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Boardwalk Empire

September 23, 2010

HBO’s new series Boardwalk Empire premiered Sunday and due to being a poor college student without the luxury of HBO in my home, I finally watched it after constant glowing praise and buzz on twitter, through friends, and all across the web. I was grateful to hear of a potential new addiction to grab onto since the half-assed season finale of True Blood last week. The new period piece about Prohibition boasts credits from producer Mark Walberg, director Martin Scorsese and film legend Steve Buscemi. However while the show has promise its premiere episode left much to be desired.

Based off real life political boss Enoch Johnson of Atlantic City, Boardwalk Empire follows Enoch “Nucky” Thompson and his ascension into the bootlegging business during the start of Prohibition. Nucky surrounds himself with corrupt city officials including his Sheriff brother Elias (Shea Wingham) and his Princeton educated protégé Jimmy Darmody (Michael Pitt). A lot happens in the first episode but to be honest I’m not exactly sure what it was. The confusion comes in the quick action, barely cohesive dialogue and jumbled edits. From what I gathered Nucky and his group are celebrating the beginning of Prohibition as they know it will bring massive profits. Jimmy, fresh from the war, is looking to hold a job to support his family but having killed in the war he’s fully prepared to be Nucky’s right hand man to Nucky’s disdain. A group of men including Arnold Rothstein (the incredible Michael Stuhlbarg), Lucky Luciano (Vincent Piazza) and Al Capone (Stephen Graham) visit from Chicago intending to buy from Nucky’s operation. The group’s goods are stolen however and their men killed in a heist and Nucky and his crew scrambles to get the guy responsible. Meanwhile Nucky helps a struggling Irish immigrant Margaret Schroeder to the dismay of her drunken abusive husband and Nucky’s generosity has consequences for her family.

The HBO seal of quality which consists of violence, sex, adult language and all the other elements that make the channel so great are stamped all over Boardwalk Empire. However it’s Scorsese’s work as a director that left me feeling empty and unsatisfied. While Scorsese’s career has been rooted in crime dramas from one of his starting pictures Mean Streets to the epic and immaculate Goodfellas even down to the more recent The Departed, Scorsese oddly enough seems ill-equipped with a television show. Instead of being drawn into the story I found myself more distracted by the directorial choices and editing causing me to become increasingly aware that everything on screen was merely actors being shot from various angles reciting lines. The camera work is impressive through its use of canted angles, crane shots and tight close-ups however not enough to be reminded that an Oscar-winning legend had to do with it.

The editing is so distracting and amateurish that many times throughout the episode matching shots don’t even match. For instance in one scene Jimmy gives Nucky a package to which Nucky looks at it and puts in his coat after Jimmy walks away. The scene then cuts to a reverse shot of Jimmy and we see Nucky dramatically watch him walk away package still in hand and then Nucky pockets it. Many times throughout the show inconsistencies like this take place. The general use of cross-cutting in most scenes appears to be homage to the famed The Godfather but instead of being smooth and coherent, Scorsese’s crosscuts are jumbled and distracting to the overall story and its connecting plot lines. While some may find my annoyances to be picky, for a show coming from a famed director whose career spans more than 40 years, I expect perfection.

While the overpowering and at times unnecessary music is another complaint, the costumes, set design and props are beautifully spot on and create an authentic 1920 feeling. Although no deep plot advances have happened to say if the show’s talent can hold up to their parts, it’s the actors who are the main attraction and saving grace to the show. The likes of Buscemi, the always enigmatic Michael Pitt and Michael Stuhlbarg makes the show more intriguing than it would be with no name stars. Boardwalk Empire so far is an impressive show but I didn’t see it as the gem that others have claimed it to be. While it has great promise and an intriguing story the directing doesn’t hold much water but hopefully with more time and episodes it will.

SEE IT. Sunday nights at 9pm on HBO, but mainly because True Blood’s off for the season.

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  1. Hugo « The Cinephiliac

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