12.04.10

All Hail Boardwalk Empire

HBO’s Atlantic City gangster drama ends its first season tonight—Allen Barra argues that its excellence is unrivaled in TV history, and has only seldom been achieved in film.

In the first episode of Boardwalk Empire, directed by Martin Scorsese, Atlantic City political boss “Nucky” Thompson, played by Steve Buscemi, pensively gazes into a fortuneteller’s parlor. A short time later, we see the reverse shot—Nucky staring through the door’s oval window as seen from the inside. The shot replicates the double burn insert popular in newspapers in the 1910s and 1920s where a photo of a famous person was set in a smaller frame against a larger background–you’ll remember the technique from the front page of a newspaper in Citizen Kane featuring pictures of Kane and his mistress and their “love nest.”

It’s an arcane reference but a key one. Boardwalk Empire, which closes out its first season this Sunday at 9 p.m., has gone for the top rung in terms of authenticity and much more often than not reaches it. Nothing quite like this HBO series has ever been produced on television, and only seldom in the movies. A comparison to The Godfather and The Godfather, Part II wouldn’t be misleading. Boardwalk Empire is about the children and grandchildren of mostly Irish, Italian, and Jewish immigrants and how they came together to create organized crime as a springboard to becoming what one of the mob’s giants, Meyer Lansky, once called “real Americans.”

For total evocation of period and mood—not merely the automobiles and fashions, but the sepia-toned lighting of the interiors, the ornate furnishings, and especially the music (Eddie Cantor, Bessie Smith, Caruso)—the series has no rival in television history. Atlantic City (actually Greenpoint, Brooklyn, across the East River from Manhattan) looks like a beautiful place for organized crime to be born. A crew of more than 300 constructed a 290-foot long boardwalk and, using an estimated 140 tons of steel, created hotels (including the legendary Ritz, the real Nucky’s favorite), shops, taffy parlors and photography studios at a cost in excess of $5 million. (The first episode alone cost nearly $18 million.)

It’s the closest thing television has given us to actually stepping back into another time period. The product of a collaboration between Terence Winter, a key Sopranos writer, and Scorsese, Boardwalk Empire has been slow to ingratiate itself with some viewers because it takes its own sweet time developing the characters and story line, and also because the tone from episode to episode–and thus the overall arc–has sometimes been uneven. This was probably inevitable, since Episodes 2-12 are the work of four other directors: Tim Van Patten, Jeremy Podeswa, Alan Taylor, and Allen Coulter, all veterans of the some of the best recent series on television— The Sopranos, Deadwood, The Pacific, and Mad Men. But this is a minor complaint about a show whose pleasures are so rich and varied–and when was the last time such adjectives could be used to describe a show about gangsters?

Some critics have complained that Boardwalk Empire is too much based on fact, while other say it is too much based on fiction. In the New York Times, for instance, Alessandra Stanley wrote that because “the series is based on a history book, Nelson Johnson’s Boardwalk Empire” the show’s writers “lack the confidence to improvise.” If Stanley had read Johnson’s “history book,” she would have found that it is mostly a social account of Atlantic City from its inception as a blue-collar vacation spot in the late nineteenth century to the coming of Donald Trump. In fact, much of the background for the show’s real life characters are taken from such storied texts about the early mob as The Last Testament of Lucky Luciano by Martin Gosh and Richard Hammer, Hank Messick’s Lansky, and recent books such as David Pietrusza’s superb biography of the early financier of organized crime, Rothstein.

Even many of the fictional characters are composites of real people. Criticism that much of the characters’ interior lives are invented is irrelevant; no one was there with a tape recorder when Rothstein, Lansky, Lucky Luciano, Al Capone, and other luminaries met in Atlantic City in 1920 to create America’s shadow corporations.

Why Atlantic City and not New York or Chicago? As Nelson Johnson writes, “When it came to illegal booze, there was probably no place in the country as wide open as Nucky’s town. It was almost as if word of the Volstead Act never reached Atlantic City.” Surrounded by water, pine forests, and swamp and accessed only a few roads easily monitored by a corrupt police department, Atlantic City was a natural magnet for crime in the Prohibition era. And, of course, there was the lure of the Atlantic Ocean. As Burt Lancaster’s graying smalltime hood says in Louis Malle’s Atlantic City, “The Atlantic Ocean was really something back then.”

Each episode becomes an exercise in how far each character is willing to go before crossing a line that can’t be crossed back.

During Prohibition, Nucky Johnson, the real person on whom Buscemi’s character is based, was, according to the Johnson book, “both a power broker in the Republican Party and a force in organized crime, he rubbed elbows with presidents and Mafia thugs. But to Atlantic City’s residents, Nucky was hardly a thug. He was their hero, epitomizing the qualities that made his town successful.” If Arnold Rothstein was the grandfather of organized crime, Nucky was its midwife. Buscemi, a great character actor, would seem hardly to be anyone’s idea to hold a series like Boardwalk Empire together, but he has grown into the part over the course of the season, shedding apprehensions and inhibitions.

Early in the series, his protégée, Jimmy Darmody, a World War I vet turned killer played by a beautifully menacing Michael Pitt, tells him, “You can’t keep being half a gangster, Nucky." It’s a delusion shared by the show’s major characters. Michael Stuhlberg’s Arnold Rothstein wants to see himself as a good Jew who dabbles in gambling as a sideline and loans money to hoods as a business enterprise. Vincent Piazza’s Lucky Luciano would go on to become the most important mobster of all, but at the start of the series he is still conning himself into believing that running errands for Rothstein is the path to becoming a gentleman.

Kara Cutruzzula: ‘Boardwalk Empire’ and TV’s Biggest DrunksIf some of the characters didn’t seem fully formed at the outset, it’s for good reason—they are gangsters in progress, creating the people who would serve as archetypes in hundreds of books, TV shows, and movies, particularly Stephen Graham’s Al Capone, who morphs from a jovial, sadistic playground bully into a full-fledged psychopath in front of our eyes. Each episode becomes an exercise in how far each character is willing to go before crossing a line that can’t be crossed back. (Graham’s Capone crosses his line about midway through the first episode.)

The great news for those who have become hooked on the show is that it has already been renewed for Season 2. It’s going to be a delicious few months anticipating the characters reaching their full splendor at the height of the Jazz Age when everyone as they become whole gangsters.

Allen Barra writes about sports for the Wall Street Journal and the Village Voice. He also writes about books for Salon.com, Bookforum, and the Washington Post. His latest book is Yogi Berra, Eternal Yankee.