Thursday, December 16, 2010

Under the Boardwalk

It begins with a countdown towards prohibition. It is late evening, January 15, 1920, and revelers abound as the clock’s hands inch steadily towards midnight. When the two hands meet at the number twelve, corks are popped and glasses raised in mock celebration of a law that all know none will obey.

The opening scenes to HBO’s compelling series, Boardwalk Empire, tell us much of what will follow. The Eighteenth Amendment’s outlawing of the sale, manufacture and transportation of alcohol throughout the United States will open doors to organized crime, always quick to fill societal gaps. With the national banning of alcohol, mob-related violence will rise, as ambitious criminals fight to best position themselves for the inevitable resulting underground market.

Nowhere will the adverse effects of prohibition be more evident than in Atlantic City, where payoffs are the norm and laws are merely suggestions – enforced only when convenient. The rules are certainly different on the boardwalk by the Jersey shore.

At the center of the corrupt world that is Atlantic City in 1920 is Enoch “Nucky” Thompson (based on the historical Enoch L. Johnson), the political “boss” who makes every decision and to whom all others defer. When someone questions the rationale of a forced political resignation, he is quickly silenced with the words: “It’s what Nucky wants.” When Thompson wants an abusive husband to disappear, he soon washes in with the tide, entangled in fishing nets.

Thompson is the uncrowned king of Atlantic City, but his kingdom is threatened by outside forces, most notably Arnold Rothstein, the New York mobster who fixed the 1919 World Series, and Lucky Luciano, his enforcer. Rothstein and Luciano wage war against Thompson and his Atlantic City crew, striving to control the flow of alcohol throughout the northeast. By the end of the series’ first season (the final episode was broadcast Sunday, December 5, 2010) the war between these two criminal factions leaves a trail of blood and broken bottles that foreshadows later events in the violent decade.

Boardwalk Empire, created By Terence Winters, the man responsible for The Sopranos, and co-produced by Martin Scorsese, who also directed the series’ pilot episode, is everything one would expect from two of the best and most creative minds in today’s entertainment industry. The series is filled with sex, violence, intrigue and memorable characters, both real and fictional. Al Capone, then a young thug commencing his rise in Chicago, has a key role in the drama, as does Warren G. Harding, whose presidential election in November, 1920, a result of the support of Thompson and other key political bosses, brings the series’ first season to an end.

The acting is stellar. Kelly McDonald, a Scottish actress previously best known for her roles as a promiscuous teen in director Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting (1996) and the innocent and tragic Carla Jean Moss in the Coen brothers’ No Country for Old Men (2007) is wonderful as Margaret Schroeder, Thompson’s love interest and the person best able to reach the vulnerability that lies beneath his steel façade. Michael Pitt, the New Jersey-born actor who plays Jimmy Darmody, former college student, wounded war veteran and Thompson protégé, is equally good and could easily be confused for Leonardo DiCaprio’s younger brother.

But it is Steve Buscemi, in the lead role of Thompson, who rises above all others. Buscemi first came into our consciousness as Mr. Pink in director Quentin Tarantino’s debut film Reservoir Dogs (1992). Since then, he has consistently appeared on the big screen in often quirky roles, befitting his unorthodox (some would say bug-eyed) look, that led several characters in the Coen brother’s equally quirky Fargo (1996) to describe him as “funny looking” (more than most people, even). Buscemi, whose small screen resume includes a season working with Terence Winters on The Sopranos, is cold-hearted, calculating and ruthless as Thompson, while maintaining an air of hidden vulnerability that makes his character likeable. He is both the moral and amoral center of the series, the person around whom all revolves. His portrayal of the Atlantic City boss is one of the finest and most memorable small screen performances in recent memory.

At the conclusion of the series’ first season, hints are dropped about a conspiracy against Thompson from within, which will likely be the lead storyline in season two. Like most HBO series, the timing for the second season is somewhat uncertain, but the series has indeed been renewed, with new episodes to air some time in 2012. Until then, HBO will undoubtedly rerun the debut season, in an effort to garner even more interest in what many will rightfully consider the best new American television series of 2010.

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