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'Boardwalk Empire' Season 1, Episode 1 (Series Premiere) Recap

by Maureen Ryan, posted Sep 20th 2010 1:45AM
Steve Buscemi in 'Boardwalk Empire'['Boardwalk Empire - 'Pilot']

After a couple of Martin Scorsese's trademark tracking shots, which followed Nucky Thompson's exit from the Ritz Hotel and his arrival at Babette's nightclub, we got to the meat of the first episode of 'Boardwalk Empire': Nucky arrived at a dinner party, at which we met Atlantic City's power players and began to understand their relationships and conflicts.

Perhaps it's not surprising that, as the show's sumptuous pilot unfolded and Nucky and company dug into a lavish supper, a food analogy came to mind.

If 'Boardwalk Empire' were a meal, it would be an incredibly delicious traditional dish. It's not experimental; it's not giving us flavors we've never tried before or taking radical chances with familiar ingredients. 'Boardwalk Empire' is a classic dish prepared with exceptional skill and attention to detail.

There was a lot to feast on, for the mind and for the eye.

As was the case with 'Rome,' another HBO drama that spared no expense to re-create another era, 'Boardwalk Empire' is beautiful to look at. From the restaurants to the clothes to the Commodore's grand home, every detail added to the sense of being in another era. And of course there was the boardwalk set itself, which Scorsese swept through with several lingering shots.

Though the pilot sets up serious themes about unintended consequences and the cost of hanging on to morality in a fast-changing world, one got the sense that, if nothing else, Scorsese and his crew had a great time playing with this toy -- the gigantic re-creation of the Atlantic City of 1920.

Just as the unfortunate Big Jim Colosimo took time to savor his beloved Enrico Caroso records, 'Boardwalk Empire' wanted us to savor this playground and the lives of the people we met there. It was hard not to.

Of course, whatever its budget, 'Boardwalk Empire' is not free of the requirements of any pilot -- to set up a world and populate it with interesting people. It's to creator Terence Winter's credit that the exposition in the 'Boardwalk Empire' pilot was pretty painless and elegantly delivered.

At the dinner in Babette's back room, we met Nucky, the kingpin of Atlantic City; his brother, Elias, the head of local law enforcement; Jimmy, Nucky's restless protege, as well as other assorted dignitaries. Soon we encountered Lucy, his sensual and none-too-bright girlfriend, Margaret Schroeder, a local resident with a brute of a husband, as well as other locals like Mickey Doyle and even Chalky White (he was briefly seen waiting in Nucky's reception area).

In the gangster arena, things were a little more confusing, so it was helpful to hear Agent Van Alden attempting -- with limited success -- to explain to his partner who the various visiting made men were. It helps that Arnold Rothstein and Lucky Luciano are played by memorable actors and that the characters provide an interesting contrast; Rothstein is the calculating yet ruthless gentleman and Luciano is the hothead in a very expensive suit. Al Capone also made an impression (I remain stunned at Stephen Graham's excellent American accent. You'd never know the actor is English.)

It's not clear -- at least it wasn't to me -- who killed Big Jim Colosimo and why, though the Chicago crew's forays into bootlegging surely had something to do with the changing power dynamics. Everyone knew that Prohibition would bring big profits, but the restive younger generation saw it as an opportunity to move up the ladder, and Big Jim was a relic from another age. There are likely a number of people who wanted him out of the way.

Back in Atlantic City, Nucky's got a full plate just keeping Atlantic City running, and now he's got this array of new personalities and possible dangers to deal with. And frankly, though he sees Prohibition as the route to massive wealth, Nucky's conscience may end up being liability with this crew. Clearly he's ruthless when he needs to be, but he's a man with a code, and even a sense of melancholy about him. When he peered into the display of premature babies, I got the sense that there's a tragedy involving children in his past.

Unfortunately, his good intentions with the pregnant Mrs. Schroeder had tragic consequences. There's every chance her husband's fists would have caused her to lose her baby had she never met Nucky, but his encounter with her brutal husband ended up having the worst possible outcome for her.

Speaking of unintended consequences, Nucky's dismissal of Jimmy's ambitions -- or rather, his assumption that Jimmy would be willing to wait out a long apprenticeship in the political machine, as he had -- led indirectly to the massacre in the forest, and his new dealings with other mobsters quickly created friction with Rothstein even as the situation in Chicago took a violent turn. Nucky has not quite realized that he probably has to be more like Jimmy or Lucky Luciano than he would like. He can't, as Jimmy said, be half a gangster.

(As an aside, I was unimpressed with Michael Pitt's delivery of Jimmy's big speech to Nucky on the boardwalk -- the speech about how the war had affected him and why he thought material wealth was the one goal worth pursuing, given that he thinks he is essentially damned. Pitt's delivery and affect that were simply flat, and made a well-written scene less than it could have been. Given how strong the rest of 'BE's' cast is, lapses like these are unfortunate. Pitt holds his own, for the most part, but if part of the goal is to get me invested in Jimmy's journey, well, I'm not quite sure how that's going to work out. At this point, he's not holding back the show, but I'm more interested in the characters played by better actors, of which there are many.)

In any case, the gangsters are a fact of life now. 'Prohibition means progress' to the women of the temperance league, but it's not likely to lead to the kind of progress they hope for (though one of 'BE's' interesting side notes is the way in which the temperance movement allowed women to assert their rights in methods that were socially acceptable in that era). It means progress into a murkier, more dangerous, more violent society, one in which a wide array of regular citizens were willing to look the other way at criminal and even murderous enterprises, as long as it meant they could get their hands on a drink.

As for the drinks themselves, a visit to Mickey Doyle's distillery proves that the liquor of that era was foul, if not actively poisonous, thanks to the additives that were used to make cheap rotgut at least look like quality liquor.) And just as dyes and additives camouflage what the drinks are really made of, some ugly truths lurk behind the sparkling facades of Atlantic City.

But how glorious it all looks. The overhead shot of Van Alden's men storming Mickey's operation, the sweeping shots of the boardwalk, the murderous montages set to period music, the opulent decor, the sharp suits. It may be the start of a whole new kind of unpleasantness, but damn if it didn't look fine.

'Boardwalk Empire' airs 9PM ET Sundays on HBO.

For my pre-season review of 'Boardwalk Empire,' look here. For my interview with creator Terence Winter, look here and here.

Follow @MoRyan on Twitter.

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I think it was Johnny Torrio that had Colosimo killed. During the restaurant scene, Capone, talking to Jimmy outside, says Colosimo isn't interested in the liquor business because there's too much heat from the law. At the end, while the aria is playing, one of the scenes is Capone delivering the liquor from the heist to Torrio. If Torrio wanted to be in the liquor business, he would have to get rid of his partner Colosimo.

September 26 2010 at 12:41 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I agree about the "fakeness" of the set, case-in-point the picture at the top of this article. Induces a bit of claustrophobia and a sense that there's nothing beyond that little corner.

Also agree that Buscemi is great. The range of emotions he can convey with his facial expressions is awesome.

The music on this show may be historically accurate, but it is quite grating and I hope they dial it back in future episodes.

September 21 2010 at 1:46 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I have to agree about Michael Pitt being one of the weaker links--in fact, I noticed exactly the same moment you did and wondered why he seemed so emotionless. I'm trying to tell myself it was deliberate, to show that Jimmy is emotionally dead or that he was being insincere with Nucky, because it's hard to believe Scorcese would let him get away with that if it wasn't intended.

Still, I thought he also sounded very stiff and uncomfortable with most of the period dialogue, and I don't really get an intelligent vibe from the character, even though he's supposed to be smart enough to have gone to Princeton.

I wouldn't be so bothered if his role was minor, but he seems to be one of the major players. I can only hope that he gets more comfortable in the role as the season moves forward.

September 20 2010 at 6:28 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I really don't see this series having any longevity. I saw the episode last night and although Steve Buscemi is great he can't save this series. The other actors are just not REAL!!. I see where HBO is trying to go with this though. Trying to group all the top gangsters of that era and then just follow each storyline to their end and hoping for a long run. For me it's a waste of time and money and I just prefer to watch movies and actors that caught the characters and era to a better perfection IE The Untouchables, Once Upon A Time In America, St. Valentine's Day Massacre, Scarface, Lucky Luciano, The Cotton Club, Murder Inc, Billy Bathgate, Etc. This series will not be able to compete with those type of films and the interpetation just based on the acting will no doubt be disappointing.

September 20 2010 at 3:14 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Great review, for a really great pilot. and while I agree with you in most of your ponits, I totally disagree with you in regards to Michael Pitt's performance. I loved him in this role, and apart from Buscemi, who is just awesome, he was my favorite thing on the pilot. I actually had more of a problem with the actor playing Lucky Luciano. It may have been just how he was written, but I thought he was very one-note. I hope his character gets developed a little more. But, it was still one of the best pilots I've seen.

September 20 2010 at 2:07 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Back then Atlantic City Boardwalk was very Clean...They kept it that way so people would keep coming back...You got to remember there wasn't any TV then so going to the boardwalk was entertainment for all..I was raised 20 mins from Atlantic City

September 20 2010 at 1:54 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

It was a good start, and certainly the production values were wonderful. Steve Buscemi was excellent, as well as the actress who plays Margaret.

To me it had some excessive moments - the opening party and meeting maybe deserved it to set things up, but that overly long gaze at the babies in the window... too much. The best parts were the "awkward" stuff - the Secretary interrupting Nucky and his girlfriend, or the GF coming in on the meeting between Nucky and Margaret, the "it's been 7 years" comment by Nucky indicating how much he misses his wife, or Nucky lying about knowing the deceased at the funeral home. Notice all the moments I liked involve Nucky.

Maybe I missed it, but the story doesn't hint yet that it's going anyplace new. I'm not sure what more I can learn about fledgling gangsters at this point and the toll criminal life takes on families. The ending felt predictable, if not cliche, to see a gangster savoring opera just before he gets whacked, plus to have that cross-cut with another "just" murder of the abusive husband. I'm going to keep watching, just for Buscemi, but they need to take this story someplace original to keep me coming back. Craftsmanship and some fine character moments are wonderful, but I also need an original story (and not too many stories - yes, I'm looking at you True Blood.)

September 20 2010 at 10:31 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Wendy's comment

I kinda feel you on this, yet I did enjoy the pilot. I don't really know how more original they can be though. These are all well known gangsters whose stories have been told over and over again. Unless Scorsese is going to delve into the land of make believe or somehow change the outcome of these men's lives, I don't see what more can be done. With that being said I guess that's why I'm not a Hollywood writer & I would just have to hope that the best is yet to come.

September 21 2010 at 3:38 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I'm going to watch this show for a few weeks before I make up my mind on MP as Jimmy. So far I like what I see and think that Steve Buscemi is much better than I'd thought he'd be at the lead. I call that watching him play comedic characters. So I've put him on a series record as it will be facinating watching him go from a half to a whole gangster.

September 20 2010 at 9:34 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I have to admit that I was bored at the 30 minute mark. I'm still going to give it a lot of rope (only because of Scorcese), but nothing much was happening. I know they are setting up the characters and the world and such, but I think other shows have done the same while entertaining right from the get go. One example is BREAKING BAD. I also agree that it looked FAKE. It was too clean. Impressive, but to clean. A good example of that period that looked great but believable was CINDERALLA MAN. I'm glad for Buscemi. I'm glad to see him headlining a show. He is what mostly kept me interested. Hope it gets better...and dirty it up a bit for cryin' out loud!

September 20 2010 at 3:04 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I loved the CGI. Well done pilot.

September 20 2010 at 2:19 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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