In the debut episode of HBO’s period gangster epic “Boardwalk Empire,” which premieres Sunday at 9 p.m., a character is murdered in a public place, a brutal act that kicks off a music montage showing various violent deeds spinning off from the same group of Atlantic City gangsters.
It’s such a classic mob movie moment that only two living directors should be allowed to film such a sequence in the way that it’s filmed: Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese.
Fortunately for “Boardwalk Empire” creator Terence Winter, he got Scorsese.
So a sequence that in lesser hands would feel like the umpteenth rip-off of “The Godfather” and “Goodfellas” instead plays like a master doing variations on one of his most famous themes.
That’s the case for much of “Boardwalk Empire,” not just in the Scorsese-directed pilot, but later episodes where directors like Tim Van Patten and Allen Coulter very much maintain Scorsese’s fluid style. Much of the show will seem familiar in one area or another – a little bit “Godfather,” a little bit “Deadwood” and “Sopranos” and (as Winter himself will readily admit) a whole lotta “White Heat” – yet it’s so impeccably-crafted that the whole feels more original than the sum of its parts.
With Scorsese, “Sopranos” alums like Winter, Van Patten, Coulter and star Steve Buscemi and an enormous budget that included building a recreation of the Atlantic City boardwalk circa 1920, “Boardwalk Empire” comes with as much hype and as many expectations as any new drama in recent memory. HBO has thrown a lot of money and talent at a problem – that problem being the sense that, even with the success of “True Blood,” the channel has been running on fumes since the days of Tony, Paulie Walnuts and company – and for once, that approach has succeeded. Despite some unavoidable bumps as Winter introduces us to a strange new world and its enormous population, “Boardwalk Empire” has sweep, style, grand characters and chilling moments. It”s fantastic.
We open in 1920, literally on the night before Prohibition starts and alcohol is outlawed throughout America. Atlantic City is not taking it well. A man and woman are seen pushing a baby carriage filled with liquor bottles (they have to carry the baby in their arms), while a group of men in blackface are holding a mock funeral for John Barleycorn himself.
Through this mess strides Buscemi as Enoch “Nucky” Thompson, known in respected circles as the treasurer of Atlantic County, and in less respected ones as the most powerful fixer on the east coast. Where others see Prohibition as a reason to freak out, or mourn, Nucky sees only dollar signs. To crooks like Nucky, Prohibition is a license to print money, unintentionally granted by the United States Congress.
“Everybody wants what they ain’t allowed to have,” Nucky explains – and by God, he’s going to give it to them, at a steep markup.
The doomed experiment that was Prohibition, and the explosion of organized crime it created, is incredibly fertile territory. It allows Winter to mix a group of real-life wiseguys like gambler Arnold Rothstein (Michael Stuhlbarg from “A Serious Man”) and Lucky Luciano (Vincent Piazza) with fictional characters like Michael Shannon’s religious zealot of a Prohibition agent Nelson Van Alden, as well as ones in between like Nucky himself.
(Winter changed the last name and some of the biographical details from the real Nucky Johnson so he wouldn’t be bound by history, and so viewers couldn’t spoil the whole series for themselves with a quick Google search.)
With so many “Sopranos” alums involved, echoes of HBO”s last series about Jersey wiseguys are inevitable. Nucky”s protege Jimmy Darmody (Michael Pitt), a World War I veteran who wants to advance faster than Nucky will let him, comes across as Christopher Moltisanti by way of Scorsese-era Leonardo DiCaprio. Nucky”s ex-showgirl lover Lucy (Paz de la Huerta) is sexy but also moody and unfiltered in a way that evokes many of Tony”s mistresses. Winter wrote most of the funniest “Sopranos” episodes (including “Pine Barrens”) and his black sense of humor is all over this show. There are beefs over jokes taken too far and gifts not properly appreciated and frequent tensions between New Jersey and New York.
Yet the scope is grander – spotlighting various corners of Atlantic City society, criminal and otherwise, and extending out to Chicago and Washington, D.C. – in a way that ultimately evokes other HBO dramas like “Deadwood” or “Rome” or “The Wire” more than it does the adventures of Tony and Carmela. “The Sopranos” was a character study and a cynical look at turn-of-the-millennium social decay. “Boardwalk Empire” is a more straightforward gangster story, and one that”s oddly optimistic even with all the violence. Tony lamented that he came in at the end of something, where Nucky is there at the start.
Buscemi is an unconventional choice to front this show. The real Nucky was a big bear of a man, unconflicted about his criminal enterprise, where Buscemi is small and sarcastic and, at the start, reluctant about the violence that”s coming along with all the money he and his friends stand to make from bootlegging.
“You can”t be half a gangster, Nucky,” Jimmy tries to tell him. “Not anymore.”
But if Buscemi is an unexpected main man, he”s also a superb one, helping to center the complicated plot and huge cast of characters and adding a moral heft that keeps the show from ever letting itself become Prohbition”s Greatest Hits. And in a storyline involving Kelly Macdonald as an Irish immigrant trapped in a bad marriage, Buscemi proves a surprisingly convincing, tender romantic lead.
And the cast around him is wonderful, given one incredible bit of business after another to play by Winter and his writers. Pitt matches Buscemi”s gravity as Jimmy tries to cope with the things he did and saw in the war, and becomes a strong co-lead when much of the action switches to Chicago. As Agent Van Alden tells a potential recruit that their mission is “a godly pursuit,” Shannon”s voice cracks and rumbles in a manner suggesting that his God is an unforgiving Old Testament type. As Rothstein, Stuhlbarg gets to deliver one hypnotic monologue after another that makes clear why all these Irish and Italian tough guys are so fearful of this Jewish money man, and then Michael Kenneth Williams (Omar from “The Wire,” here playing Nucky”s counterpart in Atlantic City”s African-American community) tops him with a dazzling speech that will never let you look at a bookcase the same way again.
The characters are so numerous and colorful that the show occasionally suffers from information overload in the early going. There”s a scene in the pilot where Van Alden tries to identify all the major players to his confused partner that tries to dress up the exposition with humor, yet I very much empathized with the partner during a later sequence where I lost track of who was who.
But as with the best of these broad canvas series, the players and their allegiances become clear within an episode or two. And from that point on, “Boardwalk Empire” becomes everything that HBO (and I) had hoped for it.
In an exchange that”s been featured in most of the trailers for the show, Jimmy again tries to push Nucky for a promotion, telling him, “All I want is an opportunity.”
“This is America, ain’t it?” a frustrated Nucky replies. “Who the fuck”s stopping you?”
With this cast, this setting, this director and this budget, Winter has been given a tremendous opportunity to make something that might one day be discussed in the gangster pantheon with “Public Enemy” or “The Godfather” or, yes, “The Sopranos.” And it looks like he”s running with it.
EARLIER: An interview with “Boardwalk Empire” creator Terence Winter.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org