In the Scorsese-directed kickoff episode of Boardwalk Empire (HBO, Sundays 9 pm), the nude flapper floozy Lucy (Paz de la Huerta) flops her boobs at the camera, bouncing atop Atlantic City gangster Enoch “Nucky” Thompson (Steve Buscemi), and bellowing nasally, “GIDDYAP, COWBOY!” “Stop with the ‘cowboy’ shit!” snaps Nucky.
Tony Soprano was a cowboy. So was everybody in Goodfellas. But even though HBO’s Atlantic City Prohibition epic was created by Sopranos co-auteur Terence Winter and produced by Scorsese, its hero is the least cowboylike gang boss you ever saw. He’s reticent, inward, ironic, wounded. Violence is a distasteful occasional necessity, but it irks him as much as his mistress’s bedroom theatrics. Nucky’s just a Christian businessman who tries to do good, make everybody rich, and make cases of illegal Canadian Club multiply like Jesus did the loaves and fishes.
“I could have you killed,” Nucky tells his protégé Jimmy Darmody (Michael Pitt), after Darmody lets the callow psycho Al Capone (Stephen Graham) bloodily bungle a job (masterfully staged by Scorsese). “Yeah, but you won’t,” says Darmody, who’s more like Michael Corleone than a Christopher Moltisanti-ish screwup. Buscemi and Pitt have roles to kill for, their best career catapults yet.
I’ll bet Boardwalk’s pilot is the best TV debut of 2010, and it’s also the third-best Scorsese movie of this century. It opens and closes with an iris shot, and Scorsese has a blast recreating Enoch’s epoch, channeling the brash, trashy yet elegant spirit of an oldtime mogul. This is gritty Warner Bros. gangland done up in ritzy Paramount style. His camera pans, dollies and swooshes past almost $20 million worth of radiant period detail: vast ads for Nut Tootsie Rolls, Chesterfield and Piedmont Cigarettes (“Not blended”). The multiple musical interludes are marvelous: the giddy Prohibition-first-night bash, Eddie Cantor popping eyes and cracking wise, a boardwalk barker hawking a too-naughty-for-tots girlie show, framed by more light bulbs than the Great White Way. This is the Atlantic City of the Temperance poem: “Heartless, godless, hell’s delight/ Crude by day and lewd by night/ Conscience dulled by demon rum/ Liquor, thy name’s delirium!”
Nucky is hunted by an IRS gumshoe (Michael Shannon), a religious nut like Chris Cooper in Breach, and menaced by a galaxy of New York and Chicago rivals, but the real emotional action is in the Nucky/Darmody bromance, and Nucky’s yen to help a bookish Irish immigrant mom (Kelly Macdonald) whose drunken husband whomps her. She steals every scene, even with Buscemi.
But Buscemi is the true news here. David Thomson called his pre-Boardwalk persona a “babyfaced thug, sleazeball, scumbag,” but now he’s the big thug, his baby face gone gaunt, and he makes the top-dog role his own. Buscemi won his first big part in the AIDS movie Parting Glances because he looked ill, yet vital. Now that he’s craggily aging, it’s a big risk to make him the lead gangster, when practically every predecessor has emanated animal vigor. But that’s what makes Nucky distinctive. Instead of a bullying, over-the-top performance, he’s under the radar, a sneak attack on your heart. It’s jujitsu acting, and it scores.
Boardwalk Empire takes its meticulous time setting up characters that will pay off later – the monster cherub Capone, World Series fixer Arnold Rothstein (Michael Stuhlbarg), black gang boss Chalky White (Michael Kenneth Williams, The Wire’s Omar). It probably packs in too much background detail – when Nucky’s mentor (Dabney Coleman) shows him Henry Ford’s book The International Jew: The World’s Foremost Problem, what’s the point, other than that it’s amazing that Ford wrote such a book and people bought it? And it will take a good three episodes to suck you into the many-stranded storyline.
But rich bits of past reality are why we watch Mad Men, which was more maddeningly slow on the narrative draw. The Wire required (and rewarded) the patience of a saint, and The Sopranos took longer than you remember to catch on. Give Boardwalk time, and it’ll take you away to another time.