I was initially attracted to Boardwalk Empire by the presence of Martin Scorsese, who directed the pilot episode and is one of the producers.
But the crucial creative talent here is the writer Terence Winter who created the show. He also wrote Scorsese's best movie for many, many years — The Wolf of Wall Street. Before that he was one of the writers on The Sopranos, which makes absolute sense.
Like the Sopranos, Boardwalk Empire is a gangster epic, albeit a period one set in Atlantic City, the source of the boardwalks in the title. The period in question is the 1920s and the recently concluded mass slaughter of World War One hangs over everything.
One of the heroes of the show — though hero isn't quite the right word — is Jimmy Darmody (played by Michael Pitt), a soldier home from the hell of No Man's Land with a permanent limp. He can't quite shake off his wartime experiences. When he drinks a toast it is always "To the lost."
Jimmy is the protege of Enoch 'Nucky' Thompson, played by Steve Buscemi. Nominally the treasurer of Atlantic City, Nucky actually runs the town and its criminal operations, which are funded by bootleg liquor. Jimmy is his enforcer, assisted by Richard Harrow (Jack Huston), another vet and a lethal sniper. Richard came home with only half a face and wears a grotesque mask to stop little kids screaming in the street.
Michael Pitt looks good in a hat, something which became evident in the movie Silk, where he was required to wear an ushanka — a silly Russian-style fur monstrosity. A hat, especially one like that, can obliterate the essential image of many a movie star (in Conspiracy Theory Mel Gibson never quite recovered from donning a modest watch cap).
But Boardwalk Empire is absolutely the era of the hat for men, and Pitt is in his element. Luckily Steve Buscemi looks good in one, too. And Huston.
Also under a fedora is Michael Shannon as a prohibition agent. He's tormented and priest-ridden, though not as priest-ridden as Kelly MacDonald, who is modelling headwear for the ladies. MacDonald first registered on screens as Ewan McGregor's schoolgirl paramour in Trainspotting. In Boardwalk Empire she's Nucky's love interest — and considerably more than that.
The influence of The Godfather is strongly felt here, and indeed Boardwalk Empire is the best example of that kind of gangster drama since The Godfather II.
The show has a strong, and richly researched, period feel. If the scripts are informed by the nihilistic aftermath of the Great War, the ravishing photography draws on sources like Maxfield Parrish paintings.
The music of the era, however — from a time before Louis Armstrong and Sidney Bechet made their mark on jazz — is accurately rendered and therefore pretty wretched. If you wanted something good from this period the thing to do would be to ignore popular music and go, instead, for Stravinsky or maybe Ravel. Although admittedly it's unlikely to be the sort of stuff these hoods would play at their parties.
(Image credits: The DVD covers are from Amazon. Kelly MacDonald is from USA Today. Pitt's pic is, appropriately enough, from a Gentleman's Gazette article about Jimmy Darmody's clothes. The posters are provided by good old Imp Awards.)