Tuned In: HBO's 'Boardwalk Empire' hits jackpot

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BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. -- HBO's "Boardwalk Empire" looks like a million bucks.

Make that $18 million, the reported cost of the 75-minute pilot episode that airs Sunday at 9 p.m.

Whatever the true price tag may be, this period drama set in Atlantic City, circa 1920, has all the elements of Quality TV viewers have come to expect from HBO: Martin Scorsese ("Goodfellas") directed Sunday's premiere and "Sopranos" veteran Terence Winter wrote the pilot and executive-produces the series, which is loosely based on a nonfiction book of the same title by historian Nelson Johnson.

Of the first six episodes made available for review, Sunday's premiere offers the most entertainment value as it welcomes viewers into the colorful, music-filled world of Enoch "Nucky" Thompson (Steve Buscemi), Atlantic City's corrupt treasurer who runs the town and ensures that alcohol will continue to flow despite Prohibition.

Comparisons to "The Sopranos" are inevitable, but there's no nuclear family at the show's center, and psychology takes a backseat to historical figures (Al Capone, Lucky Luciano) who weave in and out of a series that mixes fact and fiction.

"Boardwalk Empire" is a dark show that has little of the black humor that was a hallmark of "The Sopranos." The closest it gets is Nucky's relationship with his German assistant, which is played for laughs. The series is also dense with characters and doesn't always do the clearest job explaining their relationships to one another.

Nucky, a widower, takes an interest in Women's Temperance League member Margaret Schroeder (Kelly Macdonald) while bedding floozies galore. Nucky also mentors a former Princeton student and World War I veteran, Jimmy Darmody (Michael Pitt), who is impatient for promotion within Nucky's empire. Jimmy has a common-law wife, Angela (Aleksa Palladino), who raises their son while Jimmy and Capone (Stephen Graham) tend to business in Chicago.

Jimmy's mother, Gillian (Gretchen Mol), works as a showgirl and has a long history with Nucky.

Nucky's brother, Atlantic City sheriff Eli (Shea Whigham), helps run Nucky's corrupt city government while a senior prohibition agent (an intense Michael Shannon) tries to bring Nucky down but suffers from demons of his own.

Viewers won't make all these connections watching Sunday's pilot. Mr. Winter and the writers take their time establishing details beyond the basics that get introduced in the premiere.

"Boardwalk Empire" is one of those dark, layered, period-specific, character-driven dramas that require attentive viewing (shades of "Mad Men"). It also contains nudity, profanity and violence, as HBO viewers would expect. It does not feature any happy characters, another hallmark of Serious Quality Television.

If my assessment sounds somewhat dubious, it's only because the tone and spirit of "Boardwalk Empire" are so familiar. For some viewers, even fans of smart, high-quality TV, there may come a point when too many dark, layered television series become just as tiresome as too many look-alike procedurals. We haven't yet reached that point with "Boardwalk Empire," but some episodes are more admirable than enjoyable.

Mr. Buscemi offers the best reason to tune in. His Nucky is an unconventionally charming lawbreaker who shows signs of humanity often enough that he's not just another antihero. When the story is focused on Nucky and his exploits, "Boardwalk Empire" comes fully to life. But in future episodes when the story splits between Nucky in Atlantic City and Jimmy in Chicago, the series suffers due to some less interesting Chicago stretches.

But even in these episodes, "Boardwalk Empire" offers a visual feast as it re-creates a period-specific world.

Behind the 'Boardwalk'

Mr. Winter said he was first approached about adapting "Boardwalk Empire" not long before "The Sopranos" came to an end in 2007.

"I read the book and it chronicled the history of the city from the time it was literally a mosquito-infested swamp until the present day," he said at an HBO news conference here last month. "There were a couple of years in particular that were very interesting, and the '20s being the most interesting to me because it was an era that hasn't really been depicted often in cinema and almost never in television."

Mr. Winter was especially intrigued by a historical figure named Nucky Johnson, who has been fictionalized as Nucky Thompson for "Boardwalk Empire."

"This was a guy who was just incredibly conflicted, equal parts politician and gangster, and then coupled with the massive changes going on in 1920: Prohibition, women's vote, broadcast radio coming in, World War I just having ended, the '20s about to boom, it was just this incredible palette from which to draw stories and characters," he said.

Fictional characters bump up against historical figures, but Mr. Winter said producers make efforts to stay true to the period in broad strokes and even in smaller details, such as the date a show was actually playing in Atlantic City. The surname of the lead character was changed to give the writers flexibility.

"By making him Nucky Thompson, he's Nucky but he's not Nucky. Our Nucky can do anything and veer off into any directions, and it's much more freeing creatively for myself and my writers," Mr. Winter said. "Nucky really moved seamlessly between the worlds of politics and organized crime, and his white collar corruption slowly gave way to hands-on violence that ensued with Prohibition."

If Nucky is the show's central character, its central location is the show's boardwalk set, a primary reason for the high cost of the pilot episode, an expense that will be amortized over the life of the series.

Producers considered trying to film on location by dressing an existing boardwalk to make it accurate to the period but ultimately decided they would have more control if they built their own set. A 300-foot boardwalk, complete with a sandy beach in front of it and storefronts behind, was constructed in a former parking lot in the Greenpoint neighborhood of Brooklyn.

'Tim & Eric' come to the Burgh

Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim, creators and stars of Adult Swim's "Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!," will take the show on a tour this fall that includes a Pittsburgh stop. "Tim and Eric Awesome Tour, Great Job!" will appear at Carnegie Library Music Hall on Nov. 22.

Channel surfing

Syfy's "Caprica," originally scheduled to return for the back half of its first season in January, now will be back Oct. 5 at 10 p.m., airing on Tuesday nights. ... Showtime has given a greenlight to a second season of "The Green Room." ... Fashion fans, take note: A&E debuts the documentary "The September Issue," about the making of Vogue's most popular edition, at 10 p.m. Sept. 25. ... A&E has renewed "The Glades" for a second season of 13 episodes to air next year. ... TBS has canceled the sitcom "My Boys." Its series finale aired Sunday. ... TNT has renewed "Hawthorne" for a third season to air in 2011. ... CBS renewed "Big Brother" for another season to air next summer.


This week's TV Q&A responds to questions about "Criminal Minds," "Parks and Recreation" and "Men of a Certain Age." Read it online in Tuned in Journal blog at post-gazette.com/tv.

TV writer Rob Owen: rowen@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2582. Follow RobOwenTV on Twitter or Facebook.


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