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Saturday, 27 of February of 2021

Boardwalk Empire – “Boardwalk Empire”

Nucky at the docks

Isn't this supposed to be Jennifer Connelly in a dress...?

As part of the new fall season coverage, we’re doing what we call audition reviews for new shows. An audition review doesn’t necessarily mean the show will enter the normal rotation, but it will provide an initial reaction to a new series. Especially in light of time shifting practices, we think this is a valuable way to read brief reviews on new series to help you decide if you want to watch the show. For those who watch it live, it’s a good way to begin a conversation about a new series. These reviews will typically be shorter than our regular reviews, and may include thoughts from more than one of our writers.

In the show HBO hopes will make itself not TV again (it’s been floundering with its original programming due to a mess of executives, like a broadcast network), Steve Buscemi plays Enoch “Nucky” Thompson, the gangster/pillar of the community that has been allowing Atlantic City to thrive. But times, as they say, are a changin’, and Nucky has to figure out how to navigate the feds enforcing Prohibition and young upstarts, like his driver Jimmy (played by the never aging Michael Pitt).

Karen’s Take

Coming in a bit late here, but my immediate reaction to the pilot is, “huh.”  And, “Michael Pitt!” And, “where do I know that girl from?” And, “where do I know that other girl from?”  And, “I’m kind of intrigued by Buscemi as the male lead.”

From what I’ve read, the pilot, directed by none other than Martin Scorsese is actually one of the weaker episodes of the series.  Reasons why it is weak include an overload of characters such that I can’t tell anyone apart, some heavy handed dialogue (didn’t buy Tommy’s war sucks speech), and convoluted plotting.  Plus, Nucky keeps staring mournfully, or contemplatively, or just as if he has indigestion (stomach troubles are mentioned repeatedly during the pilot) inside random windows along the strip in Atlanta City.  The point being, I guess, that Nucky is a sensitive gangster.  You know, it just seems to be trying too hard.

That said, it is HBO, and programs on HBO usually pay off by the end of the first season.  I’m guessing I’m in this one for the long haul, for its pedigree if nothing else.  Also, a period TV show needs the resources of a cable channel to do great work, it seems, and I love the historical element.

Bit worried, though, that what we have here is another male-dominated sex and blood fest, a la Sopranos (no Carmela here).  The women in the pilot are given very little to do.  One gets to be naked, backwards, bouncing on Buscemi.  Way to go, lady–that will bring award attention.  One gets to be brutalized by her husband while also being seriously dense when it comes to Nucky.  And another gets to have her husband ignore all her very reasonable suggestions that he return to college rather than…you know…become a criminal.  Silly wife.  Oh, and those awful temperance women caused this whole prohibition mess in the first place, so let’s make them look dumb, too.  In an episode in which a husband abuses his pregnant wife, perhaps the women preaching against the violence alcohol incites might be given a bit of a better portrait.  Just saying.

Noel’s Take

I admit to being predisposed against Boardwalk Empire even before it aired. I don’t like gangster stories (I find The Godfather boring, and I don’t like Goodfellas, and I didn’t see a reason to go beyond the first season of The Sopranos). I’m also always wary of things that are trying very hard to be very good or important, and with HBO, unless it’s a comedy, it’s kind of a given that that’ll be the case. So it should come as little surprise that I found Boardwalk Empire to be well made (hardly a surprise) but ultimately dull and heavy handed.

If you enjoy the gangster genre, then Boardwalk Empire has all you need in it. Violence, sex, alcohol, random bits of humor, and poorly crafted female characters, because women mean nothing in gangster stories (Karen did a nice job of covering that, so I’ll move on). It even sets up double crosses among brand new partners between cities and between employees and employers, that spills into the idea of escalation between generations. Sadly, these are all the things I find boring about gangster stories, so I’m already out.

But the episode is also keen on hitting you over the head. WHAT DOES THE FUTURE HOLD? has Nucky decides he’s ready to draw in some pretty young thing into this horrible world? Or when Jimmy tells Nucky that, essentially, it isn’t possible to be a part-time gangster any more? I get it: Nucky’s world is changing and he’s not entirely sure what to do.

In that regard, I guess that makes Nucky kind of like Don Draper, except with far more sensitivity.

Nick’s Take

Like Noel, I am not impressed by gangster/crime dramas, even with their expensive sets and fancy-pants pilot directors. What turns me off about this genre is that the stories are simple. The actual plot itself is generally complicated and wrought with double-crosses and trust issues but they all tend to be the same: crime boss has a tenuous hold on a syndicate while avoiding ambitious organization members and the federal agents trying bring the whole thing crashing down (but are always just one step behind). Boardwalk Empire doesn’t offer any new wrinkles to that formula except that maybe Nucky still has to grow into his big boy shoes

The only line/scenario in the entire pilot episode that intrigued me was when Jimmy tells Nucky that he can’t be half a gangster. Although Prohibtion provides the chance for him to escalate his crookedness, he obviously hails from something different. Most gangster movies feature bosses inheriting the family business (or being a part of the “family” before ascending to the throne). Nucky is a politician that consciously forms a syndicate with the opportunity that falls in his lap but he still harbors a sensitivity to his constituents. Sure, he’s willing to womanize and bend/break the rules but he’s not a killer and he’s not someone that condones the violence for now. This series, if they continue this thread, contributes to a tired genre a man that has gotten in over his head by surrounding himself with thugs and high crime. Those that remember The Sopranos recognize that Tony was just as flawed a character in that respect, what with his panic attacks. But he eventually worked that out. I can see Nucky having to choose between his ideals of morality and doing what he must to maintain the organized crime he heads.

The last thing I want to talk about is style. A pilot not only establishes characters and plot but also how that narrative will be told, visually and aurally. Obviously, Martin Scorsese is a stylistic director and adds varied shots and sound editing to what he does. The pilot smacks of we know of as the Scorsese style: lots of extreme close ups, low angles, stop-and-go editing. The scene where the guy in Chicago gets whacked is particularly Scorsese. Will following directors be able to maintain that style? And does it match the period? I do like the pinhole transitions but will every episode open and close that way (and will they be better executed going forward)?

In the end, Boardwalk Empire bored me. I like Michael Pitt (perpetually creepy, even the first time I saw him in Dawson’s Creek) and am glad Steve Buscemi is able to be the lead in a project (rather than the quirky supporting character) but I don’t see anything in this series that I haven’t seen before (other than the aforementioned room for growth in Nucky). It just isn’t gripping. It’s just another crime drama people will watch because they love them but even they will say, “It’s like The Sopranos but in Atlantic City!” Because it’s the same as the rest of them.

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