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BOARDWALK EMPIRE

9/20/2010 9:23 AM Eastern

True Blood might be HBO’s biggest hit since
a certain series about mobsters in New Jersey.

But by centering on gangsters operating further
south in the Garden State, HBO figures to add another
Nielsen and critical winner to its roster.

Boardwalk Empire is a
grand spectacle, intersecting
the worlds of
good and (mostly) evil
in Atlantic City, Chicago,
New York and Washington
during the early days
of Prohibition. It’s also
derivative of such genre
notables as The Godfather, Once Upon a Time In America,
Casino
and Goodfellas. And why not: Marty Scorsese
directs the 70-minute pilot.

Not surprisingly, given Boardwalk creator Terrence
Winter’s pedigree with its HBO predecessor, there are
more than a few hints of The Sopranos as well.

At the center of it all is character actor and Sopranos
on-air and behind-the-camera alum Steve Buscemi
stepping into the lead role of Nucky Thompson, based
on the real-life Enoch (Nucky) Johnson, the political
boss who once ruled Atlantic City. As treasurer of A.C.,
Thompson is at the top of everybody’s tribute list.

With Prohibition just instituted and with the means
to keep the hooch flowing, Nucky, who commands his
employees and business associates with one-liners and
disdain, is about to live even larger at the Ritz-Carlton
with lover Lucy (Paz de la Huerta), a sexy and whiny former
showgirl redolent of many of Tony Soprano’s chippies.

Thompson’s world is further complicated by his
protégé Jimmy Darmody (Michael Pitt), a college studentturned-
World War I vet, whose impulsive violence
threatens Nucky’s nook as Christopher Moltisanti
messed with his Mafia chieftain.

Nucky has also run afoul of the calm-yet-calculating
Arnold Rothstein (Michael Stuhlbarg) and his hot-headed
New York running mate Charles Luciano (Vincent Piazza),
who isn’t so lucky in facing a 1920 cure for a venereal disease.
A yet-to-fully arrive Al Capone (Stephen Graham) also
makes more than a few statements in Jersey and Chicago.

Meanwhile, through the first three installments, religious
zealot and Prohibition agent Nelson Van Alden
(Michael Shannon) emerges as a nemesis (one who’s
not opposed to putting the squeeze on for information),
while Michael Kenneth Williams proves to be a
tough negotiator for stepping on booze and as a leader
of Atlantic City’s black community.

Nucky holds a soft spot for Irish immigrant widow
and mother Margaret (Kelly Macdonald), who reminds
the wheeler-dealer of his late wife. He inserts into a job
that’s sure to either expand or end their relationship.

For all the details to replicate the world just after World
War I and the start of the Roaring ’20s, I have quibbles.
More scuff marks are needed on HBO’s recently built
boardwalk, which looks way too new in several scenes.
Also, some of the language seems a tad too modern.

Although far broader in scope than the more provincial
world of The Sopranos, Boardwalk’s proximity in
terms of Garden State geography and timing, just three
years removed from David Chase turning the screen to
black, could work against it building a truly large audience
following. It also might not create its own cachet,
something the best of HBO series engender.

September