The best description you’ll read of HBO’s beautifully produced original series “Boardwalk Empire” didn’t come from me. It’s actually something I’ve read in many places and the perfection of the description comes from the simplicity: good television that could be great. With a huge budget (the pilot reportedly cost $18 million), the directorial credentials of Martin Scorsese and creative credentials from a number of “Sopranos” veterans, this is the kind of television that can’t go wrong and, to be fair, it doesn’t. It just isn’t what it could be.
Based on the real-life “Nucky” Thompson, a political and crime boss who controlled Atlantic City during prohibition, the first season’s thirteen episodes start off quite strong through the efficient introduction of numerous characters, their multi-layered stories, and an impeccable production design and cinematography that’s as good as anything you’ll see in a big-budget theatrical film. A slightly brighter “Road to Perdition” springs to mind.
If nothing else, the producers did a superb job of not only meticulously recreating an era many of us are already familiar with through films and photographs but also casting a feast of outstanding actors who actually look as though they belong there. Let’s face it, there aren’t many actors today who don’t come off as Bugsy Malone-ish in a fedora. But creator Terence Winter and his team definitely chose well in the casting department.
As personified by the great Steve Buscemi, Nucky Thompson is a brutal, put upon, wise-ass willing to do anything to hold onto power — a power increased ten-fold with the passage of prohibition. Complicating his life is his dumber, ambitious brother Eli (She Whigham) and his ward Jimmy (beautifully played by Michael Pitt), who’s also ambitious, a little bloodthirsty, and a little nuts. Naturally, rival gangs regularly stick thorns in Nucky’s side, including what will someday be the Capone Gang out of Chicago and New York’s Lucky Luciano.
A widower still missing his beloved wife after many years, Nucky seems content playing boss, living the high life on the entire floor of a ritzy hotel right off the Boardwalk, and bedding his impossibly sexy, conniving mistress Lucy (Paz de la Huerta). But when the deceptively mousy Margaret (a perfectly cast Kelly MacDonald) arrives in his office, he sees something in her than he does not in the dozens of everyday types who regularly stop by for favors. Margaret is not only beautiful but also vulnerable, innocent, and in desperate need of protection from a violent husband.
On Nucky’s trail is Agent Nelson Van Alden (Michael Shannon), a typical HBO Christian: a psychotic, uncompromising hypocrite much less sympathetic than the criminals he’s after. This is a poorly crafted character with a number of over-the- top qualities that never fail to stop the story cold. This is the series’ greatest flaw, but not a tragic one.
Overall, the stories are very well written, densely plotted and layered like a novel, and the acting is letter perfect. But, unfortunately, something is missing, and that something is almost everything.
When I think of my favorite television shows that tell stories about protagonists who are criminals living outside the law, one thing they share in common is a potent and poignant theme that threads through everything, and that theme, in part, takes a moral stand against what our characters are doing. This theme also allows you to hang onto the hope that redemption is possible, and the emotional rollercoaster that goes along with that hope is not only what invests you in the characters, it’s a crucial element in what addicts you to the series.
For example, floating above every “Sons of Anarchy” episode is the ghost (not literally) of the motorcycle club’s deceased, former leader urging his son (the club’s current VP) to reform the club or get out. In “The Sopranos,” the whole idea of the show revolved around Tony being stuck in a life he loves and loathes and the fact that he’s a mob boss grappling with a conscience. “Breaking Bad” is a brilliant study in how an everyday man turns to evil.
That’s what, at least to me, these shows are “about,” and it’s why I love them and why the darker moments never feel gratuitous. Therefore, the unceasing portrayal of violence and human depravity is, in fact, saying something big and important about the human soul. And this is what’s missing from “Boardwalk Empire.”
To be fair, throughout the series there are moments when this theme does poke its head out like a turtle and without spoiling anything, Kelly MacDonald’s character delivers most of them. But they never last and only feel like lip service, and without this element there’s a nihilistic tone to proceedings that wears on my soul over time.
Again, there’s a whole lot to like about “Boardwalk Empire,” but the resume of all those ultimately involved does not live up to the final product.
“Boardwalk Empire” is available at Amazon.com.