Boardwalk Empire episode 1 review: Pilot

Martin Scorsese directs the first episode of HBO's latest big budget production, Boardwalk Empire. Here's our review...

“It’s not TV. It’s HBO.” goes the slogan, and the seismic impact that those five words have had on the television industry cannot be underestimated.

Previously known mainly for cult comedies like Larry Sanders, movie premieres and live boxing, in 1999 the Home Box Office cable channel quietly launched a new drama series based around the life of New Jersey mobster Tony Soprano.

The lack of PCC restrictions and pressure from advertisers meant that the show could be as violent, raunchy and profane as the Coppola and Scorsese movies it was so clearly influenced by. This freedom, coupled with an exceptional team of actors, directors and writers, led to The Sopranos receiving an almost unprecedented level of critical praise.

The anodyne cop and courtroom dramas of network TV were shown up as the ambition-free fluff that they were, and HBO quickly responded to this new demand for ‘quality’ TV by following up The Sopranos with other modern classics like The Wire, Deadwood, Six Feet Under, Rome and Carnivale.

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A decade later, however, and HBO’s status as the harbinger of the new golden age of American TV is in danger of being overlooked. Other pay TV networks have had huge critical and commercial hits with Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Battlestar Galactica, Sons Of Anarchy, and The Shield, while network TV has also upped its game steadily, with big budgets being spent on intelligent, unusual dramas like Lost, Friday Night Lights and Fringe.

Meanwhile, HBO has lost its flagship shows and many of its viewers, and recent shows like True Blood and Big Love have divided fans and critics. They badly need a big hit. They need a big, prestige production, a clarion call to go across the television landscape that says ‘‘we do this better than anyone else’. That clarion call arrives this week in the form of Boardwalk Empire.

Opening on the eve of the enforcement of prohibition, Boardwalk Empire presents us with Atlantic City treasurer Nucky Thompson (Steve Buscemi) as he attempts to negotiate between fishermen, politicians and mob bosses in order to keep his city saturated with illegal booze, despite the attentions of the FBI and the IRS.

In this pilot episode, we are also introduced to Nucky’s driver, college boy and war veteran  Jimmy Darmody (Michael Pitt), whose ambitions and disillusionment with civilian life have made him impatient for involvement in Nucky’s newly-expanding empire. We also meet Margaret Schroeder (Kelly Macdonald), a timid, pregnant woman who bonds with Nucky and appeals to him to help out her abusive, alcoholic husband, and Stephen Graham as an abrasive, low level hood who shares Jimmy’s loftier ambitions. To reveal more about his character would spoil one of the pilot’s best surprises.

First and foremost, Boardwalk Empire definitely looks the part. The pilot reportedly cost $20 million, and every dollar is up on screen in the lavish period detail. Costume, set design and special effects (there’s even some impressively unexpected CGI gore) are as good as we’ve ever seen in a television programme.

It’s also a sign of how far HBO’s star has risen since 1999 that their Scorsese-influenced mob dramas are now directed by Martin Scorsese, and he directs the pilot with the kinetic flair and energy you would expect from him. All of his trademark flourishes are there. Freeze frame? Check. Extravagant tracking shots? Check. Brutal violence? Check.  Soundtrack dissonance? Check. There’s no fewer than three montages of violence or criminal activity that are soundtracked by a stand-up comedian and two jaunty pieces of period music, respectively.

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Boardwalk Empire has an excellent ensemble cast, but the obvious standout is Steve Buscemi as Nucky. He underplays the role magnificently, bringing a real charisma and gravitas to the role that essentially carries along the whole pilot. He’s a joy to watch, and he’s on-screen a lot. His stern, measured, entirely fictional speech to an audience of enraptured members of the Women’s Temperance League is funny and riveting, and his scenes with Kelly Macdonald are heartbreaking.

Clearly, Buscemi, one of the best character actors of recent years, is relishing the leading man status, and despite his magnificent career to date there’s every possibility that this will be seen as his defining role.

Surprisingly, given the pedigree of Sopranos alumni Terrence Winter, Boardwalk Empire‘s weak point is the script. Even if you’ve only seen a handful of gangster films, there are moments in the pilot that definitely tip over into cliché, with the final assassination being just a bit too reminiscent of The Godfather et al for my taste.

There is also a late scene where Nucky is walking along the beachfront boardwalk, ruminating over his future, when he stops to peer in a psychic’s storefront window. She fixes him with a meaningful glance, before the camera shows Nucky’s wistful face reflected against words painted on the window, which are, I kid you not, “What does the future hold for you?”

It’s disappointing to see this kind of lazy narrative shorthand from someone who worked on The Sopranos, a show that did symbolism, allusion and foreshadowing so subtly and effectively.

The dialogue also lacks verve and snap, on occasion sounding a little stilted and forced, especially when compared to the insanely profane and lyrical exchanges in fellow HBO period piece, Deadwood.

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These niggles are of the sort that are easily forgiven in a first episode, however, and overall, this is one of the most entertaining and fully formed television pilots that you’ll ever see.

I’m very excited to see where Scorsese and Winter are going to take the show next, and there’s every reason to believe that Boardwalk Empire will get better and better with every episode. If so, we could be looking at a future classic.

Follow Paul Martinovic on twitter: @paulmartinovic.