This past summer in Los Angeles I was sitting down to lunch with several other critics at press tour when the subject of Boardwalk Empire came up. “Oh, I hated that show,” this one lady said. “All that boring music and stuff from the ’20s.”
Yikes, I thought. The 1920s were probably the greatest decade ever in terms of American culture. You want great music? Caruso, Jolson, Gershwin, Paul Whiteman, Louis Armstrong, Tin Pan Alley–the jazz age, for crying out loud. Art, music, literature, tremendous silent films, give me the ’20s any day.
Yet all a big turn off to this person. And I began to wonder: is America going to sit still for this history lesson?
I hope so, and especially hope they check out the second, third and fourth episodes. The pilot, which aired Sunday night, had the burden of history plus all the other usual burdens to contend with. Introduce all the main characters, set the stage, hook the viewer.

Steve Buscemi as “Nucky” Thompson

Creator and executive producer Terry Winter told me he spend six months just delving into the period of the ’20s, soaking up the language, listening to recording, reading books, newspapers and magazines. I wrote more about Winter and his preparations going into Boardwalk Empire for the September issue of Movie Entertainment magazine, you can jump to that feature here.
To me, Atlantic City on the cusp of prohibition seems a remarkably intoxicating time to set a story. Surprisingly untapped, if you’ll pardon the pun.
Martin Scorsese directed the pilot, and while there are many cinematic touches of the master–especially the precisely edited last ten or 15 minutes–his name attached to this thing puts expectations through the roof.
Too much of the first 60 minutes is spent admiring the set and the clothes. Both are pretty cool, especially the beautiful, sun-drenched boardwalk, which took months to construct.
This series doesn’t really start to hit its stride until the second episode. Tim Van Patten, who helmed several episodes of Winter’s previous series, The Sopranos, directs. He gives Steve Buscemi plenty of space to find this guy, Nucky Thompson, the boss of Atlantic City. Buscemi creates a character of such complexity–charming and ruthless, funny and deadly–you’ll want to keep watching Boardwalk Empire just to see if there is anything this actor cannot do.
By episode two or three, you start to get past the costumes and the setting and the history and get drawn into the story. That’s when these characters really come alive.

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