Boardwalk Empire opens with a gorgeous set piece: On the eve of Prohibition, in the heart of Atlantic City, crooked politician Enoch “Nucky” Thompson seduces the pinch-faced ladies of the temperance league, winning them over with sentimental malarkey and a hard-luck tale. Deep in the audience, a lovely young woman gazes up, her eyes welling. She’s drunk on the bootlegger’s lies.
And we’re drunk, too, on what might be HBO’s most visually dazzling new drama. Boardwalk Empire is a fairy tale about decadence and male power, dense with visual splendor (Martin Scorsese directed the first episode) and overflowing with velvety re-creations of the Prohibition era—Champagne-drenched speakeasies, elegant hotel beds, boardwalks glittering with colored lights. The party scenes are pointillistic thrill rides, the camera gyrating like a happy voyeur. When Nucky pauses to peer into a seaside storefront in which premature babies are displayed in public incubators, it feels like we’re gazing in, too, getting an eerie glimpse into a time we can marvel at but never entirely understand.
The cast is just as delectable, especially bug-eyed smart guy Steve Buscemi, who adds spiky wit to that by-now-familiar pay-cable figure: the male mob boss a notch sharper than those around him, this one intent on “keeping Atlantic City wet as a mermaid’s twat.” Inspired by the Nelson Johnson book of the same name, Boardwalk Empire often plays like a pleasurable prequel to every modern mob movie: There’s young Lucky Luciano and the mournful Jewish mobster Arnold Rothstein (Michael Stuhlbarg, his sweet face hiding a calculating heart). One minute we’re listening to a low-level goon banter on the boardwalk, the next we realize it’s Al Capone.
And yet, as luscious as the show is, there’s also something unsettlingly paint-by-numbers about its psychology, especially in the way it invites us to revel in the pretty bloodbaths we, in theory, condemn. The Sopranos exploded these same conventions; in its later seasons, it brilliantly shamed us for loving such sick sadists. But Boardwalk Empire isn’t up to anything so radical, and at times it descends into ultraviolent cornball. There’s one torture sequence scored to opera; another features an extended Tarantino-style revenge monologue and a doctor’s case full of shiny implements. The mobsters themselves mostly fall into familiar types, particularly the tragic good-bad guy (Michael Pitt), so tender with women and children, versus the bad-bad guys, who giggle sociopathically, brood over tiny slights, and reek of misogyny. And of course, there are endless showgirls in mashed lipstick and thigh-highs, writhing in powerful men’s laps and practically into ours. (Boardwalk Empire may seem more highbrow than True Blood, but it’s full of trademark HBO bada-bing.)
Still, if the show doesn’t have original ideas about the men who kill for money, or the viewers who want to watch them do it, that’s very easy to ignore when you’re dizzy with the fun of it all. Part of the pleasure is, as with Mad Men, the satisfactions of a well-made time machine, transporting us to a period when the rise of organized crime coincided with that of the suffragette movement and the Ku Klux Klan. Even when the performances are over-the-top, you can’t tear your eyes away, especially from Paz de la Huerta as Lucy Danziger, queen of the dumb-giggle hussies—she crows, gyrates, flaps, baby-talks (“Giddyap, cowboy!”), with Courtney Love–level charisma.
Lucy’s opposite number is Margaret Schroeder, the beautiful young mother who watches Nucky from afar. Although she at first appears to be the one pure woman in a world of scolds and whores, Margaret deepens in increments, and Kelly Macdonald gives a very appealing performance as this tremulous but complex figure—an abused wife whose sugared model of womanhood melts in the heat of real life. The push-and-pull between Margaret and Nucky is the show’s best story, and it’s what makes Boardwalk Empire, for all its mob-story conventions, finally click.