When it launched with great fanfare in 2009, the first episode of Boardwalk Empire was reportedly the most expensive pilot ever made, at $18m. It was written by one of the team behind The Sopranos and directed by Martin Scorsese. It might as well have had “classy” stamped on it.
On the face of it, these are the tales of Nucky Thompson (Steve Buscemi), a refined crime boss in Prohibition-era Atlantic City. Nucky lives as a pillar of the community, while not-very-covertly pulling the strings of every politician and businessman in town, his graft oiled by bootlegging.
Most series would have found enough mileage in Nucky’s story but in Boardwalk, Buscemi fights for screen time with what might be the biggest cast of vividly sketched characters ever crammed into a drama. There’s the bitter brother who is also the sheriff, the maimed First World War veteran, the pious prohibition agent, the gambler, the falsetto-voiced bootlegger, the finicky butler, the psychopathic Italian, and so on. Not forgetting a memorable re-imagining of the young Al Capone by British actor Stephen Graham.
Each of these get long-running, novelistic storylines. Together they build into a brilliant portrait of American capitalism as a rigged game. The sex and violence are regular and brutal (this is HBO…) but there are grace notes and subtleties too, and the period Americana is gorgeously done.
Did the world need another heavily art-directed gangster saga, let alone The Sopranos meets Bugsy Malone? No, but I’m glad we got one.
Box Sets of series 1-4 now available on demand with Sky