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.