Where to after The Sopranos and The Wire? You’ve stubbed a fag-butt into Mad Men, rictus-grinned at your mate’s suggestion of Battlestar Galactica, failed to peel the cellophane off The Shield box set, then sat through every episode of Foyle’s War – roughly 2,200 minutes – agog at Michael Kitchen’s performance, aware that it was made for your dead gran’s unstable demographic. But what next?
Boardwalk Empire? Starring Steve Buscemi as the Machiavellian Enoch “Nucky” Thompson, it’s made by HBO – if you’re seeking great drama, start there, as opposed to ITV2 or Living – and set in Atlantic City at the beginning of prohibition. The show’s creator (via Nelson Johnson’s book of the same name) is Terence Winter, the ex-lawyer who wrote a couple of dozen episodes of The Sopranos, including most people’s favourite, Pine Barrens, in which Christopher and Pauli get lost in snow-deep woods having bungled a hit on a Russian. Sample dialogue:
Chris: Could be [the wounded Russian] out there, stalking us.
Pauli: With what? His cock?
And later, on the phone to Tony, begging for help:
Chris: Bring some food, right?
Pauli [eyes bulging]: Some fuckin’ shoes, too!
Other commentators have cited Martin Scorsese’s involvement. “Marty”, as his friends call him (to exhibit their bond), directed the pilot episode, which reportedly cost up to £33 million, so was hardly going to look like a tramp in a shed
That alone should make you want to watch Boardwalk Empire. Other commentators have cited Martin Scorsese’s involvement. “Marty”, as his friends call him (to exhibit their bond), directed the pilot episode, which reportedly cost up to £33 million, so was hardly going to look like a tramp in a shed. A good £3 million of that went on a sprawling promenade set, lined with shops and a centrepiece show-palace, which looks noticeably not-quite-real on screen, lending the scene a ghostly ambience.
Plus Marty’s involvement meant the first-choice cast was a shoe-in. Here’s Trainspotting’s Kelly Macdonald, who plays Nucky’s Irish squeeze, Margaret: “There wasn't much weighing up. It was a case of, ‘Martin Scorsese's directing the pilot.’ ‘Oh fuck, I'd love to do it!’”
I don’t know. Sure I’m a heathen, but Marty’s pilot episode looked no different to any of the following eleven to me. Fuck Marty.
The premise runs: Nucky’s treasurer of Atlantic City, a proto-Vegas, all cigar smoke and broads in costume. The Great War’s not long over and the temperance movement have gone and got alcohol banned – not that you’d notice on the boardwalk. Liquor flows, the whores hustle and there’s a new fat cat born every minute.
Everyone wants a slice but Nucky’s kingpin, through shrewd manoeuvring, outright deceit and the back-up of hired heavy, Jimmy, returned from the war and killing now for himself.
Nucky’s dim brother, Eli, happens to be Sheriff; there’s an FBI agent on their case; the fledgling mob from Chicago and New Jersey want in; poor Irish émigré and former temperance belle Margaret’s wheedled herself into Nucky’s boudoir and is gradually coming to terms with this power lark; five guys have been shot up in the woods over a concession of moonshine; it’s election year; there’s a war vet with half his face missing, wearing the sort of mask Derren Brown might covet; Jimmy’s wife’s sampling threesomes… Oh, and Wire fans – Omar’s in it.
Liquor flows, the whores hustle and there’s a new fat cat born every minute.
Despite its provenance, Boardwalk Empire is not The Sopranos again. Real-life mobsters appear – Al Capone (played by This is England’s Stephen Graham) and “Lucky” Luciano – mingling with the fictional, but Capone’s a mere driver at this point, looking out for his family through eyes brewing psychosis.
There’s not a great deal of violence – more sex, frankly – and what draws you in is the complexity of the characters. No one’s the goodie. Buscemi’s Nucky is a thoughtful schemer and glad-hander, vulnerable-looking if steely-eyed, passing women and treats to mayors and senators in return for political candies. The ballot box, he understands, is where it’s won. Control the party and let the corruption control you.
Trust no one, not even the FBI guy. Actually, least of all the FBI guy: one scary fuck-up.
It boils down to this: politicians run the show for everything they can get, not remotely the greater good, and the proles can shine their shit. The state we’re in.