In the last ten years or so, that’s changed. Shows like The Sopranos, The West Wing and The Wire not only had budgets that put many feature films to shame, but had stunning cinematography, stylish direction and frequently astonishing writing. They still only constituted a small proportion of the shows broadcast, but there were at least a couple of them on at any one time. TV had finally come of age.
Last year, Sky snagged the rights to show many of these programs, when they entered a deal with HBO. Next month they’re launching a new channel called Sky Atlantic, which features most of their HBO shows, along with a selection of their other shows like The X-Files and Battlestar Galactica.
The centrepiece of the channel’s line up is Boardwalk Empire, a prohibition era gangster series produced by Martin Scorsese and starring Steve Buscemi. Sky recently screened the first two episodes to journalists, and on the face of it, it’s pretty good.
Of course, the difficulty inherent in reviewing the first two episodes of a television series is that we’re still only in the first act. As such, it’s hard to tell what is set up, and what is just a nice, but ultimately irrelevant, detail.
Still, by the end of episode two, the lead characters are well established, and the story is intriguing, placing us in a world of sympathetic gangsters, corrupt but caring politicians and flawed law enforcement officers.
So far, so The Wire, but while Boardwalk Empire shares some elements with HBO’s beloved crime drama, it feels very much more like the offspring of Goodfellas and The Untouchables. A slickly shot merging of history and fiction, the show is engaging and humorous, but with a strong sense of menace and jeopardy.
At its heart are Enoch ‘Nucky’ Thompson, a corrupt city official played by Steve Buscemi and Michael Pitt’s Jimmy Darmody, an impossibly complicated character who is not only Nucky’s right hand man, but also a veteran of the First World War, a struggling father, a budding gangster, and the child of the closest thing the 1920s had to a stripper. These are by far the most developed characters thus far, and Buscemi and Pitt are great. As is everyone else. Except for Kelly Macdonald as Margaret Schroeder. It may simply be the writing, but every time she came on the screen she sucked the energy out of the scene.
Along side the fictional Nucky and Jimmy are a selection of real life gangsters. In the first two episodes we meet Lucky Luciano, Arnold Rothstein and Johnny Torrio. Because these are fairly minor historical characters, it’s not too distracting when we meet them. The same can’t be said for when we’re introduced to Stephen Graham as Al Capone. As soon as we hear his name it’s jarring, and as we meet him at the start of his criminal career, any sense of jeopardy we may feel on behalf of the character is neutered.
That said, the historical setting does allow the show to really explore what it was like to live in pre-depression America, and little touches like a publicly viewable baby incubator and antiquated slang bring the period to life. It also provides a chance to reflect on the way society has changed. The first two episodes set up plot lines relating to women’s rights, and racial discrimination. If the series has the confidence to go through with them, it could be excellent.
Overall Boardwalk Empire is highly entertaining, and has a lot of potential. Surprisingly violent, even for an HBO show, it is balanced with comedy and charm. Whether it will live up to it’s promise is anyone’s guess, but the first two episodes are not to be missed.