Have the Roaring '20s ever roared with such vibrant, violent, extravagantly entertaining life as in HBO's Boardwalk Empire? This instantly captivating period piece feels thrillingly modern as it captures with remarkable detail a chaotic time of invention and re-invention, of social progress and prosperity upstaged by the gaudy corruption and jazzy debauchery of the Prohibition era.
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Boardwalk brilliantly marries Martin Scorsese's virtuosic cinematic eye to Terence Winter's (The Sopranos) panoramic mastery of rich character and eventful story. They romanticize Atlantic City as the Rome of a bootleg empire, where gangsters converge from Chicago and New York to traffic in illegal hooch (among other vices).
Presiding over the glittery boardwalk — itself an astonishing creation — as power broker/carnival barker is town treasurer Nucky Thompson (Steve Buscemi), a self-made cock of the walk whose scrawny demeanor cloaks a cunning, ruthless ambition. "Never let the truth get in the way of a good story," he tells a hotheaded protégé (Michael Pitt) as he plies his trade. Nucky is equal parts showman and sham artist as he woos local Temperance suffragettes while overseeing criminal enterprises with the help of his brother, the sheriff.
Like Deadwood's Al Swearengen, Nucky is an often frustrated despot, and Buscemi — the most unlikely leading man since James Gandolfini — is both droll and deadly as he suffers fawning fools and contends with a steely adversary: Prohibition Agent Nelson Van Alden (Michael Shannon), a rigidly obsessive Dick Tracy with a few well-hidden perversions of his own.
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The enormous supporting cast includes future mob legends Al Capone and Lucky Luciano as well as an independent-minded immigrant, Margaret Schroeder (the sublime Kelly Macdonald), who captures Nucky's fancy — as well as Agent Van Alden's. Their fates entwine at an operatic pitch of suspenseful intrigue, bawdy humor and grand set pieces of grisly carnage. The show is gorgeous to behold, even in the moments where you'd rather look away.
It's the most purely — and impurely — enjoyable storytelling HBO has delivered in ages, like a movie that you never want to end. Considering how long prohibition lasted (an incredible 13 years), Boardwalk is likely to be dazzling us for quite some time.
Boardwalk Empire premieres Sunday, 9/8c, on HBO.
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