This period gangster show was created by a man who cut his teeth as a writer and producer on the seminal HBO mafia saga, The Sopranos (1999-2007). With lots of attention preceding its premiere, and the Emmy-winning pilot episode directed by none other than Martin Scorsese, it would be easy to just kneel before Boardwalk Empire and let it get away with anything. But that never happened. Over its five-season run, many critics found plenty to grumble about and after the series finale some of them waxed nostalgic about “what might have been”. Still, it was always better than that.
A real-life figure, Enoch “Nucky” Johnson, who became a powerful political boss and racketeer during the Roaring Twenties in Atlantic City, inspired Steve Buscemi’s character on this show. The story began in 1920 as Prohibition went into effect; when Atlantic City Treasurer “Nucky” Thompson gets into the bootlegging industry he starts dealing with men who will go on to become legendary gangsters in New York City and Chicago, including Arnold Rothstein, “Lucky” Luciano and Al Capone. “Nucky” is assisted by the sheriff, Eli (Shea Whigham), who is also his unreliable brother, and Jimmy Darmody (Michael Pitt), a young war veteran with ambitions.
At this time, “Nucky” is also taken by Margaret Schroeder (Kelly Macdonald) who asks him to find a job for her abusive husband. As a a criminal empire is born, federal agent Nelson Van Alden (Michael Shannon) comes a little too close for comfort…
Deserved to be seen on a big screen
Terence Winter and his team of writers delighted in staying as close to the look and feel of the Prohibition era as possible. Every new episode made you feel like this deserves to be seen on a big screen, from the smallest of costume details to grand shots of what the Atlantic City boardwalk looked like in those days, with “Nucky” taking strolls and receiving bows of reverence. There was a lot of ambition in how Winter’s team planned the structure and narration of the show, even to the extent that it was easy to lose interest because of the complicated relationships between characters, and the meticulous pacing. But those who stayed faithful were amply rewarded, especially in the last season where the writers tied everything together in a brilliant series of episodes that covered “Nucky’s” life in the Depression years as well as his rise to prominence in the late 1800s.
Above all, the show was a relentless tragedy, revealing heartbreak, grief and mental illness in most of its characters. Among the most memorable were Van Alden, the religious agent who later ended up on the run, adopted an alias and became a bootlegger with no hope for redemption.
A streak of ruthlessness and sadness ran through many other characters, as if they and we fully expected a bloody outcome that seemed to be the only possible one; that was particularly true of Bobby Cannavale’s no-holds-barred portrayal of an outrageously cruel gangster in season three. This was indeed an outstanding cast, headed by Buscemi who evoked a sense of humor as well as world-weariness. Far from compelling at times, Boardwalk Empire still stands as one of few depictions of the Prohibition era that deliver thrills and eye-candy while also digging uncomfortably deep into the ugly psyches of those who made it so mythic.
Boardwalk Empire 2010-2014:U.S. Made for TV. 56 episodes. Color. Created by Terence Winter. Cast: Steve Buscemi (Enoch “Nucky” Thompson), Michael Shannon (Nelson Van Alden/George Mueller), Shea Whigham (Elias “Eli” Thompson), Michael Kenneth Williams, Michael Stuhlbarg, Stephen Graham, Vincent Piazza, Kelly Macdonald, Gretchen Mol, Paul Sparks, Michael Pitt (10-11), Jack Huston (10-13), Anthony Laciura (10-13), Jeffrey Wright (13-14), Bobby Cannavale (12), Aleksa Palladino (10-11), Paz de la Huerta (10-11), Charlie Cox (11-12), Dabney Coleman (10-11), Ron Livingston (13).
Emmys: Outstanding Directing 10-11, 11-12; Supporting Actor (Cannavale) 12-13.
Last word: “What made it interesting for me is that I had just spent eight years of my career telling a story about the end of organized crime basically on ‘The Sopranos’, and this was literally the beginning of organized crime. Prohibition was the single event that made organized crime possible — it made millionaires out of criminals overnight — so it was really the chance to explore the flip side of ‘The Sopranos’. These are the events that conspired to create the world I had just spent the last eight years writing about… And the ability to do it as a long-running series, where you get to spend dozens of hours with these characters who were really in their infancy, was just irresistible. You get to meet young Al Capone before he became Al Capone. You get to meet a young Lucky Luciano and these guys still trying to figure out who they were.” (Winter, Esquire)