Boardwalk Empire — Killer TV No 11

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HBO/Sky Atlantic, 2010-present

‘Nucky, all I want is an opportunity.’ – Jimmy

‘This is America, ain’t it? Who the fuck’s stopping you?’ – Nucky

Steve Buscemi, Kelly Macdonald, Michael Shannon, Michael Stuhlbarg, Stephen Graham

Identikit: The rise and regime of Enoch ‘Nucky’ Thompson, the corrupt Treasurer of Atlantic County, who exploits the corrupt possibilities of the Prohibition period of the 1920s.


logosRichly textured and ambitious epic about that unhinged, thrilling period of Prohibition America in the 1920s. It’s the kind of show only HBO and the American cable networks could make, tackling a cast of real characters and big subjects that dwarf any and every series made in the UK. Steve Buscemi is the focus as Nucky Thompson, based on Atlantic City’s real corrupt political figure of Enoch L Johnson, who sanctioned and cashed in on the bootlegging rackets in cahoots with the most lurid gangland figures in US history – Al Capone, Lucky Luciano, Arnold Rothstein. The series was adapted by old Sopranos hand Terence Winter from a book by Nelson Johnson. It’s a huge story melding Nucky’s back-room dealings and private life with the quiet but determined Margaret, along with events such as the Black Sox Scandal, the rise of Capone, presidential elections and gang wars. Oddly enough, it is occasionally criticised for its slow pace, but it remains psychologically sophisticated and a mesmerising portrait of a wild age. Winner of 12 Emmys, two for Outstanding Drama Series, and the Golden Globe for Best Drama Series.

Classic episode: Two Impostors (ep 11, series 3). Nucky, Chalky and Capone line up against Sicilian psycho Gyp Rosetti, who’s threatening to dislodge Nucky from Atlantic City. An attempted hit on Nucky, car chases, shootouts. After a slow build, the series delivered full-throttle gangster mayhem. Even Nucky was blasting, and Capone was cool amid the bloodbath – ‘I’ve been on the road for 18 hours. I need a bath, some chow, and then you and me sit down, and we talk about who dies.’

Watercooler fact: The pilot episode was directed by Martin Scorsese and reputedly cost $18million to produce.

Boardwalk Empire series three with Steve Buscemi PREVIEW

Rating: ★★★★½

Sky Atlantic: Saturdays (from 29 September), 9pm

Story: Welcoming in the New Year – 1923 – Nucky Thompson tells his bootlegger compadres that he will no longer be supplying them with booze. He will only sell to Arnold Rothstein, and they will have to pay his price…

Nucky’s Egyptian-theme New Year’s Eve bash. Pics: BSkyB

The champagne corks are popping – Boardwalk Empire is back. It’s the eve of 1923 and Nucky Thompson is about to make a whole new hive of enemies.

Having offed his former protege, Jimmy Darmody, in series two’s finale, the bootlegging politician wants to simplify his life by turning into a booze wholesaler who supplies just one man, Rothstein, instead of all his former cohorts. When he announces this at a lavish New Year’s Eve party at his home, Nucky makes some nasty people very unhappy about having to pay Rothstein’s price – including the new psychopathic Sicilian in town, Gyp Rosetti.

Sicilian with a Gyp on his shoulder

Bobby Cannavale as Rosetti

In the opener Gyp was introduced to us as he takes a metal tool to the head of a sweet old guy out walking his dog. The reason – the old boy was trying to be helpful.

Boardwalk Empire has been criticised for being short of explosive action, and it’s made hardly a ripple in the UK because it’s tucked away for a small audience on Sky Atlantic. But it is a superb drama, a rich recreation of a fascinating and wild period, and season three’s opening episode was fizzing with conflict.

As the trailer above makes clear, Nucky – an Emmy-winning performance by Steve Buscemi – is precariously balancing between being a corrupt political operator and an all-out gangster. His relationship with Margaret has soured, and she is becoming enmeshed in the affairs of a hospital of which she is a patron, and is perhaps attracting a new admirer there.

Stephen Graham as Capone

Al Capone makes an enemy
The eerily masked man, Richard Harrow, had the episode’s one gun blast to his credit when he took out Manny Horvitz in revenge for killing his secret love, Angela Darmody. More problems there for Nucky.

And Al Capone is emerging as a significant force, here having a serious falling-out with Irish hoodlum Dean O’Banion.

As the actor who plays Capone, Britain’s Stephen Graham says in an Observer interview, the infamous gangster’s character will be developed in season three as we see him as a father as well as fearsome mobster.

Steve Buscemi as Nucky Thompson

In coming weeks Rosetti will be moving against Nucky and Rothstein, and former G-man turned struggling door-to-door salesman Van Alden is in for an interesting time having fortuitously saved O’Banion from Capone at the Irishman’s flower shop.

With the creative forces of The Soprano‘s writer Terence Winter and Martin Scorsese behind it, Boardwalk Empire is period drama with punch.

Where UK history shows such as Downton Abbey, with its airbrushed view of life below stairs, is a watered down version of the past, Boardwalk Empire‘s evocation of the mad, messy Prohibition era is 95% proof. Go for the real stuff.

Cast: Steve Buscemi Nucky Thompson, Kelly Macdonald Margaret Thompson, Michael Shannon Nelson Van Alden, Shea Whigham Eli Thompson, Michael Kenneth Williams Chalky White, Jack Huston Richard Harrow, Paul Sparks Mickey Doyle, Michael Stuhlbarg Arnold Rothstein, Stephen Graham Al Capone, Vincent Piazza Lucky Luciano, Gretchen Mol Gillian Darmody, Anatol Yusef Meyer Lansky, Bobby Cannavale Gyp Rosetti

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Boardwalk Empire PREVIEW

Steve Buscemi as Nucky Thompson (pics: BSkyB)

Rating ★★★★★

Sky Atlantic, Tuesday, 1 February, 9pm

New channel Sky Atlantic has a real bruiser of a series to get its launch some attention. Boardwalk Empire is gaudy, seductive and, like all sharp gangsters, right on the money.

The opening 90-minutes is particularly flash with the cash (a rumoured $20-odd million). The Martin Scorsese-directed episode is dazzling, a kaleidoscopic swoop through the vice-ridden adult playground that was Atlantic City at the launch of Prohibition.

Epic drama about the Roaring Twenties
This is an epic series with ambitions and themes that dwarf most dramas attempted in Britain or America. It’s about the birth of the gangster myth, about power and portraying that mad, glamorous, anything-goes era in American history, the Roaring Twenties. Crowd scenes, lavish sets, period detail and superb actors and writers make this an offer you can’t refuse.

Al Capone (Stephen Graham) and Jimmy Darmody (Michael Pitt)

It’s the eve of the Volstead Act coming into effect. Crowds along the seafront of Atlantic City are celebrating – a giant bottle of hooch in a casket is mockingly given a New Orleans-style funeral send-off. The countdown to midnight commences, and the booze ban is celebrated in nightclubs with – what else? – the popping of champagne corks.

We meet Enoch ‘Nucky’ Thompson – Steve Buscemi in a Golden Globe-winning performance – the town’s treasurer, unofficial ruler, and man pledged to keep the booze flowing regardless.

Meet the boys – Al Capone and Lucky Luciano
Half unscrupulous politician, half gangster, he’s meeting some serious criminals from New York in the shape of Arnold Rothstein (play with menacing authority by Michael Stuhlbarg), Jim Colosimo (Frank Crudele), Lucky Luciano (Vincent Piazza), and a nervy novice mobster in Al Capone (British actor Stephen Graham).

Nucky has the backing of his brother and town sheriff, Elias (Shea Whigham), and many ward bosses and local thugs. Another of the entourage is his driver, Jimmy Darmody (Michael Pitt), a veteran of the Great War who, having escaped the horrors of France, is determined to cash in big style during peacetime.

Jimmy Darmody and wife Angela (Aleksa Palladino)

The opening episode offers a taste of complications to come for Nucky. Jimmy is dangerously ambitious and, with trigger-happy Al Capone, hijacks Nucky’s booze consignment for New York. The heist goes wrong, four men are killed and New York’s gangsters don’t get their valuable cargo.

Nucky’s personal life is also shifting. We first see him reducing members of a women’s temperance meeting to tears with an anecdote about the evils of booze. One of the audience, Margaret Schroeder (another Brit, Kelly Macdonald), seeks him out and asks if he could find her violent drunk of a husband some work. It’s a fateful encounter for the widower Nucky.

Scorsese’s operatic assassinations
Boardwalk Empire gets so many things right. There are Scorsese’s operatic assassination scenes, the ragtime soundtrack, and the brilliant storytelling. It does what the best US series manage brilliantly and British ones rarely do – inter-weaving complex characters into big historical events.

So Nucky is shrewd, tender, corrupt, humorous, insightful, ruthless and at times reckless. Though Buscemi bears little resemblance to the real Nucky, a grey-haired bear of a man, his performance is irresistible. His face always betrays to the audience the cynicism behind the politician’s lies, and no one enunciates the f-word more emphatically.

If looks could kill – Knucky’s not happy

At one point he questions the choice of a new name that one of his bootleggers has picked for himself. ‘A rose by any other name,’ Nucky says.

‘What does that mean?’ the bootlegger says.

‘Read a fucking book.’

Recreating the crazy age of Prohibition
Terence Winter, the Emmy-winning writer from The Sopranos (which is being re-shown on Sky Atlantic), is the series’ creator. HBO offered him the chance to conjure a drama from a book by Nelson Johnson about the seaside city’s corrupt history. To keep clear of Tony Soprano comparisons, Winter chose the Prohibition era as his subject, and it is a glamorous and wild time to watch.

From boxing contests between dwarfs, to seafront palmistry, the stunt of using the newly-invented baby incubator as a carnival attraction, and onto Eddie Cantor’s vaudeville act – it’s an unforgettable glimpse into the early Twentieth century.   

This series will have you rooting for the characters, wincing at the violence, laughing, and wanting to know more about this period in Atlantic City. TV drama hardly gets much better than this.

• Boardwalk Empire has a fantastic interactive site here.

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