Sunday, September 25, 2011

Previously on "Boardwalk Empire"

Conceived by two heavyweights of the gangster genre – writer Terence Winter (The Sopranos) and director Martin Scorsese (Goodfellas) – HBO’s Boardwalk Empire tells a Prohibition-era tale of cops and criminals that’s been told dozens of times before. From James Cagney to The Simpsons, the sexy, dangerous world of speakeasies, of volatile gangsters and their no-nonsense pursuers has been explored again and again. What the series has going for it is Winter’s gift for writing complex, surprisingly sympathetic characters and Scorsese’s unmatched flair for gangland brutality. It’s unoriginal but exhilarating, and I can’t get enough of it.

The show is about Enoch “Nucky” Thompson (played by Steve Buscemi), a real-life gangster who in the early 1920s ruled Atlantic City as both a politician and a bootlegger. We see his story unfold in a sprawling narrative, so that what happens in one episode often won’t pay off until much later in the series. This approach doesn’t always work. In the pilot episode (for which Scorsese won an Emmy for his direction), we’re initially confused as to why Nucky fails to punish his lieutenant, Jimmy Darmody (Michael Pitt) after the massacre in the forest; only until later, when we discover the deep bond between the two men, does the pilot make sense. And I’m still baffled by the show’s female lead, Margaret Schroeder (Kelly Macdonald), whose sudden transformation from dedicated member of the Women’s Temperance League to gangster’s moll is never explained. I’m hoping the writers will shed more light on her character in the second season.

Each episode opens with shots of Nucky looking out to sea as the tide brings in bottles of booze and “Straight Up and Down” by The Brian Jonestown Massacre wails on the soundtrack. It’s beautifully done but also kind of meaningless. The same could be said of the show itself. This is reportedly the most expensive TV show yet produced, and every cent is up onscreen; the period-perfect recreation of the boardwalk, with its carnival-like atmosphere, is particularly striking. But viewers looking for resonance will have to look elsewhere. (Check out AMC’s brilliant Breaking Bad to see a similar story told in a modern context and with far more thematic heft.) The character of Nucky Thompson – a transparently corrupt politico – is a goldmine of subtext, but Winter and his writers haven’t quite nailed down an overarching idea yet. In Season 2, I’d like to see more scenes like the one where Nucky meets Warren G. Harding (Malachy Cleary), amusingly portrayed as an empty suit spouting Republican talking points.

Does the series romanticize criminality a la The Godfather? You bet. Nucky and his friends have on tap an endless supply of women, played by actresses as exquisite as Gretchen Mol and the always game Paz de la Huerta. That’s not to say Boardwalk Empire doesn’t show the high price of vice. The violence can be almost cruelly upsetting, like when Pearl (Emily Meade), the beautiful working girl who falls hard for Jimmy, gets her face slashed.

I’m usually a big fan of Buscemi, but I’m afraid he’s been miscast in the lead role. He lacks the sexiness and charisma that the part requires, and he’s simply not credible as an enforcer. (Notice the trick camerawork and editing Scorsese uses to get around this in the pilot episode, when Nucky smashes a guy’s face on a bar top.) Michael Shannon (Revolutionary Road) is an equally sensational performer, but he’s stuck in the flat role of the humorless, self-flagellating Agent Van Alden. These two are such unbelievable nemeses they might as well be players in the classic Simpsons episode where alcohol is outlawed in Springfield, with Buscemi in the role of Homer and Shannon in the role of Rex Banner.

My personal favorites on the show are all supporting characters. Michael Stuhlbarg is smug perfection as Arnold Rothstein, the New York gangster who attempts to move in on Nucky’s territory. Stuhlbarg’s precise enunciations and condescending smile are all the more astonishing if you’ve seen his performance as the neurotic professor in the Coen Broethers’ A Serious Man. I also love Anthony Laciura as Eddie Kessler, Nucky’s bumbling butler who performs beyond the call of duty during an assassination attempt on the boardwalk. But my favorite character by far is Richard Harrow (Jack Huston), a marksman who wears a tin mask to cover up injuries he suffered in WWI. He’s the show’s Phantom of the Opera figure, and while this well-tread gangster epic is always entertaining, it’s only ever haunting when Harrow is onscreen.

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