Non-Geek TV From The Geek Perspective: Boardwalk Empire

Gabbing Geek What We're Watching

There’s a lot of TV out there, and some of it is about New Jersey mobsters.

No, not The Sopranos.  That may come later.  This week I’m referring to Boardwalk Empire.


What’s the premise?

Set during Prohibition, the series chronicles the rise and eventual fall of Atlantic City political boss/gangster Nucky Thompson, as portrayed by actor Steve Buscemi, as he runs illegal liquor into the country while posing as respectable figure in local politics.

What’s the appeal?

Besides having Martin Scorsese producing (plus directing the pilot), this series came hot off the heals of another HBO mobster hit, the aforementioned The Sopranos.  Creator Terence Winter cut his teeth on that series, but Boardwalk is an inherently different kind of show.  While The Sopranos often dealt with themes of whether or not a person could change for the better as well as nostalgia for a better time in the past as opposed to the decaying present, Boardwalk Empire dealt more with identity, public vs. private, as well as the moral hypocrisy that was often on display as respectable public figures were flaunting the law behind the scenes with wild abandon.

Anything stand out?

The period detail is often outstanding, and having a working knowledge of the various mobsters from that era probably will increase the enjoyment of anyone watching.  While Buscemi’s Nucky is loosely based on a real-life figure, other characters are blatantly fictional but rub elbows with actual historic figures like Al Capone, Lucky Luciano, Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon, and J. Edgar Hoover.

This show was also made for binging.  The show is typically slow but often builds to an incredible seasonal climax.

And while actor Michael Pitt was apparently tough to work with, the first two seasons tracking the rise and fall of his character, Jimmy Darmody, from returning veteran to major player in the Atlantic City bootlegger scene, is some of the finest character-based storytelling I think I’ve seen on television.  He sets the theme for the series early when he tells Nucky in the pilot that Nucky can’t be half a gangster.

The series doesn’t shy away from social inequalities of the time, either.  One of the reasons Nucky is so successful is because he doesn’t mind using the various outcasts and weirdoes around his domain to get things done.  While many of the other mobs divide along ethnic lines, Nucky will work with just about anybody to get what he needs.

Several actors make for particularly memorable characters.  Michael Shannon’s Federal Agent Van Alden has a bug-eyed intensity borne from being a religious fanatic who falls to sin in a major way.  Michael Kenneth Williams, Omar from The Wire, brings to life a very different character who may in a sense be Nucky’s black counterpart, Chalky White.  Chalky spends one episode locked in a prison and after taking enough abuse from another prisoner riding him for letting the white man control him, quietly asks a series of questions of the other guys in the cell and gets the troublemaker a savage beating without lifting a finger (said troublemaker actually goes to work for Chalky after both men are released).  Gretchen Moll may be the woman viewers will love to hate as Jimmy’s power-hungry but badly damaged mother Gillian.  And the best of the cast may be Jack Huston.  Huston plays a World War I sniper who lost half his face named Richard Harrow.  Harrow’s story is often heartbreaking, a man made shy due to his awful injuries while haunted by all the lives he’s taken both in war and at home (he estimates at one point he’s killed over 60 people); when needed, however, he can be be a very deadly man and very dedicated to people who actually show him real kindness.

Those are just a few of the cast worth mentioning.  Really, there are few if any misfires here.  Daredevil fans may get a kick out of Charlie Cox playing an Irish hitman.

Any downsides?

The show’s annual slow build can be a bit frustrating for more casual fans.

Buscemi is a very talented actor, but he may not be the best choice for a lead actor in an ensemble this big.  The best way to think of Buscemi is less as the lead and more of one among many, even if his face is the only one you see in the opening credits.  Anyone hoping for a bit of Tony Soprano will probably be disappointed since Nucky’s way to solve almost every problem is to hand someone money.  Seriously, he tries to solve every problem with a well-placed bribe, even the ones where that clearly won’t help.  At one point, his stepson has been misbehaving at school, and when asked to talk to the boy, he chats for a second about not doing whatever again and then handing him some money for the candy store.

Finally, actress Kelly Macdonald is a great actress and does fine the first few seasons as Nucky’s eventual wife, Margaret.  Unfortunately, as is often the case with large casts like this if the writers aren’t careful, her storyline seems to sputter and die after two seasons, and there doesn’t seem to be much for her to do.  It’s a real waste of a real talent, and you can see the writers trying to figure out what to have her do in a blatantly obvious way.

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