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"Boardwalk Empire," "The Ivory Tower," "Broadway Limited," "Anastasia," "Nights in Ballygran," "Family Limitation," "Home," "Hold Me in Paradise," "Belle Femme," "The Emerald City," "Paris Green," "A Return to Normalcy"
by Walter Chaw SPOILER WARNING IN EFFECT. Two things right off the bat about HBO's "Boardwalk Empire". First, the Martin Scorsese who directed the pilot would eat the tedious old guy who made Hugo for lunch. Second, for as good as the first season turns out to be, it's based almost entirely on the strength of a cast minimizing the disappointment of opportunities lost. Even the actors, though, can be something of a liability, in that the mere presence of Michael Shannon cues us that straitlaced, proto-Untouchable Agent Nelson Van Alden is on his way to becoming a full-blown nutter. The premise is tired, too, as almost a century's remove from the 1920s American gangster cycle has made the whole genre exhausted. There are no new delights in a midnight Tommy-gun execution in the woods, or an unhinged Guido unloading on a hapless shopkeeper. There's not much joy, either, in trainspotting the parade of gangsters, the Lucky Lucianos (Vincent Piazza) and Al Capones (Stephen Graham, late of Public Enemies) and Meyer Lanskys (Anatol Yusef), partly because if you're a student of gangland history, you're immediately cued to their fates. Implanted spoilers, if you will. The real revelations of "Boardwalk Empire" are Jack Huston as a mutilated WWI doughboy and Gretchen Mol, who spent the first half of her career as Cameron Diaz's haircut (see also: Malin Akerman) but emerges in this venue as an actress of complexity and intelligence. It's enough to wonder what the series might have been were the casting not so otherwise on the nose--a strange liability, I know.
Nucky Thompson (Steve Buscemi) is treasurer and king scumbag of Atlantic City, running the Boardwalk with his brother Eli (Shea Whigham), sheriff of Atlantic County, and welcoming Prohibition as a bootleg and smuggling opportunity when, in the series premiere, it rolls in with the New Year. Nucky takes on a mistress, Lucy (Paz de la Huerta); a ward, Jimmy (Michael Pitt); and a project in abused Irish immigrant Margaret (Kelly Macdonald), who may or may not be the saviour of Nucky's soul. Yeah, it's that kind of show. The real problem with "Boardwalk Empire"--maybe the only problem--is that it's smart enough to kill off characters the instant they've fulfilled their arc but not smart enough to evolve them beyond their arcs. Consider the transformation of "Deadwood"'s characters from Al on down to Wu; remember that scene where Doherty kills a man, then sits on his bed and cries? There aren't any such transcendent moments in "Boardwalk Empire", in other words. It wouldn't be a problem, except that the talent assembled is capable of better. What if, for example, Agent Nelson wasn't a closet freak trapped in a loveless marriage and tempted by Nucky's hedonism? What if Jimmy weren't a kid from a broken family who left his heart and mind on a battlefield somewhere?
In their way, these characters are as bound by convention as Al Capone, Meyer Lansky, and Johnny Torrio (Greg Antonacci). Even without the example of "Deadwood", all "Boardwalk Empire" manages is to be unsurprising in the shadow of Scorsese's and Coppola's mob epics. Its attempt to find newness in Atlantic City feels hollow in the wake of James Ellroy's L.A. quartet; it's all done really well, make no mistake, yet it's all been done before. A trilogy of episodes--the pilot, its immediate follow-up, and the season finale--written by creator Terence Winter, former executive producer of "The Sopranos", demonstrates the potential of the series, beginning in optimism and ending on the verge of collapse as Nucky's golden touch starts to lose its lustre. The Scorsese-helmed premiere, in fact, is maybe the most vibrant thing he's done since Casino--and I say this as a fan of The Departed and The Aviator. It's alive and excited, Scorsese's patented tracking shots employed to capture end-of-the-world delirium. Hard to explain, but it reminded me of a Clive Barker short story called "Sex, Death, and Starshine," maybe Poe's "Masque of the Red Death" as the clock counts down to Prohibition and, in the same conversation, the rise of women's suffrage. There's an ambiguity in the first two instalments about the emasculation that is the response to the barely-contained anarchy of the Jazz Age, the price of cheap hooch and easy women serving as the veneer of civilization. It suggests that "Boardwalk Empire" is going to be about lies and pretending. A noble pursuit--but the fear is that that's all it's about.
Episode 3 is where Agent Nelson ripens into the psychopath Shannon's casting has promised, a holy roller of the sort who, yeah, mortifies his flesh to a photo of Margaret. We get a hint of his godly wrath when he interrogates a near-dead prisoner, the lone survivor of an ambush staged by Jimmy and Capone. It's shocking, but not surprising. It also shows how Elias is a murderer, too, one less driven by ideology than by loyalty to his brother, implying that "Boardwalk Empire" is going to draw that line as well. In the middle is Jimmy, whose loyalties seem divided between Nucky (i.e., monetary gain and power that he sees available to him as the smartest person in the room), who once took him under his wing and has again, and the well-being of his young family, wife Angela (Aleksa Palladino) and young son Tommy, who greet Jimmy's return like he's Martin Guerre. Pitt's a fine young actor (he's chosen a difficult path when an easier one was available to him), and though he's playing that old saw of a damaged vet with a dark past, he approaches it with understatement. He's River Phoenix without the nervous energy, and while he's perfect in this role, without having seen the second season I can tell you I'm a little surprised he was allowed to survive this one. His character has a clear arc: There will be a point at which he's punished for his role as audience surrogate and moral barometer--there's a price for the cathartic nature of his explosions. The righteousness of his violence signs his inevitable death warrant, and if "Boardwalk Empire" doesn't kill him off, it will, given the show's relative lack of imagination, make him boring and protracted. He's a plant in a pot too small for him; it's a peculiar death sentence.
Episode 3 is likewise where the series introduces a racial element in black gangster Chalky ("The Wire"'s Michael Kenneth Williams, just awesome) that will be paid off in the most mundane, proselytizing way in an unfortunate sequence with the Klan. Elias arrests the supremacist, then turns the other cheek as Chalky has his way with him. I've seen this scene a few dozen times and I always like it, but liking it doesn't mean I'm edified by it. Episode 4 introduces an element of "Mad Men" misogyny that, yeah, isn't shocking, and ends with Jimmy's stripper mother, Gillian (Mol), seducing Lucky Luciano in what's probably the most interesting development in this batch of episodes. She's fascinating, Gillian: She has a weird, Oedipal thing going on with Jimmy that's played out with her baby-gangster boyfriend, and she's at the centre of a couple of reversals of the type you wish were also afforded Jimmy and, especially, Nucky. Nucky's infant son and wife have died, see, making him that character, taking a shortcut to depth instead of allowing him to manufacture much on his own. Episode 5 doesn't go anywhere except to launch Jimmy's whore mistress Pearl (Emily Meade), who has a very, very limited function and will be replaced with another disfigured soul in the same way Gillian has replaced Jimmy with Lucky. Episode 6, to its credit, has a wonderful moment where a stodgy old sufferance biddy gives Margaret the advice that life as a kept woman is actually not too terrible a gig, considering the state of the world during the Roaring Twenties.
Episode 7 soars on the back of Richard Harrow, a sniper missing half his face and given to wearing one of those awesome prosthetic masks you might be able to buy at an Oddities curio shop. He's an amazing creation--lonely, devoted, probably insane, and eloquently representative of the dislocation and isolation of the Great War generation. Meanwhile, Nucky is revealed to have father issues, which doesn't do anything to enrich him. It's worth mentioning that what "Boardwalk Empire" misses is a good ear, the instinct that somebody like Harrow is more compelling than all that stuff about Jimmy's estranged wife experimenting with the Anaïs Nin bohemian lifestyle. In evoking an age, it aspires to Fitzgerald sometimes, Henry Miller at others, but in every moment of its sketching it finds itself wanting. It doesn't plow enough new roads and is already melting in the rearview into every other work that did it more memorably. The only afterimages are Harrow and Gillian--the Art in all that Deco.
Episodes 8 and 9 grow Margaret's involvement in Nucky's affairs while offering more of the same rote development for Jimmy (sticking up for Richard with Nucky, natch), while Agent Nelson is so crazy by this point that his role as mirror darkly isn't particularly effective. If "Boardwalk Empire" wants to destabilize the institutions of government, church, police, et al, it's only about sixty or seventy years behind the curve. Agent Nelson disrupts a river baptism in the type of scene that will never be pure again after O Brother Where Art Thou?; Agent Nelson goes rogue on a partner; Agent Nelson sleeps with a whore and the whore gets...pregnant? While his wife's at home, barren? C'mon, "Boardwalk Empire". Jesus. The tenth episode ups the ante on the gangster stuff, leading to the inevitable scene where Jimmy and Capone piss off a lot of people and find themselves at odds with Nucky and Torrio, although there's an absolutely classic bit with Harrow where he watches Margaret read Road to Oz and forgives the world for seeing him as a monster. There's political manoeuvring in Episode 11 and a schism between brothers that sets up various other schisms in the series' storylines, ramping up to the cliffhanger. It feels like--no, it is--a series blowing its wad without assurance of another round to lend it some balance and moderation in execution. It's impatient and aware, I think, of its status as not only a full step below "Deadwood" (what isn't?), but also a step behind "The Sopranos", a couple seasons of "Big Love", and the last ten minutes, at least, of "Six Feet Under". It's hamstrung by its expectations, crippled by its talent, and at the end undone by the burden of not being a work of genius and asked to follow several. "Boardwalk Empire" could've been a contender, but without a lot of pushing, without a braver showrunner and writers, it stands a good chance of being just another well-appointed soap opera.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
HBO shepherds the digitally-shot first season of "Boardwalk Empire" to Blu-ray in a 1.78:1, 1080p presentation that is sumptuous and...gilded. It's beautiful. Colours are rich and blacks are pitch, aspiring to Gordon Willis if not quite getting there in a manner befitting the show's other Icarean shots and falls. Detail is softish but impressive; more often than not, the high-end HD image looks deceptively filmlike. Better still is the accompanying 5.1 DTS-HD 5.1 MA track, which strikes the perfect balance of bombastic and subtle. Cue up the forest ambush for a dizzying display of woodsy ambience, idling engines, and spat-a-tat Tommy guns. Like Leo before it, the mix is an artist with a Thompson.
An intimidating payload of special features augments this handsome set, starting with an "enhanced" option that activates a picture-in-picture function for each of the season's 12 episodes. Enabling this brings up a "charm bracelet" timeline along the bottom of the screen that announces the automatic cueing of behind-the-scenes featurettes. First up are Winter and Emmy-winner Scorsese to talk about their involvement; subsequent contributions from the two (and all the participants, from costumed cast members to select crew) were evidently sourced from one long interview, but they're inserted with wisdom. Other pop-ups include historical tidbits, plus remarks from actual historians. It most resembles the still-unequalled history lesson/commentary track from New Line's masterful Ifinifilm DVD of Roger Donaldson's Thirteen Days--and just as that film is not as good without it, "Boardwalk Empire" is bolstered immeasurably by it. Selecting the PIP with the attendant commentary tracks is...what can I say? It's worth the price of admission. I should backtrack and say that I love the menu layout and cross-editing that occurs beneath it, mostly because it reminds me of "BioShock". What I loved was Winter, via the PiP, guiding the viewer through not merely the production process, but also the logic guiding how the scope of the show changed as the series evolved. Less good is Winter's "Pilot" commentary (where's Marty?), which is, if not redundant, mainly interested in exposition separated by silences.
Staying with Disc One, a text-only "Character Dossier" is exactly what it sounds like, albeit much bigger than you'd think. Episode 1.4, "Anastasia," sports another commentary, this time with Winter, Buscemi, and Williams. Winter dominates the track, but is certainly more interesting this time around in his encyclopaedic knowledge of actual historic locations and obvious affection for his co-commentators. The two actors, for their part, deliver more bonhomie than insight--although Buscemi, with his background behind the camera, is able to point out a few grace moments. The commentary for 1.6, "Family Limitation," has director Tim Van Patten and writer Howard Korder offering up several interesting factoids, such as the revelation that Pitt practised--and executed--his own Five Finger Filet moment. There are details in here I didn't know I was interested to know ("That's a reproduction"), and the two are congenial and informative. Winter returns with director Brian Kirk for "Hold Me In Paradise" (1.8), having relaxed into his role as raconteur. A nice listen again made essential by the PiP feature. I feel like I know more about Prohibition-era Atlantic City now than I ever needed to.
A couple of documentaries supplement Disc Four. "Atlantic City: The Original Sin City" (30 mins., HD) gathers together technical consultant Ed McGinty along with several other historians and, yeah!, librarians to discuss the founding of Atlantic City in a creation story (let's not forget Nelson Johnson who wrote the history upon which the show is based) that sounds an awful lot like the building of the White House. Seriously. Anyway, it's exhaustive and detailed and definitely worth the watch. A "Speakeasy Tour" (25 mins., HD)--produced for HBO as a promo item, it appears--is exactly what it sounds like, with Antonocci hosting historic speakeasies in the major cities supplied through the Boardwalk. More history, and pleasant. The last two episodes, "Paris Green" (1.11) and "A Return to Normalcy" (1.12), sport similarly pleasant, informed yakkers, the first with Korder, director Allen Coulter, and a predictably quiet Michael Shannon, who seems like a nice guy though has, I fear, already been typecast for the rest of his career. The other pairs Winter with Van Patten.
The fifth and final disc contains a brief "Making of" (20 mins., HD) culled from the same sessions that supplied the PiP feature, meaning it doesn't have a whole lot of substance but isn't a total waste. Last and certainly least, "Creating the Boardwalk" (5 mins., HD) is possibly the only superfluous extra in the entire package. Bundled with the BDs are Digital Copies of the whole shebang on two DVDs.