Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Boardwalk Empire - Season 1

The most remarkable thing about Boardwalk Empire might be that its main cast features two Steves and no fewer than four Michaels. Besides that though, the first season, while not quite living up the billing of the great crime dramas of HBO's past, was still a very good show with loads of potential going forward. It was created by Terence Winter, who wrote frequently for The Sopranos, and was executive produced by Martin Scorsese, who also kicked things off by directing the pilot. So it has a strong legacy, and it's no surprise that is was a success out of the gate. It doesn't quite have the magic of a true classic series yet, but I still feel like it could be one. What's most interesting so far is how it mixes together all its elements of politics, business, and crime. Other shows have covered all of these topics, but they're all brought together at once by the central figure of Nucky Thompson, and it's a twist we haven't quite seen before. There's just something intriguing about a man who can influence candidates for national office and then turn around and order an execution, and Steve Buscemi is great in the role. He doesn't have the fire or passion of someone more charismatic, but there's something equally compelling in his cold and calculating demeanor. He rarely lets anger get in the way of a good deal, and its this that makes him powerful yet also keeps him alone. The show might not work without him.

Nucky is just one part of it though, as there's a whole world revolving around him. If I'm being honest, the show feels less like it takes place in 1920 and more like a modern series about what 1920 is like, which isn't really a complaint, just an observation. It takes place mostly in Atlantic City, but also partly in the New York and Chicago of that time, and likes showing a lot of the corrupt politics and criminal dealings that happen around Nucky, as well as rooting a lot of the story in history. Obviously prohibition is the major subject of the show, but there's also women's suffrage, the presidential election, and all sorts of miscellaneous events that come up. It's a wonderful looking series, with its own boardwalk set and endlessly gorgeous cinematography that helps the period feel. The sets and costumes look great, and it all adds up to something prettier than just about any other series. Again, I didn't believe I was watching 1920, but it helps a lot when your series is enjoyable even in moments where very little is happening. This being HBO, of course there's plenty of violence and nudity. There's an almost comical amount of naked women around, and I thought the show might have been going for some sort of record for consecutive episodes with nudity before they broke the string late in the season. The violence serves the story a bit more, and it's usually visceral and shocking when it shows up. There are of course a few Scorsese-esque moments where things get operatic and there are montages of death set against more mundane events, but they are rare and well-earned.

The cast is great, featuring a mix of fictional characters and notable figures from history like various politicians and infamous criminals. I don't want to go through everyone, but I'll mention a few that were particularly interesting. Michael Shannon plays Nelson Van Alden, a prohibition agent and one scary, psychotic son of a bitch. Stephen Graham proves again he was born to play crooks, portraying a perversely likable Al Capone. Michael Stuhlbarg was perfect in A Serious Man, but he proves he has a lot of range as elite criminal moneymaker Arnold Rothstein. Michael K. Williams was underused as Chalky White, and I hope he gets more moments like the tools scene in season two. And while it's kind of a silly character, Anthony Laciura playing Nucky's German butler was always fun. There are plenty of supporting members as well, the most notable probably being Jack Huston's Richard Harrow, a veteran of the war missing half his face who becomes a useful and completely terrifying member of Nucky's network. Most of the characters get a nice arc over the course of the season, as everyone has grown up a little and accepted more of what world they live in by the finale. The set up for next year isn't made too explicit, but it's pretty obvious what the major story ideas going forward will be, and I can't wait to see them play out.

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