Boardwalk Empire, the new HBO series from a Sopranos alum that is probably best known to you for trumpeting its association with Martin Scorcese all around town, premiered Sunday night. I expect that the jury is going to be out in this show for some time. That's at least true for me. I've learned, through hard experience, not to judge these high-end cable shows based on their first hour. These things are slow burns, not forest fires; I actually can't think of too many of them that managed to get all their cards on the table in the premiere. When you have eleven or twelve hours to go, you usually lose much of the first episode to setup.
The show is set in 1920s Atlantic City, New Jersey, and centers around the life of Enoch "Nucky" Johnson (Steve Buscemi), a casino-owner gangster type. (The character is allegedly based on a real-life figure.) Prohibition is newly begun, and Nucky's already playing politics with the local women's temperance union, where he meets Margaret (Kelly Macdonald), a pregnant Irishwoman trapped in a bad marriage from which it seems inevitable that Nucky will liberate her. Meanwhile, his second-in-command, Jimmy (Michael Pitt), changed by the front lines of the Great War, is growing impatient with his income level and social status, and is eager to get scamming and killing, much to the comparatively laid-back Nucky's dismay. Meanwhile, the Internal Revenue Service is beginning to watch the gangster activity in AC more closely, with Agent Van Alden (Michael Shannon) at the helm.
As even that preliminary list of actors should indicate, no expense has been spared as to casting the show, which is chock full of faces you'll recognize from other series, including Michael Kenneth Williams (The Wire's quixotic Omar) and even Molly Parker (Deadwood's Alma Garret) in a framed photograph of Nucky's "dead" wife. The look of the show, though beautiful, is a little clean for the subject matter, all bright eyes and scrubbed faces and red lipstick, without a trace of grime or dirt. Even the eruptions of flesh and blood from the show's many gangster shootouts are clinical and clean in a way. That's probably just the Scorcese influence. And perhaps I've become too used to the sepia, nouveau-grime aesthetic of most of HBO's other period pieces like Carnivale and Deadwood.