After doing my duty to Lone Star yesterday, it’s time to bite the bullet and write about Boardwalk Empire, which is as stunning as promised. In some respects, it comes off like the standard issue big-drama HBO show: many, many characters, complicated plotlines, distinctive setting, naked ladies, etc. etc. Of course, the previous list of characteristics also describes HBO’s True Blood, so the question is why True Blood was an absurd mess this season and why Boardwalk Empire is amazing.
To be fair, a show like True Blood is currently coping with a range of challenges Boardwalk Empire won’t have to deal with for a long time, namely, the structure of plot and character development three seasons in as opposed to the fresh slate of brand new narrative. It’s entirely possible that three years from now, Boardwalk Empire will be stretched between seven different unrelated stories and increasingly sloppy characterizations, but at the moment, everything feels surprising and looks gorgeous. Seriously, the Atlantic City boardwalk set is stunning, and I completely understand why Steve Buscemi’s character Nucky Thompson spends time just staring into store fronts: it is a fabulously detailed and persuasive set. And the choreography is…well, what you’d expect when it’s an episode of television directed by Martin Scorcese. There are some particularly great intercuts between toy soldiers falling down and real life violence and between the FBI raid and the liquor delivery hijacking, as well as some lovely shots of Nucky as he contemplates the boardwalk. The image below in particular reminds me of the moment before a silhouetted man in a bowler cap shifts from real life into a surrealist Magritte landscape, something that doesn’t seem far beneath the surface in a place with a preemie hospital/tourist attraction.
The show has so much going for it. Amazing setting and creative design, interesting characters crossing a range of social statuses, great historical moment, and even Steve Buscemi, who doesn’t immediately strike one as a leading man, works really well in the lead role. I was also pleased by the opening depictions of Nucky Thompson’s character and the dilemma that seems to be driving this episode into the rest of the season, because the forces Nucky feels caught between by the pilot’s ending are real questions rather than fake, predictable conflict. His fear of moving too deeply into violence and true gangster tactics is well justified, but so is his desire to take advantage of the obvious opportunity Prohibition offers, both politically and in the black market. The only major downside of the pilot is the deluge of plot and character introduction, which even the most diligent viewer might need to rewind occasionally if you didn’t catch relationship between Big Jim and Johnny Torrio on the first go around.
What I’m most excited about for the show’s future is to watch how it will develop in relation to the history it uses as a foundation. Unlike most big shows that come out of prose source material (like, for example, the aforementioned True Blood), Boardwalk Empire comes out of a non-fictional account of the history of Atlantic City, Boardwalk Empire: The Birth, High Times, and Corruption of Atlantic City. What does a long narrative look like when its basis is fact rather than fiction? The pilot seems to proactively offer an answer to that question in Nucky’s insistence that truth never get in the way of a good story, but I’m curious about how far that lenience will extend. Mostly I just want to watch the next episode – I want more Michael K. Williams than the pittance introduction he receives in the pilot!