Just when I thought there was absolutely no reason to watch television anymore, along comes the best thing since, well, the other best reason to watch television--the Sopranos. And the new best thing? BOARDWALK EMPIRE. If you haven't heard already, this new series on HBO, is set in Atlantic City in 1920--at the beginning of Prohibition and what would become the roaring twenties. Leading the show is the charcter of Nucky Thompson (based on real-life boss Nucky Johnson, see below), City Treasurer and the boss of everything that goes on in and around life on the Boardwalk.
I have to admit I was already pretty eager to watch this show after catching the preliminary hype. What's not to anticipate with glee when you see names like Martin Scorcese and Steve Buscemi and Terrence Winter? Still, I wondered, will it really be so good? Nothing will ever come close to the Sopranos....
Well, I have just found appointment TV again. Last night I caught the first episode, directed by Scorcese, and it was everything I had hoped for, plus much, much more: the dialogue was rich in the way that classic Sopranos dialogue used to be (touched with the hand of authenticity and believability of character, gilded with surprising black humor in the perfect places); the attention to visual details was near perfect; the scenes were shot with the sense of true cinema, complete with near brain-scan close-ups and vivid costumes and makeup; the period music sent you back in time; and the actors were absolutely perfectly cast. If I have to make one complaint, I would say that I caught a touch of mis-matched dialogue/film synching, that distracted me somewhat early on, but I got over it.
Prior to seeing the first, I had read that it would take seeing a number of episodes to buy into Steve Bsucemi as the infamous Nucky Thompson. Not so. Within minutes I was sold on his portrayal, and even though the name of James Gandolfini as the lead was bantered around in the pre-show hype, I cannot imagine anyone better in this part than Buscemi.
Michael Pitt practically has steam escaping from his pores, as he plays the part of Jimmy Darmody, Princeton drop-out who comes home from his service as a dough boy in WWI to embrace his darker side (discovered, or, perhaps, uncovered "over there") as Nucky's right hand man. Let's just say he simmers with the need to satisfy those urges.
Especially suited for the role of Margaret Shroeder, a battered Irish immigrant wife, is Kelly Macdonald. Her face looks as though it were plucked right out of the historical photo blog I read daily, SHORPY (blogged about it here) . Never have I seen a face so evocative of the 1920s. Her performance and face feel so authentic, that I think she actually rode some sort of time machine to get from 1920 to 2010, just for this part.
I could go on and on about the other actors in their roles--Shea Whigham as Nucky's sheriff brother; Michael Stuhlbarg as Arnold Rothstein; Vincent Piazza as Lucky Luciano; Stephen Graham as Al Capone, and Michael Shannon as Fed Agent Van Alden (who seems particularly sinister)-- all perfectly matched to the parts they are playing. Furthermore, the performances are incredibly enriched by the attention to set, costume, and make-up detail, which I hope will continue to play as much as a part of the series as the action and story itself. Personally, it is in that kind of attention to the small things that make for superb filming. My guess is that Martin Scorses was the driving force behind those kinds of period-specific touches; Goodfellas and Casino are both movies that demonstrate just how much details can elevate a film to a category that marks it as "superb," as opposed to just "very good."
What makes this series even better, is that the character of Nucky Thompson is based on a real person, Nucky Johnson, who actually did run the Boardwalk show, so to speak, and make Atlantic City what it was between 1911 and 1941. For more information I intend to read the book by Nelson Johnson. I would love to have gotten the first edition before the cover became HBOed, but I'll settle for the TV tie in if I have to.
In the meantime, hop over to this blog, Press of Atlantic City, and watch this wonderful documentary about the real Nucky. Totally fascinating.
Having grown up in the 50s and 60s--a good deal of it spent in New Jersey, and also at the Jersey Shore, including Atlantic City-- I am very happy to have a vivid memory of what AC was like pre-Casinos and all the totally lacking-in-character feel it has now. The Boardwalk then still had some evidence of a bit of the old heyday, with the rolling carriages, the Steel Pier complete with diving horses, small shops, salt water taffy, Mr Peanut with his big Planters Nuts, and grand hotels over looking the ocean, along with cheap boarding hotels on the side streets. The trashy glitz buildings of today remind me of a phrase an old friend once used--"Piss Elegance." They are a sad testament to the Atlantic City of yesteryear.
Fortunately, I have this series to time travel with. I'm hooked. And I am thrilled that HBO has already put in an order for Season 2! How about we run the show from 1920--when it starts--to 1941--when the real Nucky goes to jail. I figure that's 21 years of great TV.