And there are the costumes. I found the suits worn by Nucky and the gangsters in Boardwalk to be incredibly off-putting at first. While the producers claim that Nucky’s look was inspired by the Duke of Windsor, one of the great 1920s fashion icons, the end result looks awfully affected to modern eyes; a sort of 21st century version of Guys & Dolls. But then, 1920s fashions are often a challenge for film TV productions – Tom Wolfe once referred to the Robert Redford version of The Great Gatsby as Fitzgerald interpreted by the Garment District, with 1920s characters wearing very 1970s wide-lapelled Ralph Lauren suits. Boardwalk seems to have at least learned that lesson; you quickly get used to its fashion choices.
Martin Scorsese directed the pilot of Boardwalk Empire, but don’t get too excited. While it’s nicely paced, with DeNiro and the rest of the Scorsese repertory troop nowhere to be found, it’s a more workman-like effort. Think The Color of Money, instead of the second coming of Mean Streets, Taxi Driver or Goodfellas.
Finally, there’s Steve Buscemi, the star of Boardwalk Empire. James Gandolfini in the role of Tony Soprano was a perfect casting choice, which made an otherwise extremely unpalatable character absolutely magnetic to watch. Jon Hamm, Brylcreemed to perfection in his gray flannel Brooks Brothers suit as Don Draper, is a stylish throwback to the days of Cary Grant and Rock Hudson. Building a show around Steve Buscemi is rather brave, seeing as he’s definitely much more of an acquired taste as a leading man, with his acting tics, sad eyes, craggy shark’s teeth and his rubbery face.
But then, the producers of Boardwalk Empire seem to specialize in damaged faces: in the pilot, we meet a young Al Capone, with a pair of very realistic looking scars on his face, acquired in a knife-fight in his early days as a bouncer. One of the more intriguing characters is Richard Harrow, (portrayed by Jack Huston) vaguely reminiscent of the Two-Face character from Batman. Harrow wears a metal mask over half his face, to hide the horrific wounds he received in World War I.
(Perhaps to offset the accumulated weight of all of the damaged faces, there’s Julianne Nicholson, virtually unrecognizable from her role as Chris Noth’s tomboy partner on Law & Order: Criminal Intent. She was added in Boardwalk’s second season to play a character based on likely the only woman serving as a U.S. Assistant Attorney General in the 1920s.)
The show’s brilliant production design, solid casting, and the exoticism of the historical setting help to minimize the occasional formulaic plots, particularly after the pilot. Later episodes feature stories built around plenty of formulaic grifters, grafters, and stolid cops looking to put bootleggers behind bars. All of which starts to lend an occasional “I think I’ve seen this all before” tone to the proceedings. But then, great television is taking well-tread elements and tossing them into a new recombinant formula. (Parents beware: there’s plenty of gratuitous F-bombs and occasional nudity, just to remind you that we’re not in basic cable anymore.)
Is Boardwalk Empire worth watching? If you’ve missed The Sopranos, you can definitely get your fix here. Boardwalk may lack the immediacy of its modern-era HBO forerunner, and the sixties Rat Pack-era swank of Mad Men. But it’s stylish in its own right, focusing on a period and location rarely explored by television. That, along with Buscemi’s acting quirks, makes it oddly hypnotic. Sure, it’s black armband “look how ugly America was before we Boomers arrived to set things straight” history. But the knockout production design and Untouchables on the beach-style atmosphere, particularly in the beautifully mastered new DVD, make it all go down as smooth as a shot of Canadian Rye.