About twenty seconds into the impeccably beautiful title sequence of Boardwalk Empire, HBO’s new Prohibition-era drama, my companion turned to me and exhaled, "Wowwww…" Then, "I wonder how much this cost to produce." Indeed, the shots of sea, sky, shore and cigarettes are mesmerizing, as are the slow pans over an exquisitely boutonniere’d and wing-tipped Steve Buscemi, looking as reptilian as ever, if not downright amphibian. But as much as it might try to be, Boardwalk Empire‘s opening scene—and every other scene in the seventy-minute pilot, for that matter—isn’t a Magritte painting, and with a ninety-second running time, it feels more than a little indulgent.
Indulgence is the name of the game in Terence Winter’s new show, and the creator of Boardwalk Empire joins fellow Sopranos alum Matthew Weiner, the mad genius behind Mad Men, as maestro of a highly stylized, highly visual period drama. As in Mad Men, the steak of the series lives up to its smart and sophisticated sizzle (which is saying a lot given the pilot’s glitz—and $18 million price tag)—but just barely.
Martin Scorsese, the dean of American period gangster movies, directed the first episode, and the "moving" shots—a bustling moonshine distillery hidden behind false walls at a funeral home, a lavish Prohibition Party (that gets into full swing with a Champagne toast at midnight, January 16, 1920, when the Eighteenth Amendment went into effect)—are clearly the work of a master. But the more "stylized" scenes—the surrealist juxtaposition of a shadowed body against bright boardwalk and ocean, for example—all linger about a half-second or second too long, as if Winter and Scorsese are poking you, pointing, and saying, "Isn’t that frame gorgeous?"
Inevitably, the frame—it doesn’t matter which one—is gorgeous, but giving it an extraneous amount of screen time doesn’t make it more so. Thankfully, Winter is a talented enough writer that one can forgive his artistic hubris. Largely devoted to introducing characters, plots and subplots, Boardwalk Empire‘s pilot gives us Buscemi’s Enoch "Nucky" Thompson, "Atlantic City’s esteemed treasurer" (in the words of a fawning Woman’s Christian Temperance Union leader) and a "Republican through and through" (in the sarcastic words of a wiseass ward boss excited about Thompson’s equanimity in splitting bootlegging profits).
Thompson is a widower, and Winter takes pains to illustrate—though it’s been seven years since consumption took his wife—that the man is a wounded flower: Sophie Tucker croons in the background as he dolefully watches a nurse care for premature babies in a boardwalk window (and indeed, seems to follow Nucky around town as a constant, mournful soundtrack). And in a seedling of a subplot, a tender, sentimental streak in Thompson sparks him to start up a strangely intimate, wistful relationship with Margaret Schroeder (Kelly Macdonald), a pregnant immigrant mother brutalized by her husband.
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In Boardwalk‘s first installment, we meet common folk, US Treasury agents (their competence remains to be seen) and gangsters, including young upstarts Arnold Rothstein and Al Capone. Michael Pitt plays Jimmy Darmody, Nucky’s driver/protégé and a restless doughboy back from the western front, haunted by "the things I did over there." Darmody has been transformed by the cauldron of combat into, in his words, "nothing but a murderer," and Pitt delivers his lines with cold eyes and a weary, suspicious timbre. Pitt’s nihilism dovetails nicely with Buscemi’s melancholy, and the two crooks’ different psychological approaches to the black market—Darmody as a baleful gangster, Thompson as a Robin Hood–type who provides his people with booze (for a hefty profit, of course)—work to create a dramatic tension that each actor is more than capable of maintaining.
Boardwalk Empire isn’t overtly political, but the blatant disconnect between a dry, idealistic Congress and a wet, thoroughly corrupt social and political scene in Atlantic City is quite pertinent in the twenty-first century. At a meeting with the city fathers to set up the structure for his bootlegging racket, Buscemi’s Thompson says, "In less than two hours, liquor will be declared illegal by decree of the distinguished gentlemen of our nation’s Congress…. To those beautiful, ignorant bastards!" In 1920s Atlantic City, the District of Columbia might as well be Saturn—a sentiment echoed by the 73 percent of Americans who disapprove of what today’s Congress is up to.
Obviously, Terence Winter and Boardwalk Empire stand on the shoulders of the smart writers and dramas that have preceded them, namely The Sopranos and Mad Men. With the larger, laxer canvas HBO affords, Boardwalk Empire is even more beautiful than Mad Men and more gaudy than the Sopranos, but as in the movie Avatar, in which James Cameron overused visual effects almost to the point of farce, Boardwalk‘s onscreen beauty can border on annoying. Boardwalk Empire has a tendency to wallow in its lavishness, and a sickly sweet streak of self-congratulation pervades every scene, paralleling the violence and heartlessness that roils beneath Nucky’s toothy politician’s grin. In Nucky’s magnificent wardrobe, we see an analog of Winter’s magnificent sets. With its obvious self-awareness, Boardwalk Empire seems to represent the apotheosis of this genre, the last hurrah before self-consciousness, overproduction and bloat send these kinds of series down the road of obsolescence–Heaven’s Gate–style–behind reality TV and medical dramas.
But then, maybe that’s the point. Ironically, in the arms race for ever-better verisimilitude on television, the more fantastic things get, the more real they become, too, reflecting the milieu-over-meaning media environment of 2010. It’s telling that a wedding cake of a show about Roaring Twenties Atlantic City can resonate so loudly—historically and artistically—in what’s supposed to be the glum, Great Recession–era 2010s. With any luck, Boardwalk Empire will tone down the glam to more reasonable levels, laying bare the brilliance of its writing and actors—and we’ll be able to peel back the gloss of our own society, addressing the rot that festers in our lives, outside of our televisions.