Director Martin Scorcese is in familiar crime territory in this HBO ‘prequel’ to Goodfellas, Casino and The Departed. Beginning in gambling locale Atlantic city in 1920, the religious right succeeded in prohibiting alcohol and America’s mobsters extended their reach into the bootleg trade. The show is based on the book by Nelson Johnson.
This is the ‘golden age’ of gangsters, many of whom appear dramatised here – Lucky Luciano, Al Capone, Arnold Rothstein. The lead, Steve Buscemi, is far from leading man material as Enoch ‘Nucky’ Thompson. As Atlantic City’s corrupt city Treasurer he starts out, according to henchman Jimmy Darmody ‘half a gangster.’
In trying to keep up with the Chicago and New York Mob, Buscemi begins as a successful fixer and is inexorably drawn down into the excesses of organised crime. This is going to be the tragedy of Enoch ‘Nucky’ Thompson.
A queasy mixture of Gollum and Edward G Robinson, Buscemi is magnetic and quietly wipes the rest of the cast off screen; so much so that when he’s not on, you’re counting the minutes til he comes back.
The only one able to hold the screen with him is Scots actress Kelly MacDonald (Trainspotting, No Country For Old Men). Despite sporting the worst ‘begorrah’ Irish accent since Mickey Rourke and Tommy Lee Jones’ IRA men, MacDonald is nonetheless the beating heart and conscience of this show.
The supporting cast does impress. Michael Pitt (Silk) is the traumatised but ambitious WWI veteran, who plays suffering very well. Light comedian Dabney Coleman plays it straight as patriarchal JR Ewing figure Commodore Louis Kaestner. Britain’s Stephen Graham (previously ‘Baby Face’ Nelson in Michael Mann’s Public Enemies) is Al Capone.
Meanwhile, self-righteous Treasury Agent Nelson Van Alden, played with intensity by Michael Shannon, is soon on their case. Shades of The Untouchables are never far away when he’s on screen.
In a dog-eat-dog immigrant nation, Buscemi plays dirty commerce and dirtier politics, and you wonder how a country this fundamentally corrupt came to be the global power it is… or maybe not. Is he just an amoral hypocrite and schemer? Of course not, expect Thompson’s complex character and story to reveal through the season.
This is an adult HBO show. There’s some profanity – although you can see it being carefully rationed across the episodes – some nudity and some graphic violence. You see the long shadow of shows such as The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, Deadwood and Scorcese’s own back catalogue fall across it. The obsessive period detail is in every immaculate shot, albeit a little too clean and neatly framed.
It is, of course, a genre show, the New Sopranos, and luckily, it has made the ratings to pay for the expensive period setting.
Scorcese directs the opening episodes, then steps back into an executive role, so it is worth seeing how the show shifts and changes. TV is a much more collaborative extended medium than film, so here’s hoping for some continuity in tone.
You’ll know that Boardwalk is now in season three, so it’s worth returning to the beginning to see how it all started. RC
Related: Public Enemies
Season One Cast: Steve Buscemi, Michael Pitt, Kelly Macdonald, Michael Shannon, Shea Whigham, Aleksa Palladino, Michael Stuhlbarg, Stephen Graham, Vincent Piazza