Boardwalk Empire is an epic tale of crime as the American way of life
in US TV history and the show remains sumptuous and cinematic, simply Scorseseian. It sucks you right into the end of the Roaring 20s, resurrecting an era of corrupt politicos, bootleggers, big bands, roaring tommy guns, high-kicking showgirls and capricious criminal masterminds. It’s dazzling to look at and has operatic style, grand complicated characters and all those confrontingly violent moments straight from the Scorsese gangland manual.
It has taken a while to develop more than a cult following, its box sets only now becoming the reason for binge-watching weekends after new fans have discovered it. There’s still an aura surrounding Boardwalk as the best show on TV that no one really loves.
With Scorsese and Winter involved, it was expected the series would quickly develop the obsessive devotion that still surrounds The Sopranos. It’s easy to forget The Sopranos was a slow burner and, locally, it was quickly relocated to the witness protection timeslot late at night on Nine, annoying the hell out of the show’s Australian aficionados. And not everyone was a fan in the US, either. For many Americans, the mob series had overstayed its welcome well before the famous finale went to air.
It had become too dreamy, critics said, too confusing, too literary. Just as Francis Ford Coppola should have left The Godfather alone after part two, perhaps creator David Chase should have let his once inspired show take a bullet years earlier and let The Sopranos quietly sleep with the fishes.
To be honest, I only dipped in and out of Boardwalk myself, intermittently beguiled, but I’m now determined to watch it to the, well, death. Now, at the beginning of episode 37, it’s February 1924, almost a year after the explosive events of season three’s final episode, directed by Sopranos veteran Timothy Van Patten.
Nucky has survived the gang war that swept the series, and has persevered through duplicitous deals and double deals, murderous bluffs and counter bluffs, taking out New York gangster Joe Masseria’s men during the final episode in a roadside massacre.
The enigmatic Richard Harrow (Jack Huston), the man with half a face, the rest covered with a kind of plastic mask, armed with his sniper rifle and an arsenal of back-up weapons, gunned down nearly all of Giuseppe ‘‘ Gyp’’ Rosetti’s men in the Artemis Club. And Rosetti, brilliantly played by Bobby Cannavale and largely the focus of the previous season, was knifed to death by one of his own men.
The tagline going into the third season was ‘‘ You can’t be half a gangster’’. Nucky’s now become the full deal and crossed the line after surviving Rosetti’s attempt to overthrow his empire. As the fourth season starts, he’s alone, a new person, laying low at the end of the Boardwalk in the grandest hotel. He’s more calculating, no more glad-handing, and obviously shrewder, thinking ahead, maybe of Florida; his marriage to Margaret (Kelly Macdonald) appears to be done for good.
But new challenges engulf him in the first episode. A domestic battle is looming with his brother Eli (Shea Whigham), rivalry and resentment lurking beneath the smiling facade of their comradeship. Harrow is mysteriously murdering furtive gun-carrying businessmen (a superb dramatic opening set-piece too). And Nucky financially keeps the peace with the equally unreadable Masseria (Ivo Nandi) while working the odds with fellow gangster Arnold Rothstein (Michael Stuhlbarg). Mob-crime
SOME call it dryly TV’s ‘‘ bestcurated and bloodiest antiques shop’’. But, finally, beginning its fourth season this week, Boardwalk Empire is taking a distinguished place in the 21st century’s most discussed form of art television: the literary, 12-episode, premium cable serial.
If you’ve never seen it, it’s based on the true story of Nucky Johnson (played as Nucky Thompson by the pallidly complected Steve Buscemi), the corrupt politician who used Prohibition to turn Atlantic City into his own illicit empire between 1911 and 1941.
Created by cable network HBO, which also gave us The Sopranos, The Wire and The Pacific, Boardwalk Empire was instantly a critical hit and, as it has developed through three seasons, has slowly gained a popular following.
It took a while. It’s simply so dense, so teeming with incident, rich in detail and sprawling with character, so implicitly absorbed with itself, that it has been easy for casual viewers to get a bit lost if the show briefly took their fancy. The many characters, plots and foreshadowed subplots are so fleetingly introduced that the series has always required a concentrated form of viewing.
It’s the brainchild of Terence Winter, the writer behind The Sopranos, and consummate storyteller and visual stylist Martin Scorsese, who has embraced TV’s digital world without losing any of his traditional filmmaking fluency or classic skills. Scorsese, who remains an active and enthusiastic executive producer (he also directed the first, style-setting episode), has described the series as ‘‘ an epic spectacle of American history, or culture, I should say, American culture’’.
He meant gangsters, of course, the auth- entic mafia, those sometimes monstrous outsiders, and their attempts to gain acceptance in respectable society. And the way the pervasive and compelling theme of organised crime can be read as an allegory of the runaway American quest for wealth and power.
Across 36 episodes so far, Scorsese and Winter have given us an inspired anthropology of the mean streets and a kind of ethnography of those Knights of the Crooked Table who so pitilessly took over American cities to enjoy the fruits of crime.
It’s a complex — highly sensuous in its treatment — exploration of the way these tribal barbarians, many of them immigrants, used their skills in violence to achieve a level of equality with those of established wealth and power. Boardwalk Empire is the story really of crime as an American way of life, full of ample delights and striking just the right strangeness of tone. It poses one great question: how much sin can any of us live with?
Scorsese’s was the most expensive pilot shot
Steve Buscemi as Nucky Thompson in