Monday, September 20, 2010

TV Eye: Boardwalk Empire

I feel that it's unfair, and difficult, to judge television shows based on their pilot episodes.  Experience has taught me that the pilots usually have a different aura to them.  The dust hasn't settled, the characters are still being defined.  In network programs, this is doubly the case.  Pilots are the test run.  Sometimes, between episodes one and two, cast members will have changed.  Primary leads will have been pushed to the background, huge new thematic subplots will be introduced based on test audience reaction.  This is why when I'm at all interested in the premise of a new television show, unless the first taste is exceptionally bad, I will hang on for at least two helpings.  That said, I'm going to jump the shark and convey my first impressions on the premiere of HBO's much hyped Boardwalk Empire.  Why?  Two reasons.  1. Because it's not TV, it's HBO.  2. Because it transcends into a terrain not often occupied by episodic television.
Boardwalk Empire is a show of cinema pedigree.  It boasts writing from The Sopranos' Terence Winter, production/direction/backing by Martin Scorsese (whose name alone is enough to warrant must see tv), and a ridiculously impressive cast.  Heading up the pack is Steve Buscemi, who plays Atlantic City sleazeball politician Nucky Thompson, a man who lies to little old ladies, doles out cash to folks in need, and has just started dipping his toes in liquor running at the dawn of Prohibition.  At Nucky's side is a fresh-faced veteran doughboy played by Michael Pitt (Last Days, Dreamers, Hedwig). On his case is a fed played by crazy eyed Michael Shannon (Revolutionary Road).  Bankrupting the house is a bow tied gangster Michael Stuhlbarg (A Serious Man).  In his good graces is a battered immigrant played by Kelly MacDonald (Trainspotting, Nanny McPhee, Choke).  In his bed is the current it-girl of indie nudity Paz de la Huerta.  You get the picture.  The Boardwalk is populated with film stars and Oscar nominees.  It also plays like a film, boasts set design and art direction that feels unprecedented by television standards, and is so polished it's almost impossible to criticize.  Ultimately, this sort of over slick, overstuffed veneer could lead to its undoing (is it style or substance?), but in the pilot, everything about Boardwalk Empire feels cinematic. 
While it's true that the introductory passages don't grab viewers and force them to identify with the criminal characters the way family-oriented, therapist seeing Tony Soprano did in that series, there's a lot of room for Boardwalk Empire to grow.  Nucky has been granted two opposing sides to his conscious this early on.  He's a gangster, certainly, but one who seems committed to aspects of the well-being of the Jersey citizens and visitors he looks over.  We're set to experience his slow and conflicted decline; and right now I'm whole heartedly down with continuing the ride.  Boardwalk's cautiously paced opener makes it primed to explode.  The stage is set, the dozen or so characters are in position...there's no reason why it all shouldn't go down according to plan.  There are a lot of comparisons popping up on the internet between this 1920's piece and Mad Men's 1960's period serial.  In my honest opinion? As first episodes go:  Boardwalk trumps Mad Men.  I feel way more committed to seeing where this heads than I did in those cursory glances at Sterling Cooper.  I dug this show.  It had Scorsese's fingerprints all over it, right down to the cinematography of its party scenes.  If it carries out its momentum, expect Boardwalk Empire to finally cut off Don Draper's award show streak. 

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