Boardwalk Empire: Season 1, Episode 1
Its impossible to judge a novel by its first chapter. Likewise, as television becomes more serialized, and shows grow more novelic, it becomes harder to get a good feel for what a series will be like from the pilot. Pilots as a rule rarely put the show's best foot forward, as exposition and introductions tends to weigh them down; on a show like Boardwalk Empire where an expansive set of characters (some of whom only get the obligatory face time necessary to let us know they will soon become actual characters) must be introduced and a mood and setting as delicate as 1920's Atlantic City must be set up, the weights can get pretty heavy. So I walked into Boardwalk Empire both extremely excited for a show that promises to be one of the best of the new season (and will likely deliver on that promise), but also prepared for a pilot that was not going to put the show's best foot forward. To some extent I was right, as I'm sure its only going to get better from here, but this pilot is nothing to be trifled with.

That's not surprising, really, considering it was directed by Martin Scorsese and cost more than any other television pilot in history (reportedly upwards of $50 million for this one episode). It also boasts a fantastic cast, headlined by an excellent Steve Buscemi and also featuring a who's who of the great Michael's in character acting: Michael Pitt (of Hedwig and the Angry Inch and Funny Games), Michael Shannon (who was nominated for Best Supporting Actor for Revolutionary Road), Michael Stuhlbarg (of A Serious Man fame), and Michael Kenneth Williams (Omar's comin'). With other reliable players like Dabney Coleman and Kelly Macdonald, and with the heavy involvement of creator and executive producer Terrence Winter, who had a heavy hand in making The Sopranos the masterpiece it was, the show was pretty much guaranteed to be great from the start.

A lot goes on in the pilot, and much of it will likely pay off in spades later, but what really stands out in this first episode is how expertly the show creates the world of Prohibition era Atlantic City, and fills it in with little details that make it immersive from the start. You can get a palm reading or admission to a midget boxing match for a quarter. You can get a close view of some premature babies, if you really want to, as the sign outside says, "See Babies that weigh less than three pounds!" Or you can just go down to the docks and watch the catch of the day come in. You'll get an idea of what fresh fish will be flowing throughout the city, and hey, you might even get to see a corpse.

One thing that may be harder to get, as the pilot continuously reminds us lest we forget, is liquor. The episode opens with Enoch "Nucky" Thompson giving an anti-liquor speech to a Woman's Club (who may even get the vote soon!) which proudly displays a sign reading, "Lips that touch liquor will never touch mine." There he impresses Margaret Schroeder (Kelly MacDonald), a distraught and destitute young pregnant woman with an abusive husband. He wows the ladies with a story of his drunk of a father and his childhood spent eating wharf rats to survive (when questioned on the veracity of his story, he quips, "Never let the truth get in the way of a good story.") and then quickly moves on to striking backroom deals with many of the cities key players to make sure the liquor stays flowing once the prohibition begins. The pilot spends much of the time setting up the complicated web of relationships that grease the wheels in AC, as well as introducing some "friends from New York" and Chicago who are likely going to make Nucky's life harder in the coming weeks. There's also a new IRS Division dedicated to stopping the flow of liquor, represented by Agent Nelson Van Alden (Michael Shannon).

Honestly, all of this has been done before. The give and take between crime and politics, and the endless battle between the law and lawbreakers have been beaten to death in Hollywood since day one. Yet there are several moments in Boardwalk Empire's pilot that promise greater things to come. Early in the episode, when returned WWI vet Jimmy Darmody (Michael Pitt) pushes for a higher position in Nucky's organization, he says, "All I want is an opportunity" and Nucky snarkily retorts, "This is America. Who the fuck's stopping you?" A lot of the great television of the last decade (and especially The Sopranos and Mad Men) has focused on the American Dream, what it means to people, and how it holds up once its been achieved, and Boardwalk Empire seems prepared to join the examination with gusto. Beyond that, the line "Ambition can be read as impatience" is likely going to be a recurring theme throughout the series.

All in all, Boardwalk Empire's first outing is full of already excellent performances, perfectly directed by Scorsese (who uses many of his signature touches, including some low angle push-ins, iris in and outs, and even a tracking shot through a bustling casino) and absolutely reeking of potential for what's to come. There's greatness already in this pilot, and that bodes well for the next eleven weeks.

Grade: A-


-To clear things up, I will definitely be covering Boardwalk Empire every week this season. From here on out, more time will be spent on plot and character analysis, I just wanted to get my head around how well the pilot set things in motion this week.

-The theme song, which features Buscemi standing on the shoreline of an ocean filled with liquor bottles, is all kinds of cool.

-I liked the jazz-style funeral for the giant bottle of liquor.

-"Where are you going? I thought we were having a drink!" "I already got what I wanted from you. What the fuck would we talk about?" Nucky is a character I am very excited to get to know.

-"A rose by any other name..." "What's that supposed to mean?" "Read a fucking book."

-"Giddyup cowboy." "Stop saying that."

-I wonder already if Nucky's empathy will be his saving grace or ultimately spell his downfall. We've already seen him throw piles of money at the less fortunate, and he takes care of Margaret's husband for her very quickly.

-Another theme I expect to get a lot of play: When Jimmy is hauled in by the IRS, he's told that they aren't interested in Nucky's graft or election rigging, "...just the liquor." Something tells me the law's preoccupation with minor vices, and the larger ones that are allowed to continue because of this, will be explored further. Already tonight we also get the juxtaposition of the IRS raid on the bootlegging operation and the massacre going on just on the other side of the woods. The feds might slow the flow of liquor, but at what cost to their ability to solve and prosecute far more serious crimes?
Tags: Boardwalk Empire
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