'When I was your age, we didn't take the bus to school, we walked uphill in the snow for five miles!" is certainly a well-worn cliché. While this statement is never entirely true no matter how old and grizzled the familial speaker is, there is something to be said for the hardships of a previous generation. We take for granted the luxuries we have, be it instantaneous access to information, free TV on our laptops or smallpox-free blankets. I feel spoiled to be alive in a time where each week I'm treated to serial television that is on par with or better than any two hours you'll spend in a multiplex.
We're also lucky that we can get drunk with little to no incident. This is the privilege that informs the background of HBO's fantastic Boardwalk Empire. Starring Steve Buschemi as self-styled prototypical mob boss/city treasurer Enoch "Nucky" Thompson, Boardwalk Empire begins in Atlantic City, NJ circa 1920 on the eve of the enactment of Prohibition. We know this because there's a huge party where he and the other pillars of the city get drunk and discern how they'll continue selling booze with a dilution of product and a mark-up of price.
As with most illegal enterprises, things don't go exactly according to plan. Due to the eagerness of his young apprentice and recent war veteran Jimmy Darmody (Michael Pitt) and the scheming of a young Al Capone (Stephen Graham), there is a chain of murders, robberies and cover-ups that predate the larger presence of a seedy underworld and leave Nucky's plan in a precarious position. Humorless G-man Nelson Van Alden (coldly portrayed by Michael Shannon) is the contrast to Nucky's conversely stressful and high end lifestyle, a Christian hunting dog on the scent of booze who is not adverse to shoving his hand into a half-dead man's guts for information.
The boardwalk itself is a digitally and physically restored seaside promenade in Brooklyn that was saved from demolition by this production. It's a star in its own right, featuring such attractions as test tube babies, fortune tellers and KKK canvassers. It's a treat to see this world in such vibrant colour when our social documents have always shown things in grey and sepia tones. The moments of slapstick humour and whimsy are appropriate for the period but are jarring in the context of this show and our knowledge of the dark reality of its characters.
Executive produced by Martin Scorsese (he also directed the first episode), the show's scope is expectedly cinematic but also referential to the time it is chronicling. The show opens and closes with the same peephole effect silent movies used to have. The dramatic action is fleet-paced, juggling concurrent narratives in a way that also informs BE's visual flair. Scenes occasionally end with the camera wiping through the black between set pieces to move on. These are the roaring twenties after all; it wouldn't make sense to slow things down.
Period pieces work when they illuminate the differences and similarities between their world and ours. Mad Men has been a hit because it shows us the mistakes and triumphs of the past while subtly commenting on our present. By this token, Boardwalk Empire succeeds similarly. Yes, it's another New Jersey crime drama with Terence Winter behind the scenes, but like The Sopranos, the previously acclaimed series he wrote for, the violence is secondary to the mirror it places on our modern domestic lives. V