TV review: ‘Empire’ state of mind

By Molly O. Fitzpatrick

Harvard Crimson, Harvard U. via UWIRE

I can’t think of another show with the extraordinary credentials of “Boardwalk Empire,” much less one that lives up to them. Helmed by director Martin Scorsese and “Sopranos” writer Terence Winter, the show has been rightly hailed as manna from heaven. But it’s not heaven, it’s HBO.

“Boardwalk Empire” stars Steve Buscemi—who himself guest-starred in the fifth season of “The Sopranos”—as Enoch “Nucky” Thompson, Atlantic City treasurer-cum-bootlegger and racketeer. I think he might be perfect in this role.

The show as a whole is less so; after all, a pilot is necessarily television with training wheels. And, in the case of “Boardwalk Empire,” it’s hard not to be a little heavy-handed when there’s a lot to carry. “Boardwalk” ambitiously takes on not only Nucky’s crew, but also out-of-town mobsters, prohibition agents, and uptight temperance matrons.

While “Boardwalk” never feels derivative, its influences are reassuringly apparent. In the first act alone, there is a freeze-frame that is textbook Scorsese, and an extended tracking shot of New Year’s Eve boardwalk revelry echoes the director’s famous three-minute descent into the Copacabana from “Goodfellas.” The scene in which Nucky watches a premature baby in a boardwalk incubator exhibit strikes me as a “Sopranos” dream sequence—specifically, those of “Funhouse,” the second season finale, which traveled with Tony’s subconscious to the wintry, post-apocalyptic Asbury Park boardwalk.

But Nucky is no Soprano. The pilot’s most Tony-esque figure is a young hood from Chicago—whose identity I won’t give up here, because the reveal is one of the great small delights of the pilot. In fact, the mob protagonist Thompson reminds me of most is Robert DeNiro’s Ace Rothstein, manager of Scorsese’s titular “Casino.”

Nucky is fascinating precisely because, like Ace, he isn’t a caricature of a mafioso. He is corrupt, yes, but far from evil. Ever the politician, Thompson alternates disarming frankness and glad-handing white lies. Passing through a wake, he informs the grieving widow that he spoke to her late husband “just last month”—puzzled, she comments to a friend that her husband had undergone a laryngectomy. But “Boardwalk Empire” is too coy to tether itself entirely to any one individual. The pilot’s other notable performances include Michael Pitt as Jimmy, Thompson’s conflicted henchman, and Kelly McDonald as a possible romantic interest for Nucky.

The boardwalk itself is effectively a character—part Brooklyn set, part beautifully rendered CGI. You can practically smell the creosote and salt water. The boardwalk, which visibly entrances Thompson, serves as liminal space between land and sea—just as the country is between World Wars and (quite literally) on the eve of Prohibition; just as Nucky falls somewhere between an old definition of “gangster” and a new one. Many of the boundaries in Thompson’s life are porous and uncertain—last night’s flapper staggers hungover into his office the next morning.

So, the premiere of “Boardwalk Empire” is exciting and encouraging, but a word of caution is necessary. Winter, Scorsese et al. will have to find a way to negotiate the expansiveness of their subject matter without ever verging into History Channel territory. But there is a risk that concerns me more. A troubling byproduct of the pilot’s instant critical success is that a television series based on “Goodfellas” may now be in development, with the alleged involvement of original screenwriter Nicholas Pileggi. “Goodfellas,” along with “The Sopranos,” is one of the cultural objects that fills for me the void that religious faith occupies for others. I do not wish to see it become a victim of our cultural obsession with adaptations, remakes, and reboots—which, truth be told, is interchangeable with an obsession with box office returns.

But “Boardwalk Empire” has no such pacing problem. At the episode’s close, Nucky approaches a fortune teller’s booth on the boardwalk. “What does the future hold for you?” the sign asks. As “Boardwalk” has already been picked up for a second season, we’ll be sure to find out.

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