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Quick Hits: Pilot Season — Boardwalk Empire

October 20th, 2010

Well late on posting this Quick Hits, but better late than never.

It’s Pilot season in America. There certainly seems to be more shows that at least have the potential to be intriguing. There’s the can’t miss in HBO’s Boardwalk Empire, the LOST clone in NBC’s The Event, the waiting-to-see-if-it-can-deliver in AMC’s The Walking Dead and a host of other intriguing new shows. I may not drop thoughts on all of them, but I will try to give my initial thoughts on some of those that catch my eye. After some work related delays, I’m getting back into it with HBO’s Boardwalk Empire.

So of all the shows that were hotly anticipated, perhaps there was none more so than the HBO Steve Buscemi vehicle Boardwalk Empire. Promising production values that rivaled Band of Brothers, a cast of very solid character actors and a storyline and period setting that reeked of promise, it was hard not to be excited for Sunday nights with Boardwalk Empire and AMC’s Rubicon (my Quick Hits reviews thereof) and Mad Men.

Although I have been a bit delinquent in previewing the show, Boardwalk Empire is undoubtedly the best new pilot so far this season. It lives up to the billing of a Martin Scorsese production. Scorsese directed the pilot and serves as executive producer on the series. The pilot, in particular, was shot brilliantly with a heavy dollop of film cinematography. In particular, the initial boardwalk scene, traversing the Atlantic City shore with a single shot, had a tremendous, almost epic feel to it.

Click through for more. 

Nucky Thompson is a character befitting the scope of the cinematography. He is, for lack of a better term, a Boss Tweed character. For those unfamiliar with Tweed, he was one of the most powerful figures of 19th Century America. As a supposed civil servant, Tweed ran the Democratic machine, controlled the largest municipal budget in the world, waged perhaps the largest corruption scheme in world history, and made many graft friends and political enemies (such as “Harper’s Weekly” illustrator Thomas Nast). Ultimately, what made Tweed great (in an evil, corrupt way) was that he was that man who pulled all the strings as the Grand Sachem of Tammany Hall and the key player on the City’s Board of Advisers.

Nucky Thompson is a Prohibition Era version of Boss Tweed, having a hand in just about everything.

Like Tweed, Nucky controls both the political hierarchy and the graft and shakedown rings in his community. His power is consolidated and enhanced through the imposition of the Volstead Act, bringing fore the Prohibition Era in American history. Above all else, prohibition granted to criminals greater power and profits, but as narcotics prohibition has permitted gang leaders to accumulate as much power as political leaders in Columbia, northern Mexico and various communities along the drug smuggling lines. Although most American communities have retained power in the face of growing criminal enterprises built around the drug trade, except for certain inner city communities, narcotics prohibition has not reached the level of gangland supremacy as during the Prohibition Era.

In any respect, Nucky is the city Treasurer / Comptroller. He lives out of the Ritz Hotel on the Boardwalk, surrounded by high priced trophy girlfriends, butlers and people who pay homage in order to get a piece of the action.

Surrounding Nucky are a who’s who of the Prohibition Era royalty. Al Capone shows up early and both Arnold Rothstein and Lucky Luciano look to be playing major roles from New York. But the primary secondary characters are Nucky’s brother (the police chief, Eli Thompson played by Shea Whigham) and Jimmy Darmody (a war hero and lackey to Nucky, played by Michael Pitt). They are countered by a Prohibition Federal Marshall (Agent Sebso) played by Erik Weiner who is intent on investigating and bringing down both Nucky and, more immediately, Jimmy, whom he suspects in the roadside murder and booze heist that serves as the cornerstone of the pilot.

Also promising to be a prominent figure is The Wire‘s own Omar Little, actor Michael K. Williams.  Omar returns to his gangland roots as a bootlegger named Chalky White in Atlantic City’s African American community. As with anything played by Omar, even just his appearance on the screen adds an element of awesome.

Omar comin' yo. Michael K. Williams is in another role in which to shine.

Also showing promise is a dedication to accurately bringing in the period piece motif. Taking a page from Mad Men, the show has painstakingly recreated fine details of the era, from the lighting fixtures to the vacuum cleaner and dialect.

Finally, the show seems to get that you can survive in television while trying to utilize scenery and props to command a message. And deliver this show does. Quite frankly, it has everything you look for in a fine new series. It has outstanding character actors, excellent cinematography, great scripts and the potential for sophisticated story lines without the frivolity that we’ve seen in most of the new series (even those I’ve liked). It is off to a near seamless start in its first three episodes and really only has one fault in permitting it’s introductory credits delve a little too closely to that of Big Love. The green-screen introduction just doesn’t play that well.

In any respect, Boardwalk Empire most certainly deserves the A rating I give it now, having seen the first three episodes.

  1. Henry Nichols
    October 29th, 2010 at 14:15 | #1

    One of the things I <3 most about the series is the artful inclusion of Arnold Rothstein and Johnny Torrio as major characters. To this point culturally, both were primarily only known to mafia history aficionados like me as the grandfathers of the "godfathers", as each were the braintrust kingpins upon which NYC and Chicago families, respectively, would base the majority of their organized crime philosophy through most of the 20th century.

    I can only hope to see Meyer Lansky (publicly known as Luciano's sidekick but almost universally regarded by historians as the most powerful U.S. mafia kingpin ever) added to the cast of characters at some point in the show.

  2. admin
    October 29th, 2010 at 16:01 | #2

    @Henry Nichols I must admit that, due in large part to being swamped at work and staying on a couch while in between apartments for a couple of weeks, I haven’t been able to get terribly caught up in the show. I’m somewhat resigned to having to either wait for a marathon in a few weeks to catch up or it’s DVDs for me in the fall.

    I do really, really like the show though. Didn’t know you were a mafia historian? Is that how you learned about Calipari?

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