Jersey Shore, 1920

HBO’s Boardwalk Empire is a wantonly snazzy ride through Prohibition.

Still from Boardwalk Empire. Click image to expand.
Boardwalk Empire 

Boardwalk Empire (HBO, Sundays at 9 p.m. ET) flaunts a good grand title. The name—taken from the source material, a history of Atlantic City written by Nelson Johnson—is as classically brassy as an old studio’s production logo. It speaks with the gaudiness of the series’ setting, and it captures the wantonly snazzy tone of the show and its search for splendor. Created by Terence Winter, Boardwalk Empire is also signed by Martin Scorsese, an executive producer here enjoying his most substantial encounter with crafting fiction for television.

To judge by the energy Scorsese brings to directing the premiere episode, the enjoyment is rapturous. If I understand Pauline Kael properly, this is the mode of his that she, always on with the bedroom talk, disapproved of as “tumescence.” Can we instead call it a zest for pleasure? Can we agree that local conditions favor it? Scorsese conveys an especially sharp excitement when exploring the atmosphere around show people, rendering palpable the friction of hustling in New York, New York and the charge at the edge of the stage in Goodfellas, for instance. Here, assessing the vaudeville moxie of 1920s Atlantic City and the criminals who organized it, Scorsese achieves a virtuoso riff on entertainment culture.

The riff is made for TV and made of it. The director gets a kick from deploying the medium’s particular tricks, teasing their uses, and toying with its mission to sell. Witty and witchy, it sets up a shrewd approach to advertising—placing products to fix the period and making it sly fun, as if the Chesterfield billboards and Vogue ads were actually the show’s commercials. I won’t get tired of re-rewinding through the moment where Boardwalk Empire strolls us into a pivotal scene of a shooting. Men with guns are on the outskirts of town, all business, and a fusillade is clearly in the offing. But the soundtrack, delirious with tension, belongs to the scene before: The crowd in a palatial theater roars at one-liners as a drummer fires rim shots. The laughter skids off track. Ba da dum.

The premiere sets up the series’ habit of shuttling among crime stories, romantic plots, and family melodramas, often using musical numbers, dance scenes, and bits of burlesque as segues. This seems a fine TV treatment of the last days of the nickelodeon and the dawning of a new pace of amusement. The first shot, severely beautiful, is of a ticking watch, and it contributes the urgency of a news report. The time is 1920, and we’re counting down to Prohibition. The watch disappears into the pocket of a bootlegger’s lookout. The hooch will pass through the hands of political boss Enoch Thompson, as much everything does in these parts.

Thompson, known to his inferiors and antagonists as “Nucky,” is the local treasurer and former sheriff, but in his heart, which is less than half rotten, he knows that his true title is Big Fish. Playing Nucky, Steve Buscemi wears high collars and a cadaverous pallor, and thus gives the impression that he’s serving his own head on a platter. When feeling like an existential hero, he more often sighs than moans. “I try to do good. I really do,” he says mirthlessly to the young woman paid to adorn his lap. When Harvey Keitel’s character harbored similar feeling in Mean Streets, he could only really bring himself to make a statement like that to his priest, but Nucky turns your living room into his confessional.

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