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TV Recap

Boardwalk Empire

Terence Winter, an executive producer on "The Sopranos," digs further back into New Jersey crime lore with "Boardwalk Empire," a Prohibition-era series centering on Enoch "Nucky" Thompson, based on the real-life Enoch Johnson, a politician and reputedly a longtime "boss" in Atlantic City. Nucky, as played by Steve Buscemi, is despicable, ruthless, and greedy, yet also likable, benevolent to those deserving, and a pillar of his community. As much as I've long admired Buscemi as an actor, my gut tells me he may have been miscast in this. We'll just have to see what he does with this part as his character's story progresses. But so far, I have difficulty buying Buscemi as a man to be feared.

It doesn't hurt that the series' premiere is directed by Martin Scorsese, who also serves as a producer on this HBO show and who understands, probably better than most directors, how to balance brutal violence with subtle humor and delicate moments. Also in the series' favor is the rich attention to detail in the impressive period sets and costumes. In addition, Winter and Scorsese assembled a top-notch cast—including Buscemi as Nucky, Michael Pitt as his thug protégé, Michael Shannon as a zealous crime-fighting officer, Kelly Macdonald as an abused wife seeking help, and Michael Stuhlbarg ("A Serious Man") as high-stakes gambler and emerging crime leader Arnold Rothstein.

The opening episode introduces these and other colorful characters, such as a young, hungry, and still unknown Al Capone (Stephen Graham), amid the end of the Roaring '20s and the dawn of a new "dry" era in America, when alcohol is illegal and tough guys vie for a piece of the under-the-table action. The most compelling part of this first episode is the budding relationship between Nucky and Margaret (Macdonald), a down-on-her-luck mother of two and wife of a no-good, alcoholic wife-beater. Also intriguing is Pitt's character, Jimmy, a loose canon who works as Nucky's driver but soon makes clear he intends to do more than just that—and fast.

As for telling the story of how Atlantic City helped usher in a new, more brutal style of organized crime and led to the founding of the FBI, the plot and dialogue are confusing at times—too many objectives and characters are presented in too short a period. Hopefully, with subsequent episodes, the series will take more time—as one would with a bottle of fine wine—to let these characters become more fully realized and more interesting. Despite these misgivings, I definitely recommend tuning in for more.

Genre: Drama. Series premiere directed by: Martin Scorsese. Written by: Terence Winter. Starring: Steve Buscemi, Michael Pitt, Kelly Macdonald, Michael Shannon, Michael Stuhlbarg, Stephen Graham, Vincent Piazza, Dabney Coleman, Paz de la Huerta, and Aleksa Palladino.


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