The early verdict for HBO’s new drama Boardwalk Empire is grim. The money spent on promoting the show and recreating the wonder of 1920 Atlantic City has not translated into the masterpiece expected of the The Sopranos creator Terence Winter and director extraordinaire Martin Scorsese.
While the performances in the show definitely honor the responsibility of emulating a place and period that the contemporary public has limited knowledge of, the series appears to be taking its time navigating the obstacles of a project like this. And in some instances, the show’s creators contend with obstacles of their own making.
There will always be a challenge in keeping a period piece compelling when people know the general outcome. In the case of Empire, which is based on the Prohibition era of the 1920s, everyone knows that Prohibition did not last very long. So it would be unwise for the makers of this show to rest on the assumption that the conflict between the law and the bootleggers is going to carry the show. At best, that angle is a race against time.
And when a race against time involves characters that the audience doesn’t care about, the show that depicts it should have never got on the starting block.
Steve Buscemi, the show’s anchor who plays Nucky Thompson, the Treasurer of Atlantic City and overlord of illegal alcohol, stands out in his admirable execution of his role. There was no mistake in casting him, and it is definitely nice to see an actor with his experience finally starring in a big-budget project.
Another refreshing addition is Dabney Coleman, who has shed the skin he wore in the 1980s as a bumbling authority figure in mostly comedies. As Commodore Louis Kaestner, Coleman plays the aging superior of Thompson, who’s done enough living to not have to bark orders at anyone (except for maybe his slave-I mean maid, Louanne), but still is clearly the man in control.
The last (and least) bright spot of the show is Stephen Graham’s portrayal of young Al Capone. No stranger to toughs, Graham plays the no-nonsense up-and-coming mobster with expected aplomb. However, being a victim of history, it is difficult to spend a lot of time wondering about his fate, which in turn limits the audience’s investment.
Now for the biggest problem of the show:
One of the primary characters is Jimmy Darmody, played by Michael Pitt. Pitt plays a young Army veteran who’s returned from the Great War to make a name for himself in bootlegging. His boyish looks, however, get the best of him as his boss Thompson fails to recognize Darmody as the reinvented killer that he claims to have become. No one can blame Thompson when watching the show, though. Pitt has done nothing to dissuade viewers from looking at him as a second-rate Leonardo DiCaprio (without the eyebrows). But the blame also goes on the writers because if the audience is to believe that Darmody returned from the war with nothing but murder and money in his eyes, then the writers would have to do better than scenes of Darmody being a present family man whining to his boss about how he’s more than just a driver.
But the Darmody problems don’t end there. Just when the audience thinks the show is adding a bit of depth to Jimmy’s character, it only amounts to a “Wait-what?” moment. In a scene where Darmody sneaks out of his house to visit rehearsing showgirls, the immediate thought is that he is unfaithful (par for the course in a show like this). But what the audience doesn’t realize until the dialogue spells it out is that the woman he’s visiting, played by Gretchen Mol, is his mother.
Yes, Gretchen Mol, 38(!), is playing the mother of a guy in his early 20s. Technically, in fairness, this isn’t an implausible situation, especially for the period. However, Gretchen Mol does not look a day over 30, which is doubtful the kind of 38 that a woman in the 1920s would resemble. Perhaps the case made by the casting director was that all Darmodys tend to look young for their age. Yeah…no. Not buying it. Besides, there wasn’t one ounce of Gretchen Mol that said, “the world has kicked the hell out of me, but still I go on.” And for a woman—not to mention a showgirl—in the 1920s, there was plenty of that to go around.
So it appears that the writing of Jimmy Darmody is the show’s greatest misstep. After all, Nucky Thompson is not supposed to be sympathetic; he’s the witty, charismatic, two-faced politician that America has come to know and loathe. But an audience having no reason to care about Jimmy Darmody, whose character should carry the emotional weight of the series, means that Boardwalk Empire will fall before long. Even on the off chance that Jimmy snaps and s___ gets real, these first two weeks have already resulted in significant viewership drop-off because, believe it or not, Americans have better things to do on a Sunday, like watch Dexter.