And Then, Finally, Boardwalk Empire

So, the 29 days of February 2012 are over. That means I can stop reviewing HBO shows. I kicked off the month with one of my favorites: The Sopranos. Those very same creators are at it again with the possibility of taking that favorite show position. Boardwalk Empire gets five stars, too, which is a good reason to close with it.

Most of the time, the fifth star ends up being an inner-argument that I have. Basically, I need to argue that something is worthy of being a “five-star” whatever it is. That position is high for a reason: to separate it from the rest. Boardwalk Empire was an easy argument. TV shows don’t deliver like Boardwalk Empire delivers.


Boardwalk Empire finished its second season and is on its way to a third. With twelve episodes per season, that gives you 24 episodes to watch before season three starts up. You can say you’re going to spread them out but, once you watch that first episode, it’s only a matter of time before you’re putting off something else for “just one more episode”. I purposely waited for the second season to end before watching it just so I could binge on them in a weekend, instead of waiting each week like the year before.

However you watch your television, Boardwalk Empire should be on your list of shows to watch. It is the absolute best example of the fine drama series on television today; nobody is doing it better than Boardwalk Empire. Every episode brings its own intrigue, fitting in to the larger season like puzzle piece. With some serious skill, they don’t let you see the full picture of that puzzle but, still, keep you wanting to look for more pieces.


The cast of Boardwalk Empire is so good that, when I started this month of HBO, I intended on covering damn near every one of them in my article. But, after a long month of more posts than I’ve ever done (ever), I’m tired. Instead, I want to focus on the main cast or the actors that are in the most episodes. As large as that main cast is, this is the group I’ve reduced down as small as my lazy ass can handle.

Steve Buscemi had to work his way through a number of creepy guy and asshole parts before he got to be the head honcho on Boardwalk Empire and he deserves it. From Airheads to Monsters Inc, Buscemi has never missed and has been a favorite actor of mine since I was a little kid. In Boardwalk Empire, Buscemi plays Enoch “Nucky” Thompson, essentially the lead of the show. Nucky works for Atlantic City, in the government and with the illegal trade of alcohol. I say he works for the city, in the latter form, because it’s a service everyone wants but, for some obtuse reason, was suddenly illegal. Of course, anybody in power has a certain amount of greed to them, and Nucky Thompson isn’t without flaws. Luckily, that’s why I watch shit like this in the first place. If he wins, in the end, what kind of message does that convey?

If Michael Pitt isn’t fighting off role offers after Boardwalk Empire, I hope he can wait long enough for me to start making movies. When he was Tommy Gnosis, in Hedwig and the Angry Inch, I liked him but I wasn’t sure he would last as an actor. When Funny Games got re-made, and Michael Pitt was one of the pair, I knew he had what it takes. Now, with Boardwalk Empire, Pitt is proving to be one of the best rising stars around. Pitt plays James Darmody, a veteran of the first world war who returned home and started up working under Nucky. Smart, and driven, it doesn’t take long for James to start looking for bigger and better pay-outs.

In the 20’s there wasn’t an FBI yet. The local cops of Atlantic City were in the pockets of Nucky Thompson, if they weren’t just turning a blind eye for the sake of drinking. So, with nobody else left looking to uphold Prohibition, why hide it? Well, the US Government whipped up the Federal Prohibition Agency and assigned agents all around America to catch, or stop, bootleggers and smugglers. In Atlantic City, the agent is charge is named Nelson Van Alden, played by Michael Shannon. He’s always been a stern face or a dick and now he gets to be both. Seriously, though, without giving anything important away, Van Alden is one of the most interesting characters in Boardwalk Empire, where everyone is interesting.

Margaret Schroeder is essentially the only female lead of Boardwalk Empire, which shouldn’t be too surprising. If you’re going to cover a topic like bootlegging, you’re not going to see a ton of female characters. Ms. Schroeder is not a lady to be disregarded, though, as her intelligence proves to be more than anybody is expecting, even Nucky. Schroeder is played by Kelly Macdonald, a Scottish actress playing an Irish immigrant in America.

If you loved him half as much as I did, when he played Omar (in The Wire), you’ll love Michael Kenneth Williams as Chalky White in Boardwalk Empire. He’s just as bad ass and this time he’s in charge of all the black fellows in the booze trade, not just a lone gunmen. Chalky isn’t just dealing with being a criminal, he has to deal with the oppression from being black, and a black leader no less. I didn’t know he was going to show up in Boardwalk Empire, but as soon as Williams was on screen I was hooked. They already had a superb cast of people I’ve known for ages. With Kenneth Williams signed on, they earned credit for bringing in a talent that hasn’t quite exploded yet.

Arguably the biggest name, within the history of Boardwalk Empire, Al Capone wasn’t always the big dick in Chicago alcohol. He had to work his way to the top, proving that he’s the biggest and baddest. In Boardwalk Empire, Stephen Graham takes on the role of a young Capone, working alongside Darmody, and knocks it out of the park. Capone has a ton of pride but no power and you can see that eat at him every time he has to do something he doesn’t agree with. I first caught Graham in Snatch, as Tommy. In that movie he says that he’s named after a gun. Little did Guy Ritchie know that he’d be wielding a Tommy Gun or two in the future. Every time this guy gets a part he blows me away. I thought he was just another english actor. A good one but an unknown that Ritchie picked up. Now I can tell you, without a doubt, that he’s one of the best character actors working in TV right now.


It didn’t hurt the ratings that Martin Scorsese directed the first episode of Boardwalk Empire. He didn’t stick around for the rest, of course, but remained on as a producer. That pilot was like a mini movie, introducing the scene with a style that fits onto criminals like a glove. Editor’s note: Criminals in Boardwalk Empire don’t need to wear gloves. They haven’t discovered finger-printing yet.

Big name attachment or not, Boardwalk Empire continues to satisfy on epic (Scorsese-like) proportions every single episode. There are a dozen stories going on at the same time and the juggle of those plots is an art form, weaving each development into the next and building the suspense as it goes. That’s not mentioning the countless efforts the creators of Boardwalk Empire took to make the scenes era specific. Even though it’s less than a hundred years ago, Prohibition era Atlantic City might as well be a different world. Nothing of that world exists, as it did, today and every department of Boardwalk Empire had to fire on all cylinders to make it look as real as it does: wardrobe, music, set design and even make up. Every time it is spot on.


When you watch as many movies, and as much TV, as I do, an unwanted side-effect sets in: shit stops being surprising. I know you think you’re a real sleuth because you can tell who the killer is on Law and Order. I mean to say that the enjoyment I feel from, what people might consider, a “twist ending” is considerably diminished. That being said, something else happens: the bar is set really fucking high for something to be good. So, when something is actually satisfying and surprising, it’s not only noticeable but something to celebrate.

Prohibition isn’t a new topic and plenty of movies have covered it but Boardwalk Empire focuses on the organized crime in Atlantic City, and how they interact with other cities. Starting early into Prohibition, the show doesn’t focus on the cops that are nobly stopping these vicious killers. Instead, you glimpse into the life of the killer and see why he does what he does. Then, you can ask yourself: Would you do it any differently?

I’m not a spoiler. It’s something I pride myself on. I go through a lot of careful consideration to not give away anything that isn’t available in the trailer or promos that get you to watch the shit in the first place. However, without giving anything away, I can tell you that Boardwalk Empire has shocking endings through-out the season and finales that will blow your socks off, with your shoes still on.


Boardwalk Empire is a shining example of using music correctly. I was worried, at first, because Martin Scorsese usually implants a few Rolling Stones songs into his movies but the show only features music from the 1920s and 30s. Unless you’re grandparents or great grandparents are watching with you, I’m going to assume that most of this music is new to its viewers. This is just another level of detail that Boardwalk Empire lays on as it is delivered. Eventually, the atmosphere is so real that you can absorb the show and forget all about your life, or whatever it is that you escape by watching TV.

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