Under The Boardwalk
Tripwire continues its list of its Top 30 Crime and Police shows, selected by its editor-in-chief and senior editor. Counting down to its first choice at the end, here’s its 9th entry, HBO’s Boardwalk Empire…
9. Boardwalk Empire
Creator: Terence Winter
Stars: Steve Buscemi, Kelly Macdonald, Michael Shannon
After The Sopranos, one of its alumni went on to create Mad Men, but HBO had turned it down, much to their later chagrin. Eager to retain its place in the cable wars, HBO then came along with Boardwalk Empire, show run as well by a former Sopranos staffer – Terence Winter. Its remit was, like earlier series Rome, to outdo the competition with superior production values, precision in terms of period detail and a heavyweight budget regarding the sets and setting, not to mention a fabled crime movie director in Martin Scorsese to helm the pilot and casting. And indeed, the money is definitely on the screen, with sumptuous reproductions of roaring ‘20s Atlantic City and its environs, along with a tremendous ensemble cast, headed of course by the inimitable Steve Buscemi.
Buscemi’s turn in the Sopranos as Tony’s naïve, doomed cousin Tony Blundetto was a case of miscasting, and yet the role of Nucky Thompson, lynchpin of 1920s Atlantic City’s boardwalk, was atypical for him as well – a taciturn gangster turned politician who rules his domain through subtlety and manipulation, his rather genial gait hiding a ruthless, sociopathic streak and casual attitude to death-dealing. Despite such issues, Buscemi’s pared down, restrained performance works well in this context, as he bats away any insurgency or competition from the more histrionic members of the cast, be they errant kin or sworn enemies. His war-torn protégé, Jimmy Darmody (Michael Pitt) for example is summarily despatched when he oversteps boundaries. And then there’s the rogues’ gallery of other mob scions, some drawn from history, others fictional – Arnold Rothstein (Michael Stuhlbarg), Al Capone (Stephen Graham), Lucky Luciano (Vincent Piazza), Chalky White (Michael Kenneth Williams) and Gyp Rosetti (Bobby Cannavale, not just chewing but swallowing the scenery). All portrayed with gusto, surly menace and big acting, and all grist for Thompson’s machinations.
As was the case with the Sopranos, there are few if any innocents here, and everyone is on the make – Gillian Darmody (Gretchen Mol, superb) for example is a case study of desperation and obsession with power, as she opts for murder to retain control over her ex-partner’s estate, while Michael Shannon’s Prohibition Agent turned villain is a study in severe off-kilter dysfunction, conflict and psychosis. Such are the players in Nucky’s orbit, who are all victims of their demons, and fate. What the series conveys is that the seemingly more buttoned up and elegant past may be another country, but the mores are not that different, with the dialogue fizzing with rancour, colourful language, gut-level ethnic slurs, braggadocio and constant power plays. This is a portrait of a young America and the birth of modern organised crime and its grizzled architects, the backdrop being the chintzy, superficial grandeur of golden age Atlantic City that belies its grimy, rickety underbelly and the residual psychological damage of World War One.
What Boardwalk Empire brought to the table was a beguiling and immersive ghost tour of 1920s America that was also assured in its ambition to be as thorough and exacting a delineation of the era as possible. The bold, explicit yet measured direction and committed method performances kept you in the moment, while the production side brought detail, breadth and scale that had not been seen in this genre before – this was a cinematic and definitive portrayal of Nucky Thompson’s heyday, and as such is unsurpassed, and more than likely to remain that way. Engrossing television, and challenging too, especially in the final series’ coda.
Boardwalk Empire is on Now TV in the UK and on HBO Max in the US now