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Devil's Playground: Some Further Thoughts on HBO's Addictive Boardwalk Empire

Tonight brings the premiere of what is hands-down the best new series of the year (or indeed in recent memory), as HBO launches the Terence Winter/Martin Scorsese period drama Boardwalk Empire, a provocative period drama that mines Prohibition era-Atlantic City to superb effect, revealing the corruption and sin lurking behind the bathtub gin, the depravity enabled by smugglers, and the lengths that men on both sides of the alcohol issue will go to hold onto their power.

All roads, it seems, even those not yet built, lead to the Jersey Shore's glittering beachside gem.

Over at The Daily Beast, I selected Boardwalk Empire--based on the strength of its superlative first six episodes--as one of nine new series that you must watch this fall. Here's what I had to say:

WATCH: Boardwalk Empire (HBO; premieres September 19)

Travel back in time to a world of flappers, rum-runners, crooked politicians, g-men, and mobsters with household names in HBO's period drama Boardwalk Empire, set in Atlantic City at the start of Prohibition. Created by Terence Winter (The Sopranos) and executive produced by Martin Scorsese (who also directed the pilot), the plot follows the exploits of the city's treasurer, Enoch "Nucky" Thompson (Steve Buscemi), his protégé Jimmy Darmody (Michael Pitt), Irish widow Margaret Schroeder (Kelly Macdonald), and a cast of colorful characters, including savage dandy Chalky White (Michael Kenneth Williams), Al Capone (Stephen Graham), Lucky Luciano (Vincent Piazza), and terrifying Prohibition agent Van Alden (Michael Shannon). Plus, more dancers, hookers, smugglers, and urchins than you can shake a tassel at. The result is a vivid and gripping portrait of a city ensnared by corruption and awash in a sea of illicit booze. That sound you hear isn't the firing of tommy guns; it's your heart pounding.

(You can also read my feature on Boardwalk Empire--in which I sit down with creator Terence Winter, Steve Buscemi, and Kelly Macdonald--over at The Daily Beast.)

While the capsule review sums up some of my feelings about Boardwalk Empire, it's impossible to really boil down this remarkable and ambitious project into a few scant sentences. In the hands of Winter, Scorsese, Tim Van Patten, the craftsmen, actors, and writers, these gifted artisans recreate the Atlantic City of 1920 in such staggering detail, down the little off-color touches, that it's impossible not to get sucked into what becomes a booze-doused Wonderland.

In Nucky Thompson, the venal Atlantic City treasure, Steve Buscemi has found the role that he was born to play, a magnetic politician whose rule isn't so much lead by an iron fist but by the velvet glove of shared benefit. He lives on the eighth floor of the boardwalk Ritz-Carlton and he inhabits this world with the polish and charm of an exiled prince, one who still takes the time to meet with his constituents after rolling out of bed at 4 o'clock in the afternoon. It's Nucky's very hypocrisy--he's far from a teetotaler and yet still speaks passionately (if not at all truthfully) at the Women's Temperance League.

But Nucky does care, if a bit too much, about some of the individuals who come into his orbit, including his haunted protege Jimmy (Michael Pitt), newly returned from World War I who wants more out of life than a Princeton degree. His arc takes him on a journey of both self-discovery and a descent into the world of crime, pairing him with a young Brooklyn upstart named Al Capone (Stephen Graham).

And then there's the pious and well-meaning Margaret Schroeder (Kelly Macdonald), an Irish mother and Temperance supporter who has caught Nucky's eye, despite the sexual charms of his girlfriend Lucy (Paz de la Huerta). Macdonald makes Margaret wholly sympathetic, even as she falls under Nucky's spell as much as he does hers. Her journey from abused wife to something unexpected and compelling is a masterclass in understated acting. There's a real spark between the two of them that's intoxicating even as it is completely unusual in these types of stories. The lure that Margaret has for Nucky, however, makes sense within the context of his backstory and the early death of his wife.

But the series is far more than just the romance between these two. Instead, it's a dazzling mosaic comprised of gangsters, widows, smugglers, politicos, thieves, thugs, hookers, and tourists. Thanks to the strength of directors like Scorsese and Van Patten, it's a gorgeously shot production that doesn't gloss over the ugliness of the time period, the plight of vote-deprived women, of the blacks toiling away for pennies amid the privilege and excess, of the blood-splatter and larceny that mark the birth of organized crime.

In other words: pour yourself a stiff drink and settle in tonight to watch this remarkable new drama when it launches tonight.

Boardwalk Empire premieres tonight at 9 pm ET/PT on HBO.


Lydia said…
For a show about prohibition and the rise of the classic gangsters, the show sure was boring. Really, really boring. And as a fan of Mad Men, it's not like I want action sequences every 2 mins and explosions galore.

But if MM has taught me one thing, can't judge a show by it's pilot, so I'll stick around and see if it gets any better.

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