'Boardwalk Empire' premiere review: Is this going to be your new Sunday appointment-television?

Boardwalk Empire premiered on Sunday night with a lavish pilot directed by Martin Scorsese that zoomed in on Atlantic City in the 1920s. Prohibition has just gone into effect, and the city’s corrupt treasurer — Steve Buscemi’s oily, funny, nihilistic, knobby-kneed Nucky Thompson – is handing out favors and calling in markers right and left. You barely need to check the credits to know that Scorsese directed, because even the planks in the boardwalk gleam with Scorsese’s beautiful, cynical rot. And the fact that the series was created by a graduate of The Sopranos – well, writer-producer Terence Winter has taken what he learned about the allure of amorality and really runs with it here.

Based on a real-life Nucky – Johnson, not Thompson – and on Nelson Johnson’s book of the same title, Boardwalk Empire moves immediately into action-adventure territory. This proves to be a calculated error, since the series would benefit from more scene-setting, in the creation of a world in the manner of (to take just the first HBO comparison that’s most appropriate) Deadwood. The first few hours, even beyond the Scorsese opener, seem leery of dwelling on the historical details that made Atlantic City distinctive during this era. Which is probably one reason why the production felt it necessary to insert title cards such as “Chicago” and “New York City” when the scene changes — the show itself doesn’t do enough to make Atlantic City a distinctive character in its own drama.

The crucial element that will probably determine whether many viewers stick with Boardwalk is whether you want to see Buscemi as the series’ central figure week after week. There’s no denying Buscemi’s power as a character actor over the years — the guy is simply terrific in rattled-man role in movies from Reservoir Dogs to his own Trees Lounge. But does Buscemi’s Nucky carry as much weight (no pun intended) as James Gandolfini’s Tony Soprano or Ian McShane’s Al Swearengen in Deadwood? Having seen a half-dozen Boardwalks, I’d have to say…it’s still hard to say. Which may sound like waffling, but I’m trying to be fair. Early on, Buscemi seems like a bantam-weight star presence, but there are moments, especially in his tender scenes with Kelly Macdonald and his rampaging ones with Michael Pitt, where he’s a riveting blast. Still, the series itself rarely positions him to be as dynamic a figure as Stephen Graham’s explosive Al Capone eventually becomes.

Buscemi’s shifty-eyed fixer has no scruples about ordering beat-downs, but he also has a soft heart for a few people who impress him. One is Michael Pitt’s Jimmy Darmody, a smart but indigent World War I vet who’ll do as he’s told with tortured loyalty in order to rise in Nucky’s operation. The other is Kelly Macdonald’s Margaret, a poor, honest woman trapped in an abusive marriage whom Nucky helps out for reasons that remain a poignant mystery in the early hours of the series. It becomes clear that it’s Jimmy and Margaret, each in very different ways, who are going to carry Boardwalk’s most emotional subplots. Nucky’s opposite number, by contrast, is the government Prohibition Agent Nelson Van Alden, played with a bulldog glare by Michael Shannon — he’s every bit as buttoned up as one of Nucky’s suits.

What bodes well for Boardwalk Empire as a weekly series is that this week’s debut is probably the least typical (the showiest, the slowest) of the episodes I’ve seen. The production becomes more sleek, emotionally complex, and sly in its subsequent hours.

Is this show better than its important Prohibition-era gangster predecents like William Wellman’s The Public Enemy (1931) or Howard Hawks’ Scarface (1932)? No, it is not. Boardwalk lacks those films’ narrative momentum – both movies put the roar in The Roaring 20s – and Buscemi doesn’t possess the feral energy of Enemy’s Jimmy Cagney or the brute force of Scarface’s Paul Muni.

Boardwalk is very much a gangster saga for our times. (It even finds a role for one of the great modern gangsters: Michael Kenneth Williams – the magnificent Omar in The Wire – plays Chalky White, a bootlegger.) What Buscemi brings to this production is his gift for transferring neurotic self-consciousness into a man of action. He may fret about retaining his empire, but you believe Nucky Thompson is a scrawny lord of venality, from his stiff linen collar right down to his immaculate spats.

Still, I’d say Boardwalk Empire has its work cut out for it as a big cable-audience-pleaser, although I wish it the best of luck.

What did you think of the premiere? Will you keep watching?

Follow: @kentucker

Comments (199 total) Add your comment
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  • charlane

    i watched eagerly and fretted that i perhaps put too much pressure on it to be fantastic with such an all star pedigree. i remain cautious and hope it builds from this good opening episode.

    • AK

      STREET TRASH would be my highest KUDO for AC.

    • Nix

      Charlane, you get the points for having the reasonable opinion compared to these other two chuckleheads.

      • AK

        Nix my comments are slightly negative so I lack any credibility?
        IN YOUR TINY MIND, If you do not like the show then I am pointless?
        I wanted to like like it.
        Boardwalk is a DUD. HBO lacks the ability to create great series like ADMEN. Get a life.

    • carolrnjd

      I agree, Charlane – I ordered the book by Nelsom Johnson (no relation to the real Nucky Johnson) because my appetite and curiousity it whetted! A great first episode — we can’t expect everything in the first episode — I will be watching next week.

    • EstherIng

      Is this THE Larry David, who may have friends on the show? That said, I still found the premiere riveting and even delayed watching “Mad Men” to see it all play out. My husband and I love the art deco details. I’m pleased to hear from Ken Tucker that the show gets even better. Yes, this is a show I intend to stick with and promote to my FB friends.

  • Steve D

    I thought it was great. I love Scorcese’s work because it always feels bigger than life, mythical I guess. I think the casting of Busecemi was great because it’s more about a political boss who is losing power more than what we know of as a gangster. I’m very interested to see where it goes. Plus I think the whole cast is terrific. And the writing is still more interesting, intelligent and ambitious than 99% of what’s out there.

    • AK

      I don’t care. Plus I know AC well enough to look at this HBO and Laff. Sopranos I could feel for them on their human level. AC prohibition and blow of some heads. Sorry AC = Trash

      • Alan W

        You’re a goob.

  • This End Up

    Great costumes, but “where’s the Beef?” This ain’t no Carnivale!

    • AK

      That is so true Started out like Carnivale with Mobsters without the supernatural.

      • Tyler

        God. I miss Carnivale. What a great show…

    • MCS

      So sad for the demise of Carnivale still

      • MikeyD

        I agree, Carnival was an excellent series.

  • Nj

    You are an idiot Ken! The show is fantastic!!! Another win for HBO!

    Ps. Your reviews are WAY to wordy

    • Dave

      Too wordy? God forbid anyone should want to read an actual review with a critic’s opinion as opposed to a blurb.

      • veronica

        word. (no pun intended…)

    • AK

      Nucky spends too much time getting dressed.

      • AK

        Buscemo out of character usually plays drug attack and low life.
        AC needs some character development.
        Writers wake up find some Sopranos.

    • paul

      If you are not a “reader.” perhaps you you should subscribe to Paris Hitons Twitter account for your cultural references. :)

  • Kevin

    Had to turn it off 15 minutes early because it cut into Mad Men. But the hour that I saw was good… not great, but definitely has the capacity for greatness.

    • It’s 2010

      You should probably think about getting a DVR.

      • AK

        DVR? HBO’s lineup = AC 19 times 2 days!
        Dump HBO allocate the savings to Redbox or Netfix for more watch content value for the same $$$ or better yet spend more $$$ and enjoy high speed internet content. HBO is outta here! Dinosaurs extinct.

    • Mike

      But that was the beauty of it. In a DVR age an hour and 15 minute show without commercials followed by an hour show WITH commercials means 2 hours of NO commercials! lol Loved Boardwalk Empire and am excited for more. And Mad Men was continuing its awesomeness last night too. No shortage of great TV these days!

      • AK

        HBO Commercials? Get DVR?

    • EstherIng

      That’s why they invented DVRs, my friend. “Mad Men” also repeats at 11.

    • AK

      Interesting common reply: had to change channel and watch ADMEN

  • K

    I really liked it, but then I watched the UNBELIEVABLE Mad Men episode, and I forgot all about it. It was really really good, just not Mad Men good.

  • s

    I thought it was a little boring. I did like the Jimmy character though and maybe give it a chance….but if it continues to be like this idk

    • Ted

      That scene in which the wife’s husband was in no way boring.

      • It’s 2010

        Terrible sentence, Ted.

  • john

    Great!!!!!

  • Boo

    How’s about not reviewing based on comparisons to other actors and productions? This is it’s own story and it is interesting and beautiful. Oh, and by the way, you obviously haven’t done your homework if you think that the portrayal of Atlantic City during that era is anything other than accurate and distinguishing. Fool.

    • Svetlana

      I completely agree with you! Not every single actor who plays a mobster has to be completely over-the-top and act scary and crazy. Unless Ken was around in the 1920’s he really doesn’t know what the the real Nucky was like. I’m sure Steve did his research and knows better then a reviewer how to portray the character.

  • Sandy

    Loved it — and I didn’t expect to. I think Buscemi is a great lead, the boardwalk scenes are terrific, characters rich. I will definitely tune in for the next episode.

  • Ken

    The pilot episode was fantastic. Sure, it’s not going to be the best episode. Most pilots generally aren’t.

  • Dave

    I enjoyed it. It wasn’t perfect, but there is certainly potential here. I agree with some of the points you make, Ken. Steve Buscemi is great. But I’ve always liked him more in supporting roles. He was good here, but so far, I feel that he doesn’t quite yet have the gravitas to carry a show on his own. I don’t know, maybe I’m wrong. But I do believe that as more episodes air, I will come to enjoy him more.
    I really like Michael Pitt here. I actually found myself waiting to see him again when he wasn’t in certain scenes.

  • dianebonner@live.com

    humm,..I’m still not certain whether Buscemi is convincing enough to fill such a larger than life role but overall I did love the supporting cast and seeing Asbury Park, NJ all over my tv screen was just wonderful. I hope real vendors in that town become inspired, make changes and get that town back on its feet. I will definitely watch the show again praying Buscemi grows on me!!

    • AK

      Steve Buscemi is not a dapper guy.

    • Portia

      I actually really like Buscemi in this role because he is NOT “larger than life”. Time and the collective American imagination have made these characters into legends and folk heroes…albeit notorious ones…I like that we are stepping back and looking at these characters in a possibly more human and realistic way.

    • Pope Carmelita I

      Asbury Park? Wrong Boardwalk…have you not been paying attention?

    • Jay Sundell

      This was shot on the boardwalk set in greenpoint Brooklyn and Steiner Studios also in brooklyn. Nothing was shot in NJ. I worked in every episode as a background actor and would have loved it to be in NJ as I live in NJ.

  • J

    I was kinda bored, but I might watch a few more episodes.

  • simon

    Good enough to tune in next week..

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