This confluence of writer Terence Winter (The Sopranos) and director Martin Scorsese (Goodfellas) is as prosperous, satisfying, and exciting as you could hope. HBO's crime epic Boardwalk Empire begins with a fascinating and beautifully-crafted 75-minute drama that introduces Atlantic City (circa 1920), the coastal town's feted treasurer Enoch "Nucky" Thompson (Steve Buscemi), and people whose lives will be changed by the onset of Prohibition... Based on Nelson Johnson's non-fiction book "Boardwalk Empire: The Birth, High Times & Corruption Of Atlantic City", episode 1 set the ball rolling with the US government's decision to make alcohol illegal. Importantly, overnight this creats a vacuum for criminality to fill, as ordinary people wonder where they'll be able to get a forbidden drink, and undesirables plot to make a fortune by illegally selling booze at extortionate prices. One such opportunist is public official Nucky Thompson, a legitimate politician who's not above lying to citizens about killing rats to feed his starving family during a notorious blizzard, while still a young boy, just to elicit sympathy. "Why let the truth get in the way of a good story?" he tells young protégé Jimmy Darmody (Michael Pitt), a traumatized World War I veteran who later decides to put the skills he learned in the trenches to practical use. Nucky is forming an alliance with two prominent gangsters from Chicago -- Arnold Rothstein (Michael Stuhlbarg) and "Lucky" Luciano (Vincent Piazza), who want to use Atlantic City as a hub for importing illegal alchohol -- but he's not yet the cold-hearted mobster you're perhaps expecting. In fact, it's only Jimmy who has aspirations to become a hoodlum -- along with his baby-faced new friend, one Al Capone (Stephen Graham). Nucky himself is a reasonable, likeable figure, if resembling an albino Chihuahua in a suit. In one of the premiere's subplots, Nucky gives pregnant Irish immigrant Margaret Schroeder (Kelly Macdonald) enough money to see her family through winter, only to notice her abusive husband frittering the cash away in his casino, having jumped to the conclusion his wife's been sleeping with a sugar daddy. As a woman suffering domestic abuse with nobody to turn to, you can't help finding Nucky's affection for Margaret elevating, despite cynical concerns it'll ultimately lead down a different destructive path. There's a creepiness inherent in Buscemi's eyes, but also a weird kind of compassion. Scorsese's partly responsible for creating the modern gangster film (Goodfellas, Casino), along with Francis Ford Coppola (The Godfather), so involving him was a coup that delivers a smooth, cinematic piece of entertainment. Boardwalk Empire's premiere features less fancy camerawork than you might expect considering who's behind the camera, but that's actually a wise creative choice on Scorsese's part. The no-frills attitude lends an assured ambience, gives the actors room to breath, and for Winter's script to shine through. That said, the episode's still punctuated with magnificently stylish moments (a moonlit robbery on a country road, a glitzy shindig to commiserate the ban on liquor), eye-popping moments of gore (including very graphic head explosions), and inventive scene transitions, edits and freeze-frames that spin your mind with glee. There isnt much about Boardwalk Empire's themes that Scorsese hasn't covered himself (in Gangs Of New York, say), but it's clear that long-form TV storytelling will do a more comprehensive job with the ideas here, working from Winter's taught script. Steve Buscemi feels like an odd choice to play the lead, having made his name as a character actor who's mainly supports the leads, mostly for comedic value, but his casting could prove to be a masterstroke. It's hard to be sure right now, because there's still some baggage with Buscemi's presence (we're expecting his patented rat-a-tat line delivery), and we don't know much about Nucky's past -- although there are some intriguing hints. Why did he stop to stare into a shop front containing premature babies in incubators? Did he lose a premature child? Was he himself born early, risking death, thus believing life is more of a blessing than regular people? I'm sure the rest of the episode will fill in the blanks, and hope Buscemi's up for the challenge. If there was flaw to this otherwise excellent premiere, it's that the plotting with regard to the gangster storyline was occasionally tricky to follow. You understand the broad sweep of what's going on (out-of-town gangsters wanting to use Nucky's patch to import shipments of booze from Canada, only to have their cargo stolen by Nucky's sidekick Jimmy, without Nucky's knowledge) -- but, because I was more emotionally invested in the Nucky/Jimmy and Nucky/Margaret relationships, the actual criminal storyline became slightly hazy. I think the creators may have read the script and edited this episode so many times that the story made absolute sense to them, but for fresh eyes entering this world it wasn't always clear. Fortunately, that wasn't an obstacle to enjoying Boardwalk Empire on an emotional or visual level, and I'm sure a second viewing would clear up a few gaps in my understanding. This being a TV drama, it's often the case that storylines don't immediately click until a few episodes have sunk in (see also: The Wire). Overall, with sumptuous production design, movie quality camerawork, top quality actors, and succinct writing, Boardwalk Empire can't really fail... and it doesn't. It's embracing a fantastic genre, takes place during a fascinating period of American history, and I'm just very pleased to see HBO with an exciting new show on their hands. In recent years, cable rivals AMC and Showtime have arguably overtaken HBO, with Dexter, Mad Men and Breaking Bad receiving the bulk of critical acclaim, but I'm sure this series will deliver HBO some Emmy's next year. The final scene finds Nucky gazing through the window of a palmist's, meeting the gaze of the fortune teller inside, perhaps pondering his destiny. I'm not sure what the future will hold for Nucky Thompson, but I know this show's future is brighter than Atlantic City's seafront lights. Asides HBO have already renewed Boardwalk Empire for a second season, based on this premiere attracting an average of 4.8 million viewers, the network's most watched show for six years. Nucky Thompson is based on the real life Atlantic City figure Nucky Johnson, although Boardwalk Empire's makers changes his name so they could take some liberties with his character. For instance; the real Nucky didn't have any dealings with an Irish immigrant.
WRITER: Terence Winter DIRECTOR: Martin Scorsese CAST: Steve Buscemi, Michael Pitt, Kelly Macdonald, Michael Shannon, Dabney Coleman, Shea Whigham, Stephen Graham, Aleksa Palladino, Michael Stuhlbarg, Vincent Piazza, Paz de la Huerta, Paul Sparks, Michael K. Williams, Gretchen Mol & Dana Ivey TRANSMISSION: 19 September 2010 - HBO