene. I gasped at the horror, but grinned at the artistry.
There is no lack of artistry in the rest of the episode. The sets are detailed and stunning. The exteriors looked quaint but commercial, as a boardwalk in Atlantic City should. The interiors were glamorous casinos and clubs, fit for gangsters.
The costumes are pristine and appropriate for the time period. Nucky and his crew always don pinstriped suits and colorful waistcoats and ties. The women’s costumes vary from conservative dresses for the older and poorer women, to the shiny flapper-style dresses in the casinos.
What surprised me the most was the use of music in the pilot. The music in scenes is often opposite of what one would assume. Happy music plays over sad encounters. Music usually saved for sitcoms is heard over a tense stand-off.
Even the music has character. The sounds are degraded, as if we are hearing them through gramophones and record players, not through 21st century speakers. It added an authenticity to the production. Bold editing choices like these emphasize what a treasure this program is.
The plot and writing are as excellent as the technical aspects of the show are. Nucky enters into an arrangement to procure alcohol with several infamous gangsters. Nucky might not realize this, but he is turning into a mobster. As his driver and friend, Jimmy Darmody tells him, “You can’t be half a gangster.”
Buscemi, best known for his roles on the silver screen, brings his weird and wormy mannerisms to the shady Thompson. Buscemi is not new to playing a gangster; he appeared in the film, “Reservoir Dogs” and on the television show, “The Sopranos.” I have full confidence that his portrayal will earn him award nominations in the future.
“Boardwalk Empire” is an all-around award-worthy show. The directing, writing, editing and acting are all top-notch and deserve recognition. If there is any justice in the world, “Boardwalk Empire” will be a big hit for HBO. If any new program deserves viewers, it’s this one.
“Boardwalk Empire” airs Sundays at 9 p.m. on HBO.
Hyman is a member of the class of 2012.