HBO may well be the second best TV station in the world. I haven’t watched every show that they’ve produced, but I’ve seen quite a few and I like what I’ve seen. From Sex and the City to Entourage, every episode of The Sopranos through all five seasons of The Wire. I’ve spent enough time watching HBO shows to know that they understand the medium and can deliver quality entertainment.
In almost every instance where I committed to an HBO show, it’s come after the show has already broken out. This time I thought I would try something different. The only things I know about Boardwalk Empire before watching are that it stars Steve Buscemi and it’s directed by Martin Scorsese. That’s a heady combo. Crazy Eyes out of Mr. Deeds and the guy who put Wesley Snipes in a Michael Jackson video. Awesome.
So I’m going to live-blog the opening episode of Boardwalk Empire and give an impressionistic review of how it feels right out of the gate. Try to keep up.
Before the show starts, I’m not loving the name. It doesn’t sound right when you say it out loud and it doesn’t look right in print. I’m concerned that this may be a bad omen for the show. Now, roll VT.
Opening seconds: Theme tunes are key to HBO shows. They establish mood. They set tone. The theme tune here is a little laid back for my tastes. I can’t imagine it coming to represent the show the way “Woke Up This Morning” tells Tony Soprano’s story.
The credits tell me that Michael Pitt is going to be in it. Great. He’s great. I also see Kelly MacDonald’s name. She’s cool, it’s just that 15 years after Trainspotting, she still looks like a school girl.
The other cast names float by innocuously, right up to “and Dabney Coleman”. Another bad omen. Coleman is a giant ham. I get that he’s a jobbing character actor with an impressive resume, but to me he’ll always be the a-hole boss in 9 to 5. Sorry Dabney.
Executive Producer – Mark Wahlberg! I didn’t know that. Interesting. I think Marky Mark is under-appreciated. He was absolutely the best thing in The Departed and Entourage proves that he’s more than just a pretty face.
So, throughout the opening Buscemi is standing on the beach in a pair of natty brogues. The tide comes in bringing hundreds of badly CGI’d bottles of (presumably) bootleg whiskey. The water covers Buscemi’s brogues. His feet are wet, but he is far from drowning. Whoa… heavy.
Opening scenes: It’s a period piece. Someone is looking at a pocket watch. The camera pulls back to show him standing on a boat. Waiting.
Another boat arrives with crates of bootleg Canadian whiskey and a henchman says, “Liquid gold, boyo.” We’re in Atlantic City in 1920. I’m not sure of the significance of the “boyo”. It feels ethnic. Irish? Is that important?
On the road now heading to New Jersey (been there, done that) and the bootlegger get hijacked by men in hoods. I’m not sure whose side we’re on yet, the bootleggers or the hooded hijackers, but I guess that’s the point.
Three Days Earlier: We find Buscemi in a room full of women listening to an old biddy talk about the evils of liquor. Buscemi is introduced to the crowd as “Atlantic City’s esteemed treasurer, the honorable Enoch Thompson.”
Buscemi delivers a BS story about eating rats to stay alive because his father was a degenerate drunk. “Prohibition means progress.” I’m betting he sees the benefits of prohibition differently than his audience. Meanwhile Michael Pitt is Jimmy, just back from the war. Jimmy waits outside, smoking.
Buscemi was smoking in the opening credits. Pitt’s smoking now. That’s how we know we’re on cable guys. People on cable, smoke. People on network shows do not.
Out on the street, Buscemi is universally hailed as “Nucky!” as a mock funeral is carried out for liquor including a horn section in blackface. It’s 1920, we’re two hours from the start of Prohibition in the US. Everyone is stocking up on alcohol while it’s still available.
Babette’s Supper Club: It’s packed and swinging. Everyone’s drinking. Nucky heads upstairs to find his brother. Nucky’s brother is in charge of the police. Nucky gives a speech to the Mayor and local bigwigs about the opportunity the Volstead Act offers them all to carry on selling alcohol for three times as much as they have been. No one is too worried about getting caught.
Jimmy sits quietly as Nucky tells everyone that he is going to be “Man Friday” to a fresh faced up-and-comer. Jimmy remains unmoved by the appointment.
There’s a countdown and the band plays Taps for the death of alcohol before switching gears and kicking off a whole new party, screaming “Prohibition” and cracking bottles of champagne. Nice.
Everyone has a girl, except Jimmy. He has a cigarette. Jimmy leaves the party early.
At home with Jimmy: We find that Jimmy is married with a young kid. He had a place at Princeton, but he gave it up to go to war. Now he doesn’t know what he’s good for.
Two years killing Jerrys doesn’t exactly prepare you for a whole lotta outs.
The Academy: We cut to a bunch of men in suits being sworn in as prohibition agents, “unswerving in duty and incorruptible in character”. Yeah, right!
The Hotel: Some wiseguys are checking in. Some other wiseguys come and introduce themselves. We hear some names. Arnold Rothstein. Charlie Luciano. I’m no expert, but I reckon Arnold is wearing black socks and that Charlie will turn out to be reasonably lucky.
Kelly MacDonald comes to see Nucky. She is visibly pregnant. Omar from The Wire is left waiting outside for his appointment. Anyone who watched The Wire has big love for Omar. I wish he had gone in to meet Nucky instead of Kelly.
Kelly spins a sob story about an out of work husband. Nucky gives her some money. He’s a regular humanitarian. Mobster with a heart of gold.
Out on the boardwalk all the shopfronts are shiny and new. All the posters advertising cigarettes are gleaming. It’s like they didn’t have dirt in 1920. It’s a classic mistake made by period dramas. Vintage cars never have dents or muddy wheels. Period props always look like they have never been used. It’s a bit irritating and I’m guessing Scorsese wouldn’t allow it in one of his movies.
Nucky stops outside a store advertising “Baby Incubators”. Seriously. It’s right next door to the saltwater taffy store. He looks in the window and sees an undersized baby being looked after by a nurse and place inside some kind of cabinet – presumably the incubator. There are no price tags on any of the cabinets. I can’t imagine they do much passing trade out on the boardwalk. This is the weirdest scene so far.
Finally getting round to it: A man comes to talk to Nucky. A flashback (flash forward?) tells us he’s the man from the boat with the pocket watch. We wouldn’t have recognized him otherwise. I have a realization that that’s why the flashback/forward has been edited in there. Someone watched this scene and said, “Who’s this guy? Are we supposed to know who he is?”. It’s not clever editing. It’s editing to compensate for the lack of clarity.
The delivery is coming from Canada tomorrow. We already know what happens to it. We now know that the bootleggers are friends of Nucky. We still don’t know who the hooded hijackers are. I’m going to go out on a limb here and suggest that Jimmy is under one of those hoods. I promise to leave this sentence in if it turns out I’m wrong.
The Funeral Home: Nucky goes to a funeral home. Given that this was HBO, we knew there had to be nudity at some point. It’s to Scorsese’s credit that the first nude is full frontal, head to toe and a corpse. A guy called Doyle is leering at it disturbingly. From this we learn that he is slightly unhinged. I have no doubt that this will prove significant.
The funeral home is a front for a bootlegging operation where the imported Canadian whiskey is watered down and rebottled. Jimmy gets into a mini-rumble with Doyle who pulls a piece right away. Nucky wrestles it away from him and Jimmy is sent outside.
Nucky and Jimmy have it out. Jimmy tells Nucky he doesn’t want to work for the fresh-faced kid. All he wants is an opportunity. Nucky delivers the soundbite:
This is America, ain’t it. Who the fuck’s stopping you?
Back at the Hotel: Nucky and the wiseguys are being watched by the Feds. We learn from the Feds’ banter than most of the Feds are dumb.
Nucky and the wiseguys sit round a table in an empty restaurant. Someone mentions that Rothstein won $2 million on the World Series (Boom!). Someone else looks at Luciano and says “And they call this one Lucky!” (Double Boom! Oh I’m good.)
Outside, Jimmy is shmoozing with some other wiseguy muscle. They bond over being working stiffs. They talk about how much Rothstein and Luciano are worth. We see the gears working in Jimmy’s mind. He’s looking to make a move. At the end of the conversation the other muscle introduces himself. Al Capone. Nice! I’m thinking he may be under the other hood.
Jimmy and the Feds: Jimmy gets picked up by the Feds. They admire his service record. They offer him a job with the bureau. “It’s a godly pursuit”. Before we see Jimmy answer, we cut to a sex scene. It’s HBO. You had to know the naked corpse wasn’t going to be enough to meet the quota. A topless bimbette bounces on Nucky. Mr. Scorsese, how do you sleep?
Little Man Boxing: We cut to a scene of men boxing. Little men. Is that the correct term? Who knows? All I know is it’s either gratuitously exploitative or gloriously surreal. You never know with Scorsese. Jimmy is there to meet Capone. We see the right side of his face for the first time. It’s scarred. Nice! Jimmy and Al conspire.
Godfather Homage: Nucky’s sitting in a theater. Instead of watching opera, he’s listening to a stand-up comedian. While the comedian continues his patter we cut back to the hijacking from the start. It looks like the Feds are in the woods. The hijacking turns into a bloodbath as the two hoods shotgun all the bootleggers. The Feds were in a different woods and they storm the funeral home to shut down the operation there.
The hoods come off and it’s Jimmy and Capone. Ta-dah. Looks like Jimmy screwed everyone from both sides, stealing the booze and offering up the factory to the Feds. Oooh. Intrigue.
The Home Stretch: It takes Nucky and his brother less than 15 seconds to work out Jimmy’s the one. Nucky goes to see the Commodore (played by “and Dabney Coleman”). The Commodore thinks it was a mistake for Nucky to get involved with Arnold Rothstein. The Commodore sneers when he says the name “Rothstein”. He offers Nucky a book on the subject by Henry Ford. It’s called The International Jew – available now in all good bookshops. It looks like the Commodore has a first edition as the book doesn’t have a scratch or a bend on it. Another win for Pristine Period Props, Inc.
Nucky and Jimmy: Jimmy is waiting for Nucky. Nucky tells Jimmy that he could have him killed. Jimmy knows he won’t. It’s a bona fide bromance. He tells Nucky exactly what Nucky needs to hear:
You can’t be half a gangster, Nucky, not anymore. Let me help you.
Final bloody montage: Stolen whiskey is delivered. Various people are beaten or shot to death. It’s a montage. It’s pretty bloody.
Er… that’s it: The end… for now.
So, what’s the verdict? It’s no Sopranos. Buscemi is good and Pitt’s his equal except when they make him say all those things about how the war has made him a different man, yadda yadda. I can see myself watching a series based around Pitt’s Jimmy. The rest of the cast is forgettable. I’m sure we’ll be seeing more of Kelly MacDonald, but the truth is she’s already played her part by the end of this opener.
For a series like this the supporting cast has to be strong. Think of the four HBO shows I mentioned at the beginning. Now think of Stanford Blatch, Lloyd, Paulie Walnuts and Omar. The first hour of Boardwalk Empire comes and goes without a memorable moment for any of the supporting cast. Even Al Capone gets short shrift. It’s going to be hard to sustain.
But let’s go back to Omar. Michael K. Williams has one of two non-white speaking roles in Boardwalk Empire (the other was the Commodore’s maid) and he only has one line. He’s an actor of enormous charisma and I’ll probably watch another episode just to see what they do with him. But they better do something with him.
I don’t usually talk about stuff like this, but I found the editing choppy and amateurish. Dialog scenes were blocked in the most basic ways and edited together to add the urgency that the words didn’t deliver. Makes me wonder how much of Scorsese’s movie craft is him and how much is Thelma‘s.
I’m pretty sure that my experience of this show was tainted by my decision to write about it while I was watching. On the one hand it enabled me to identify the obvious telegraphing of what TV execs probably called “the twists”. On the other hand, it put enough distance between me and the show to prevent me from engaging fully. I guess I’ll tune in again next week to see where it goes.
In the meantime, here’s that bromance between Nucky and Jimmy. See if you can see what I mean about amateurish editing of a simple conversation between two men facing each other. I actually think Pitt may be acting Buscemi off the screen here. Weird.