TV Eye: Under the 'Boardwalk'

A new HBO series explores seedy, Prohibition-era Atlantic City

<i>Boardwalk Empire</i>
Boardwalk Empire

Just when I begin to worry that my tastes have become those of a 12-year-old boy, I remember that I'm still a rabid fan of AMC's Mad Men and Rubicon. "Too slow" is the common complaint I hear of these series. Or, in the case of Mad Men, which is set during the 1960s with its very distinct sense of fashion and style, some people grouse that it's all about the look. Well, I guess we'll have to agree to disagree. If it's action you want, see my loving endorsement of the new Hawaii Five-0 on the Picture in Picture blog (austinchronicle.com/pip). In the meantime, I've had some thoughts on the new thing that's supposed to knock our collective socks off: Boardwalk Empire.

The highly hyped HBO series is set in Atlantic City during the dawn of Prohibition. Luxury hotels along the boardwalk welcomed the rich and not so rich. As long as you had a little green (and you weren't black, Latino, or some other undesirable), you were welcome. "For a few dollars," HBO press materials state, "a working man could get away and live like a king – legally or illegally."

Now that's interesting – the seed for potential class conflict – and it's in the pilot, kind of. What is more present is the very thing critics complain about when trashing Mad Men: lots of attention to the scenery, perhaps because a big-screen filmmaker (Martin Scorsese) directed the pilot (written by Terence Winter). But that's not my biggest complaint. My biggest complaint is that I am not feeling Steve Buscemi in the lead role as Enoch "Nucky" Thompson. By day, Nucky is Atlantic City's treasurer, but being the brains behind the city's rum-running trade is his clandestine (and more lucrative) role. Nucky is a politician just as at ease charming the ladies of the Temperance League as he is cutting deals with shady characters eager to make a buck off booze. Nucky still carries a torch for his dead wife, has a soft spot for babies and women in need, and spends a lot of time staring into windows – presumably, as a way for viewers to get a glimpse of Nucky's interior self. In the pilot episode, he looks through the window of a storefront featuring underweight babies (1920s boardwalk entertainment). Another time, he's peering into the shop of a palm reader who looks up from her client to give Nucky one of those hard stares that is supposed to convey – what? Maybe viewers are supposed to collect these looks for a big reveal later, but I'm skeptical. Very skeptical, especially since remembering these snapshots are going to be a challenge week to week (perhaps Boardwalk Empire is destined to be one of those series best viewed during a long weekend on DVD). Buscemi, who is so great in, well, most everything else he's ever been in, seems strangely hemmed in here. Maybe it's the tailored suits. He seems most alive during humorous asides and double takes that are peppered throughout.

Fortunately, Buscemi has a strong supporting cast. Kelly Macdonald (stunning in HBO's 2005 TV movie The Girl in the Cafe) brings quiet intensity as a young mother who seeks Nucky's help, igniting what looks to be an ongoing relationship. Michael Pitt (Last Days) co-stars as Jimmy Darmody, a veteran recently returned home. He's eager to take his place as Nucky's right-hand man and bristles when he's relegated to driver and errand boy. Waiting on Nucky gives Jimmy lots of time to chat up his fellow underlings, including a young Al Capone (Stephen Graham). In no time, they begin to work their own deals. But my favorite supporting character is Senior Prohibition Agent with the Department of Internal Revenue Nelson Van Alden, played by the chisel-faced Michael Shannon. Believing his mission to squash the rum-running trade is God's work, he is both scary and sympathetic. There's a lot going on under Van Alden's regulation fedora, and I'm curious to find out what it is.

New episodes of Boardwalk Empire air Sundays at 8pm on HBO. Check local listings for additional airtimes.

What else is on TV Eye's mind? Check out my micro reviews of other new TV series on Twitter (@ChronicleTVEye) and longer reviews online at austinchronicle.com/pip.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Boardwalk Empire, Hawaii Five-O, Martin Scorsese, Terence Winter, Steve Buscemi, Michael Pitt, Kelly Macdonald, Michael Shannon

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