Let the good times roll. That goes for Nucky Thompson and his band of hooligans running things in Atlantic City as well as for us here in the present who have desperately been waiting for HBO to make its comeback. I mean, they’ve put out some good stuff. Some really good stuff. But man cannot live on ‘Treme’ and ‘Eastbound and Down’ alone.
But now, ‘Boardwalk Empire’ is here. And when you take that along with the too-short promo for ‘Game of Thrones’ that ran before the pilot, you get the feeling that everything’s going to be alright. If you’ve read reviews or heard any of the buzz about the show so far, you’ve probably gotten the idea that we don’t really need to be talking about whether it’s good or bad, but how good it is. And dare I say great, considering it was written by Terrence Winter and directed by Martin Scorsese? I do. I do dare.
It’s January 15th, 1920. Prohibition Eve. But to look at the faces of the revelers and party-goers on the Atlantic City boardwalk, you get the impression that the entire thing is one big, ironic joke. That’s certainly how Nucky Thompson sees it. The AC treasurer and underworld boss leaves a meeting with the Women’s Temperance League for dinner with his cronies to discuss how, now that the country’s going dry, people will pay through the nose for drinks that would usually cost about 12 cents. They smuggle the booze in from Canada, or brew it themselves through less reputable means — of which we’re treated to a glimpse in the pilot — they make out like gangbusters, and everybody’s happy.
Except they’re not. It seems to be a staple of gangster movies for there to be a group of old-timers sitting around, playing cards or eating sandwiches. And one of them invariably says something like, “Kids these days.” It’s a young man’s game. We get that. They get older, greedier and eventually the old guard is swept away. Things are no different here. We’re introduced to Jimmy Darmody, Nucky’s driver, who, along with a young Al Capone, makes a major play for a piece of his boss’ action.
And it’s through Nucky’s interactions with Jimmy that we get to see exactly how the old guard operated. There’s a scene in the pilot in which Steve Buscemi remarks on Kelly Macdonald’s Irish accent, to which she replies, “My husband says I sound like an immigrant.” Buscemi smiles and says, “We’re all immigrants, are we not?” He’s the one running things, but there’s a real feeling of sincerity to what he said. They’re all immigrants and up until now, they were all more or less in it together. It’s only now that you’re starting to see a difference between the immigrants’ own “us and them.” So when Jimmy hijacks a shipment of Nucky’s booze, Nucky doesn’t kill him. He makes it clear that he can, whenever he wants. It’s possible that Nucky’s too sentimental, or that he sees himself in Jimmy and feels a certain bond with him. Nucky believes him to be a smart guy who could have a real future if he wanted it, and it’ll be interesting to see how that informs their relationship now that he sees Jimmy choosing a slightly different path. In any case, he’s a smart guy, so you have to think there was a certain amount of reason going into the decision to keep him alive. And maybe even a certain amount a class, if that’s the right word. These guys aren’t the Sopranos. They’re working on a different level.
Tonight’s pilot ran a little over an hour, and with good reason. While Nucky’s relationship with Jimmy will obviously be central storyline in the show, there’s a lot more being set up here. We see Nucky dealing with the mob in Chicago, while also taking time to clean up his own backyard. Kelly Macdonald plays a woman who comes to him asking after a job for her husband, which Nucky says he can arrange. When Macdonald’s husband discovers what she’s done he beats her, which Nucky then has to take care of in a scene that feels very Scorsese.
We’ve got the aforementioned Al Capone, along with a young Lucky Luciano, two up-and-comers trying to carve out a piece for themselves. And on the other side of the law we’ve got Agent Van Alden working for the Bureau of Internal Revenue, who have decided to make liquor and its illegal manufacture and sale a priority. We also caught a glimpse of Michael K. Williams, Omar from ‘The Wire,’ in Nucky’s waiting room, so we kind of know already that we’re in for a wild ride.
Winter seems to have a real feel for the period. The sets and costumes all look terrific, as do all the little miscellaneous details you might usually skip over in a TV show. There’s also a lot of great camera play going on, which we’ve come to expect from Scorsese. The episode’s opening scene, along with being my favorite of the episode, is proof positive that he’s not a filmmaker content only to use and reuse the same tricks, but has grown and even reinvented himself. If ‘Treme’ was able to get a second season pickup after only the pilot, we have to assume ‘Boardwalk Empire’ will also return, and I doubt Scorsese will be able to resist returning to the director’s chair.
So, let the good times roll. It’s always exciting to be there for what you know is going to be appointment television. I can only hope that ‘Mad Men’ will forgive me for being unfaithful. Not like that Don Draper jerk has any room to talk.