BOARDWALK EMPIRE - On DemandSeptember 24, 2010



On Demand Weekly provides new reviews of TV series and hot movies on demand from the POV of watching from the comfort of your home. Today’s review: "Boardwalk Empire" (HBO). If you missed the premiere last Sunday, see it On Demand.
Email Sean McPhillips

It’s the biggest thing to hit television since HBO passed on "Mad Men" (and someone in the HBO head office threw an Emmy through their flat screen). I kid. Seriously, “It’s not TV, it’s HBO” has taken on a whole new meaning with this cinematic behemoth, the 70-minute pilot of which cost a reported $20 million to produce (can you picture the craft services table?).


Martin Scorsese
Martin Scorsese (HBO)

The names involved alone make one blanch. Martin Scorsese (exec producer) directed the pilot. Terence Winter (one of the head writers and producers of "The Sopranos") is creator/writer. Other talent includes (exec producer & director of subsequent episodes) Timothy Van Patten ("Sopranos," "The Pacific.," The Wire"). The cast is rich, and it’s on H-B-frigging-Oh. This thing, as they say, is a monster-killer-flattener.

"Boardwalk" begins with a countdown to the passing of the Prohibition Act making alcohol illegal and shows what that means to Atlantic City treasurer Enoch “Nucky” Thompson (Steve Buscemi) and a coterie of interchangeable dirty political types who know this law passed by rubes in congress to “straighten up our country” will only result in enormous wads of cash in their pockets. Once the die is cast, though, some men will live to profit and others will sleep with the fishes. It’s the old story, told in a new way, of politicians in bed with gangsters and the feds who love to arrest them.



The pilot displays Mr. Scorsese’s well-known style: exquisite, violent but lyrical, with quick dolly close-ups and jolting freeze frames for effect, as when a group of men jostle around a single pistol in an illegal basement distillery – the image freezes – we hear the sound of a shot then see the scene upstairs as the bullet rockets through the floor, disturbing women attending a funeral. This kind of personal touch is unusual in a pilot, given that it normally sets the pace and style for additional directors to follow. In this case, the pilot is all Marty. Additional episode direction keeps the DePalma UNTOUCHABLES look without aping the master’s flair.

Attention to detail is beyond fastidious and may even prove to be a constraint until the writers and actors become familiar enough with the world so that they can loosen up a tad and have fun.

Much will be said about Buscemi’s casting because his character is based on real life “Nucky” Johnson, one time actual treasurer of Atlantic City. He has been described as a tall man with a fog horn voice, dapper, charming to the locals and terrifying to criminals, a hard drinker, a Herculean lover, a fancier of luxuries. The real guy rented out the 9th floor of the Ritz Carlton and made it his apartment while running Atlantic City for thirty years. Ultimately, he became the town’s unquestioned monarch with an equal reach into political and criminal spheres alike. A man the like of which has never been seen before or since.



Does this sound like an obvious role for Steve Buscemi?

The producer assures us that after a good twelve episodes we’ll feel like it does. Twelve might seem like a long time, but six go by deceptively fast. It takes a good four-to-five to feel characters stand out as much as milieu, but Mr. Winter probably knows something we don’t. Personally, I find Mr. Buscemi to be infinitely watchable and am very much inclined to trust Winter and stick with it. Milieu, in this case, makes a case for itself through eye-popping production values.



If one were to quibble about casting, it might be worth pointing out that Michael Pitt who plays Nucky’s protégé, “Jimmy,” a WWI vet who turned down Princeton to serve his country - through no intentional fault of the actor - radiates an aura opposite the bright young man the other actors keep referring to. Maybe out in the trenches he sustained a blow to the head that knocked that SAT-wizard sharpness out of him before we were introduced? “Jimmy” even sometimes resonates with dumb carelessness reminiscent of Robert De Niro’s “Johnny” in MEAN STREETS. “Jimmy” is the only character on the Boardwalk who doesn’t work for me at all.

Stand out actors include Kelly Macdonald as Nucky’s new muse “Margaret Schroeder,” Stephen Graham as a certain notorious gangster in his infancy, Michael Kenneth Williams (Omar, "The Wire") as “Chalky White” and Michael Stuhlbarg as “Arnold Rothstein” – a remarkably different character than the lead he played in the Coen Bros A SERIOUS MAN.


Michael Kenneth Williams (HBO)

Cast, crew and craft service wenches aside, there has been some criticism of the bigger-than-Rome budget of this project but my feeling is, ultimately, wasn’t HBO the citadel of cinematic brilliance that transformed television forever through their attention to programming thereby ushering in all nueva golden age shows? Honestly, this is one Jersey Shore that doesn’t eradicate your brain cells the more you watch. Save that for the moonshine.

Drink it up now on demand!

- Sean McPhillps

Sean McPhillips
Sean McPhillips reviews film & TV for On Demand Weekly. He is a former VP, Acquisitions for Miramax Films. He works as programmer for the Furman Film Series and the inaugural Gold Coast International Film Festival (debuts 6/11). As a writer/director his short films have played in festivals around the world.


Look for each episode of "Boardwalk Empire" after its broadcast premiere on HBO On Demand.

On Demand > Premium > HBO > HBO Series > Boardwalk Empire
Available until 01/03/11
72 min / TVMA


Check out some of Sean McPhillips' other reviews:





Also on HBO On Demand:

Eastbound & Down

Bored To Death

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