Boardwalk Empire: The Beginning Boom of BootleggingS

Well, last night HBO unrolled its latest great hope, a high-budget, prestige drama all about Prohibition-era Atlantic City and its various denizens — from honest but grimy to wealthy but crimey. (Whee!) What'd we all think?

I think many of us would be lying if we said we weren't expecting The Roaring Sopranos. And though this series seems initially lighter and less existential than David Chase's great(est?) mob drama, the similarities are certainly there. We were served (mildly) complex criminal wheelings and dealings, with no concessions made to outright explain everything to the audience. There were brief flashes of terrible violence surrounded by moments of nervous, loaded quiet. And we got a conflicted boss-man at the center, one who is at turns gentle, yearning wistfully for the old and familiar comforts of family, and suddenly harsh and violent. Boardwalk's main character Nucky Thompson is a softer, more erudite Tony S., and heck, he's played by Tony's old cousin whose face met with an unfortunate shotgun incident. Indeed Steve Buscemi has landed the lead on HBO's biggest show in a long while and though he is a wily and capable actor, full of more variation than his Weird & Quirky looks immediately suggest, I'm afraid I share some critics' concern that he might not have the innate presence to lead such a giant show. Buscemi is great as the rat in the corner who occasionally lashes out in the light. But as the anchor, and buoy, of such a big project? Well, we'll have to see if he's up to the task.

Who is unquestionably a perfect fit for his role is Michael Pitt, the young actor who has been so defiantly oddball in fare as varied as Dawson's Creek and Michael Haneke's horrendously brutal Funny Games. Here, Pitt, as a smart but disgruntled WWI vet whom the childless Nucky treats as something of a son, is more open and accessible than I'm used to seeing him, and in doing so lets the fullness of his talent shine. When not hidden behind a set of practiced tics or a perpetually downward gaze, Pitt's instincts reveal themselves to be mature and clever and, most surprisingly, wholly appealing. While the ambitious young guy who disappoints his adoring elder by straying from the herd to strike it out on his own (occasionally with the disastrous results inherent in youthful impetuousness) isn't exactly the newest trope in the book (we miss you, Chrissie Multisanti), it fits well into Empire's comfy traditionalism. Pitt's presence also lightens Buscemi's burden slightly, which is probably a good thing.

Who else? Kelly MacDonald plays cowed and weak well, same as she did in No Country for Old Men. We saw only a brief, hopeful glimpse of The Wire's Michael K. Williams, who will become a series regular, as a bootlegger, later this season. Shea Whigham did his usual faded, fattened, but still dangerous frat boy stuff as Nucky's corrupt policeman brother. Michael Shannon, as a dogged g-man out to catch all the crooks, came armed with his usual intriguing air of controlled menace. And Dana Ivey was brief but memorable as the local leader of the Women's Temperance League. Mostly, though, I was pathetically excited to see Tracy Middendorf, who played crazy Laura on a season of 90210 and one of the doomed underwater Dharma station guardians on Lost, pop up for a second as Babbette, of Babbette's casino. Yay Crazy Laura! IMDB only has her on two episodes, but hopefully there will be more.

Plot-wise the opening episode was unintense, but satisfying. It wasn't quite as knotty and sprawling as I'd hoped, but of course it was only the first episode, and the scene had to be set. Some of guest director Martin Scorsese's usual tricks felt gimmicky in a way that didn't sync well with the whole elaborate period detail, so I'm looking forward to tried-and-true television directors taking over the reins and tightening up the style. And speaking of that period detail! Beautiful sets, gorgeous costumes, slightly eerie Victrola-scratch music. Having been a teenager during those days, I can tell you that it looked exactly like that! I suspect people will be polarized about the Al Capone character — perhaps arguing between corny gotcha! goof and interesting historical nod. I for one enjoyed seeing how crime syndicates in the three big mob cities (well, four if you count Las Vegas later) became linked at the dawn of the liquor ban.

All told, I'm in. Hopefully the show will settle a bit and begin mining some emotional depths. The period gloss is nice to look at and all, but that alone can't sustain a series, I don't think. Given the project's pedigree, I don't doubt that it will get there. Like sweet, sweet illicit and sinful bathtub scotch, I'm confident it will only get better with age.

What'd you think?