I am a sucker for period dramas. I am also a big fan of any depiction of organized crime. On top of that, during the period of my twenties when I was a bartender, I spent a lot of time studying the history of alcohol, and loved reading about The Great Experiment of Temperance. The personalities involved in getting people their illicit booze, and the circumstances created by the outlawing of said beverages is intriguing to me. When I heard that HBO had decided to put into production a series about Atlantic City during Prohibition, and on top of that, Martin Scorsese would be involved as both executive producer and director of the pilot, I was excited.
When the pilot finally aired in September of 2010, I was blown away. In one hour of television, Nucky Thompson, played brilliantly by Steve Buscemi, became one of the most complex television characters to enter a living room. A political machine who plays both sides of the Prohibition fence with aplomb, he simultaneously runs a bootlegging business and orates on the evils of alcohol even going so far as to appear at a Temperance rally. The show also introduces its concept as historical fiction in the first episode, as real life personalities Arnold Rothstein, Lucky Luciano and Al Capone all exist alongside completely fictional characters like returning war hero, Jimmy Darmody.
One of the great things about television in the 21st century is that we’re seeing more and more long form stories that are stretching the medium. As can be said about many modern television dramas, the first season of Boardwalk Empire isn’t a 12 episode television series. It’s a twelve hour movie that explores everything from the obvious topic of bootlegging during prohibition to race relations to a budding romance between our leading man and the woman whose husband he had killed because he beat her. The four seasons that follow are no less cinematic both in the way they’re shot, the way they’re structured and the way they’re acted.
Speaking of acting, the acting on Boardwalk Empire is outstanding. There are people out there who will try and tell you that Steve Buscemi was a terrible choice to be the lead actor in a scripted cable drama. I disagree with them. Buscemi may not have the looks of a Jon Hamm, or the physical presence of the late James Gandolfini, but that wasn’t what the role of Nucky Thompson called for. His world, at least at the beginning, didn’t require the muscle of the Sopranos, and the women of Boardwalk Empire were far more interested in Thompson’s power and influence than his looks. Nucky Thompson was a character that required an actor able to play both sides of many fences…and Steve Buscemi proved himself capable of that.
The work of the supporting cast was just as good as Buscemi’s. Whether it was Kelly McDonald portraying the journey from abused wife to stock market schemer, Jack Huston as the tragic veteran Richard Harrow, Stephen Graham giving us a far more layered portrait of Al Capone than I’ve ever seen in any media, or any number of other actors giving great performances, there was a lot of brilliance to be had. I can’t give you every example of stunning acting throughout the five seasons of the show because neither of us really has the time, but trust me when I say that it was fantastic for the majority of its five seasons.
Of course, acting by itself isn’t very satisfying, especially not for a long term cable drama. Improvisational acting, even long form, would be a difficult tool to use to create five seasons of compelling dramatic television. Luckily, the cast of Boardwalk Empire had some fantastic writing to work with. Show runner and head writer Terence Winter and his team gave the actors some not only great character development, but also room to add their own expression. Nowhere is that more evident than in the finale of season four. Jack Huston’s acting is phenomenal in the last moments of the fourth season’s finale, creating empathy using no words. Would it be the same without everything the writers led his character through to get to that point? I doubt it. They really earned that moment, as well as countless others throughout the 56 episodes.
In a lot of ways, great television is like a symphony. The composer sets down in the score the notes, the rhythms and the dynamics, and if you get a great orchestra, with a great conductor, those black dots of ink jump off the page and become something moving and expressive. In the case of Boardwalk Empire, I’m sad that the symphony is finished, but the melody will remain in my head for a long time.