Boardwalk Empire had a fine first season, and I don’t mean to damn it with faint praise. It is not yet up to the standard of the Holy Trinity of Wire/Sopranos/Deadwood, but its ambitions are realistic and mostly achieved, the production values have a film-like feel (it’s easy to see why movie buffs who don’t normally watch television are drawn to the show), the characters have depth, the narrative thrust is gradual but insistent, and the acting is excellent.
The series got a lot of attention due to the involvement of Martin Scorsese, and I’m not dismissing his contributions, but again, that’s mostly just for the moviegoers who need a big name in film to pay attention to television. Terence Winter is the guiding hand behind Boardwalk Empire … he’s the show runner, the most important job on major television series these days, and the series is mostly his baby. I like the blend of historic and fictional characters, and the clever ways they manage to keep the historical figures alive until they actually die (so, for instance, Meyer Lansky, who at one point looked like a sure candidate for the graveyard, was allowed to live in a quite realistic way … since the real Lansky lived to be 80, that was a good thing).
As Alan Sepinwall points out, something Nucky Thompson says in the finale could stand as the motto for the entire series, much like House works off of the title character’s notion that everyone lies. “We all have to decide for ourselves,” Nucky says, “how much sin we can live with.” No one in Boardwalk Empire is without sin; the series is about the compromises people make as they decide how much sin is tolerable. If the series was only about bad people doing bad things, it would get boring fairly quickly. If it was about good people doing good things, also boring. But when the question is “how much sin can you live with,” then you’ve got a television series, as the characters move into and out of sinful behavior, always evaluating themselves, sometimes doing better, sometimes falling back. But the world of Boardwalk Empire is a world of sin, there is no escaping, there are only realists and fantasists (most people think they are the former but are, as often as not, the latter, perhaps most clearly in the character of Nan Britton, Warren Harding’s mistress). (And I realized my store of trivial knowledge seemingly has no bounds … when the at-first unnamed mistress made her first appearance, I said to Robin, “her first name is ‘Nan’.”)
I should add that the period is finely presented … the history is closer to reality than, say, The Tudors. Steve Buscemi triumphs over what seems like odd casting … he’s such a fine actor, he convinces you that he is not to be messed with, and that he has a long-lost core of decency hidden somewhere deep. I’m always a sucker for Kelly Macdonald, so I’m glad to see she has such an important role. And there’s always Gretchen Mol, for people who like to read Internet rumors. Grade for Season One: A-.