Pilot Review: Boardwalk Empire

Prohibition is arriving to 1920s Atlantic City and the politicians, workers, war veterans, mobsters and federal agents all have to work out what that means.

This isn’t just HBO. This is HBO directed and produced by Martin Scorsese. That means a number of things:

1) It’s gorgeous. It’s gorgeous to look at, a period drama with scale and depth to everything, whole streets full of dressed sets, massive venues with dozens of costumed extras. It looks like a movie, it probably cost about the same. And because it’s HBO it’s got a beautifully poetic title sequence, nowhere but cable would dedicate two minute of their runtime to lingering shots of floating bottles.

2) It’s got a big name star. Steve Buschemi makes it feel even more like a film. He’s not generally a leading man, he always seems a bit too weird and ‘big’ to headline something, but here the role is perfect for him. He gets to do the flamboyant, madly gesticulating rants, but also gets to do quiet moments full of emotion.

3) It’s morally ambiguous. I won’t be too specific, because part of the joy of the first episode is trying to work out where everyone sits in the massive grey area between good and bad. In some ways it would be nice to see something with the quality and grown-up-ness of a cable show that actually has clear cut good and bad guys, but I guess what I really want is for the quality to go to network shows, rather than the black and white to go to cable.

4) It’s gonna win awards. A cable drama is a big deal, a Martin Scorsese thing is a big deal, combine the two and I expect to see nominations all over the place. Particularly for Buschemi who really is the heart and soul of the show, even if it’s a slightly tarnished one. I suspect that when the supporting cast get a chance, they’ll all flourish too, but I found a lot of them unremarkable in the pilot.

5) It’s not exactly forgiving. I didn’t really know much about the period or the location, and I’m not sure that by the end I knew a great deal more. That’s kind of interesting as it really felt like each thing I found out was a major discovery, but it makes it quite hard work to watch.

6) It’s kind of dull. It’s all very worthy, very good and all, but at nearly an hour and a half it was a bit of a slog to get through. There’s a lot of staring at the beautiful production values and watching people emote, but not so much real action.

The lure of Buschemi’s performance may be enough to get me to watch a couple more episodes when it makes it to the UK, and it’s possible that a regular hour long episode won’t suffer from the same drag as the double-length pilot. However I was kind of hoping this would be more like Deadwood, fascinating period detail surrounding interesting characters and amazing dialogue. But it seemed more like Treme, a probably an excellent piece of programming that I don’t really have much interest in pursuing.

Reviews:
TV Squad: “Watch it if you loved: Shows like ‘Deadwood,’ ‘Rome’ and ‘The Pacific,’ richly detailed historical dramas with characters whose plights are deeply compelling. If you like a well-paced story and a sense of total immersion in another world or another time, this is the show for you.”
CliqueClack: “The long pilot was excellent, in my opinion, and I think the show has a lot of potential. I was most impressed with the production value. HBO has a good reputation for making cinematic television, but I would put Boardwalk Empire against any period piece film when it comes down to quality of the cinematography, direction, and production.”

Links: Official site, wikipedia, tv.com, imdb

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