It’s been popular since at least 2008 to compare our naughty aughts to the Roaring ’20s, and the Great Recession to its rhyming predecessor. On the zeitgeist’s coattails, Terence Winter (of The Sopranos) and Martin Scorsese have created Boardwalk Empire from the eponymous nonfiction novel that chronicles the Atlantic City criminal enterprise of Enoch “Nucky” Thompson.
Thompson’s real-life counterpart, Enoch Johnson, did not build his dynasty on Prohibition, but the extra bootlegging money sure didn’t hurt. The series opens as the country goes officially dry, taking our protagonist from a meeting of the Temperance League to a suspiciously upbeat confab of the town leaders. Thompson has used the 12 months between ratification and implementation of the 18th Amendment to finance a workaround — happy news to the mayor and city council with whom Nucky celebrates their impending black-market fortune.
Boardwalk Empire’s action is driven by the best two-cylinder mobster-drama engine: larger social forces are disrupting a once well-oiled machine and creating niches that are fought over fiercely by established gangs and new alliances. Nucky’s ambitious young ward Jimmy Darmody (DiCaprio doppelgänger Michael Pitt) quickly allies himself with a charmingly ruthless Al Capone (Stephen Graham, who perfected his likable-sociopath act in Snatch and Public Enemies), and they begin remaking Chicago’s underworld. New York City, once an arms-length competitor for weekend pleasure seekers, is intruding in the form of Lucky Luciano (Vincent Piazza) and Arnold “the Brain” Rothstein (a mesmerizing Michael Stuhlbarg).
In place of Tony Soprano’s animal magnetism, Steve Buscemi as Nucky gives us the intellectual accountant-mobster: finely upholstered, acerbic, unperturbed by his brother’s barbs but upset by overt displays of bigotry. The man spends as much time under the covers as the many prostitutes in his hotels, yet he seems no more inflamed by women than he does murder: they’re all accounts to be managed.
The Coen brothers helped make Buscemi a household face by playing up those unsettling bulging eyes and that rubbery fish-like mouth. Here his strangeness is flattened into a permanent dyspepsia — heavy lies the crown; stir us up a seltzer please. There are scenes in which this works beautifully, but also moments when Buscemi issues a threat in his light timbre that sounds as convincing as a petulant kitty cat.
What the latter might tell us — much like the fact that he roams freely without a bodyguard — is that Nucky’s the undisputed boss, but the clunky script often spells out the obvious. This results not only in some ridiculous “clue-ins” (bootleg liquor, we’re informed, is “liquid gold, boyo”), but also in a painfully overwritten scene in which Darmody blames a profound betrayal on his World War I post-traumatic stress syndrome like a couch-reclining pro.
Miraculously, that squirm-inducing encounter ends on the right note, and so does the show as a whole. A disconcerting unevenness in tone and pacing vanishes by the fourth episode, and Boardwalk Empire begins plumbing one of the themes that makes it appealing beyond the Deadwood-meets-Moulin Rouge set (and the many, many naked women): the isolation at the core of the American Dream. After a tense encounter in which Darmody and Capone’s brotherly rivalry blooms into something malignant, Al stops by Jimmy’s room to issue a backhanded apology.
“That ain’t how you treat a buddy,” Capone admonishes Darmody.
“Is that what we are?” Darmody replies.
“What’d you think we were?” Capone asks.
“Accomplices,” Darmody says.
“Well,” Capone replies, “it’s the same thing, right?” •
Boardwalk Empire premieres September 19 on HBO. More info at hbo.com/boardwalkempire.