Tuned In

Boardwalk Empire Watch: Land of Opportunity

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HBO

I plan/hope to do a full-fledged Boardwalk Empire Watch, but with a looming deadline and Mad Men and Rubicon on the same night, with network premiere week looming—and having just published my review based on the first six episodes—I’m going to give myself a partial bye from doing an all-out review this week. (There’s a lot of big TV on Sunday nights right now, so going forward I’ll have to get to each show when I get to it, meaning that in some cases Monday may have to mean Tuesday.)

For now, rather than make you wait to talk about the big, Scorsese-directed pilot of this series, here are a few hail-of-bullets talking points to get you started:

* In general, what did you think of the Scorsese-ness of the storytelling and visuals? There were a couple of scenes that in particular reminded me of no other director: the freeze-frame on Al Capone at the end of the introductory ambush scene, and the very director-ly shot from above of Big Jim Colosimo bleeding out on the tile floor. The former worked better for me than the latter.

*Because I watched advance screeners, I had yet to see the opening titles, an HBO specialty. They were nothing like what I’d have guessed—a surreal, dreamlike sequence in a very naturalistic series; they recalled less The Sopranos than the opening titles of John from Cincinnati (which I loved). The anachronistic rock theme music, again a surprise, given the use of period music in the show—and again, very Scorsesean.

* What do you think of the choice of casting Buscemi in the lead role? Some critics (I’m thinking Alessandra Stanley in the New York Times in particular, were bothered that his Nucky wasn’t as big and burly as his real-life role model. (Buscemi, of course, is known as a character actor, and that title sequence seems partly intended to send the message: “This is a leading man.”) I like the fact that by putting a gaunt, pale pipecleaner like Buscemi in the role, you’re forced to focus on his cunning and its danger, rather than any physical threat he might pose. It also emphasizes that Nucky is an intelligent, well-read man, sometimes frustrated by the galoots he has to deal with on both sides of the law. (“A rose by any other name.” “What’s that supposed to mean?” “Read a fucking book.”)

* Speaking of that last conversation, there are some very, shall we say, ’20s performances in the pilot—Nucky’s flapper girlfriend, for instance. Among them, Mickey was the only one who put me off; his manner of speaking may very well be authentic to the period, but I still sometimes felt I was watching the missing fourth Stooge.

* You may be already well aware of the casting, but if you weren’t, did you recognize Dabney Coleman (Buffalo Bill) in the role of The Commodore?

* Speaking of which, an unsetlling moment in that scene in which, disparaging Arnold Rothstein, the Commodore hands Nucky a copy of Henry Ford’s pamphlet “The International Jew: The World’s Foremost Problem.” Expect to see Boardwalk Empire to turn up the dark side of history in more than one way going forward.

* I knew about the storefront incubators before ever seeing the pilot, having visited the set and talkd about their history a little with Terence Winter, but the image was still very unsettling. Probably more than anything else, it frames Boardwalk Empire as set at a time of change—the wonders of scientific progress!—and in a place of ugly capitalism, where anything is for sale, including a 25-cent peep at a sick baby.

* That picture of capitalism aside, the show is not simply a tirade against greed and capitalism. It also, given the subject of Prohibition, emphasizes the danger of misguided government paternalism. On the one hand Prohibition wasn’t just prudery, however badly conceived; it was intended as part of a sweeping social reform movement that did (in other ways) improve the lot of women and the working class. But it did a lot of harm, and, as Nucky says, simply created a bonanza by giving a few people of a product that “a fella wants to have… Even better is that we’ve got a product that he’s not allowed to have.”

* Finally: “Nucky, all I want is an opportunity.” “This is America, ain’t it? Who the fuck’s stopping you?” How’s that for a thesis statement?

I could go on, but actually I can’t. So here’s your opportunity: let us know what you thought.

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