Boardwalk Empire: a joy to watch

Last updated 08:22 04/10/2010

Around 11.30pm on Saturday I had an epiphany. New HBO show Boardwalk Empire, which aired on Sky Movies at 8.30 that night, and Disney Channel's Camp Rock 2: The Final Jam (earlier, at 6.30pm) are essentially telling the same story.

20101004All right, so the array of mobsters didn't burst out into song - even though the Atlantic City boardwalk would make a lovely setting for a musical number or two - and Joe Jonas didn't kill anyone in order to smuggle alcohol into the campsite, but when you strip away the details, the characters and the various idiosyncrasies of each production, they boil down to the same moral dilemma: choosing to do what is right versus choosing to do whatever it takes to make money and achieve personal success.

On Camp Rock 2: The Final Jam, which I ended up watching with my nine-year-old daughter (that's my story and I'm sticking to it), the dilemma is easy to see: on the one hand you have Demi Lovato, the Jonas Brothers, and the other campers at fictional music getaway Camp Rock who believe in making music for the sake of togetherness, sharing and the music itself, while across a lake (why are all American camps on a lake? ... for that matter, why do American kids go to camps for their summer holidays?!) is rival destination Camp Star, whose mission is to promote the individual in order to sell records, make huge amounts of money, and succeed. Camp Rock 2 wastes no time making it clear that Camp Rock is the better of the two options.

This idealistic "right vs wrong" view is at the centre of Boardwalk Empire as well.

Boardwalk Empire is the story of Enoch "Nucky" Thompson (played by Steve Buscemi), an Atlantic City treasurer who realises that there is huge money to be made through acquiring, selling and delivering imported liquor during America's infamous Prohibition Era from 1920 to 1933; the character is based on real-life Atlantic City treasurer Enoch "Nucky" Johnson.

Saturday's premiere began the story on the same night prohibition law was put into effect (January 16, 1920), and traced the beginnings of Nucky's illegal empire as he worked out deals with corrupt city officials, sourced and imported product (including my personal favourite, Canadian Club whisky), and took the step from crooked politician to full-on gangster with the help of right-hand man Jimmy Darmody (played by Michael Pitt).

But Boardwalk Empire doesn't simply tell a cool mobster story, it also deals with the moral basis of the mobsters' actions. By revealing the bruised, bloody face of domestic abuse in Margaret Schroeder - a housewife whose alcoholic husband beats her to the point that she ends up losing a pregnancy - you start to sympathise with the moral objection to liquor, expressed in a poem gifted to Nucky late in the episode ("Crude by day and lewd by night / Conscience dulled by demon rum / Liquor, they name's delirium"), that pushed the prohibition law.

20101004-2You can almost see Nucky coming to this same realisation, while confronting the dilemma at the core of the show: choosing to do what is right (in this case, abide by the prohibition law) versus choosing to do whatever it takes to make money and achieve personal success (importing liquor and defying the prohibition law). Presumably, Nucky's internal struggle with the moral implications of the mobster lifestyle will form one of the main story arcs of the show.

Stylistically, Boardwalk Empire is a resounding success - hardly surprising since legendary director Martin Scorsese (the man behind The Departed and Shutter Island) is at the helm, backed by a team of writers and producers who come to the project after their work on HBO's other big hit, The Sopranos.

The show looks fantastic as well, and manages to create an authentic world that somehow seems foreign - as with Mad Men, a show set in the 1960s, you feel like Boardwalk's depiction of Atlantic City, circa 1920, is completely accurate, but still feel a level of disbelief that society used to operate in this way. For example, a scene with a minstrel group seems horribly racist by 2010 standards, yet was commonplace back then. As a 29-year-old viewer, it's hard to believe that could ever be the case.

The cast is stellar too. Buscemi, a regular supporting cast member in Adam Sandler movies, may have been born for the role of Nucky Thompson despite lacking traditional "leading man" qualities, while Pitt carries the role of Jimmy Darmody well. Minor players like Kelly McDonald, Shea Whigham, Michael Stuhlbarg and Stephen Graham are a joy to watch as they round out a strong cast.

In fact, I only have one complaint about the show: why is it playing on Sky Movies 1?! It's a 12-part TV series, not a movie. Surely this is a massive pain in the butt for people who don't subscribe to Sky Movies. Hey Sky TV, at least play it free to air on Prime a few days later or something.

Small complaints aside, Boardwalk Empire is a joy to watch and I'm excited to see how the story unfolds from here. Will Boardwalk Empire go the same way as Camp Rock 2 and its "Choose what is right" moral lesson? Only time will tell.

Have you seen Boardwalk Empire? If so, did you enjoy it? Do you think Steve Buscemi is a good leading man? And what are your thoughts on prohibition - is it a good idea?

* No spoilers! *

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Andrew Stevenson   #1   09:00 am Oct 04 2010

I hadn't heard of this series before you mentioned it. Sounds great. Not having Sky, I will wait for the DVDs.

I thought Buscemi was a good "guest star" on The Sopranos, and I think he could carry a show on his own.

US prohibition (the one we tend to think of, though many countries have had a period of prohibition in their history) is indelibly associated with organised crime. People often cite that as a reason for why the "noble experiment" failed. Interesting that illegal drugs in society (cannabis, cocaine, methamphetamine) are often associated with organised crime.

NZ would never tolerate prohibition of alcohol and yet we seem quite strongly against other "drugs". The 2009 Palmer review quotes research that as a drug, alcohol has the same high risk to public health as Class B drugs scheduled under the Misuse of Drugs Act (1989), such as morphine, ecstasy and d-amphetamine.

Also interesting that we tax alcohol and cigarettes quite a lot, yet leave other legal substances that are a risk to public health (almost) untouched.

TV Junkie   #2   09:50 am Oct 04 2010

Prime have the free to air rights for Boardwalk Empire so it will air after Sky Movies has finished, but is great to see it in HD as was intended by the film makers. And with Martin Scorcese's involvement, Sky Movies seems like a reasonable place to launch it.

Amy   #3   10:41 am Oct 04 2010

"Buscemi, a regular supporting cast member in Adam Sandler movies..."

That's how you choose to describe Steve Buscemi? After his amazing work in various Coen Brothers films, his (rather salient, surely?) performance and directing stint on Sopranos, and all his other brilliant acting and directing gigs? ^shudders^

Buscemi is a legend. A sexy, bug-eyed, sexy, buck-toothed legend.

James   #4   11:04 am Oct 04 2010

Andrew Stevenson #1

I lost you somewhere in your third paragraph.

This show has great legs and feels like it's warming up for something spectacular. As annoying as it is, I feel like it's justified to be shown on Sky Movies. It is the calibre of a film. I just had to do a dirty download to watch it. I don't feel proud.

Scott   #5   11:29 am Oct 04 2010

Boardwalk Empire only started in the US on Sept 19th, so once again we're getting it very quickly. I love anything that Buscemi does, although since I can't get Sky I'll have to wait on Prime to see most of the series. It's not the kind of show I normally watch, but for something that looks this good I might have to make an exception.

I'm not exactly discriminating though since I have to admit to watching Jonas (one of my guilty little secret shows) - although I have to draw the line at Camp Rock. My standards don't sink THAT low.

Jo   #6   11:37 am Oct 04 2010

I recorded Boardwalk Empire on My-Sky and I'm going to watch it tonight (there isn't much to watch on Monday nights). I'm really looking forward to it, it looks like a great production and I think this is a really interesting period of history.

Rachel   #7   11:42 am Oct 04 2010

I didn't see Boardwalk Empire but my parents watched it. My mum, in particular, wasn't impressed with the language - she singled it out and said that gangsters didn't talk that way in the 20's which I tend to agree with. I watched the pilot episode and second episode of Hawaii Five-O, I never saw the original so had nothing to compare it with. I thought it was a bit like the CSI's etc that are tv currently, just with a better backdrop - I have a sudden urge to move to Hawaii and live in the sun. The characters were good, the story is good and apparently nothing like the original and the infamous line "Book 'em Dano" appears but is introduced in a completely different way.

Andrew Stevenson   #8   12:13 pm Oct 04 2010

James #4: It's cool. Just some semi-random thoughts in response to Chris's question on prohibition. (Last sentence.) I was thinking about how illegal substances often seem related to organised crime, and how alcohol (as a drug) seems to get special treatment under the law of most countries.

Allessandra Browne   #9   12:40 pm Oct 04 2010

I have watched the two episodes available so far and have to say that it is a show that has considerable promise. It has the feel of a programme that has staying power. Everything about it IS a joy to watch from the sets to the scripts - brilliant. Mad Men is fantastic this season too.

ad1   #10   02:00 pm Oct 04 2010

im loving it more then True Blood (it started in true blood's timeslot in the states)

it's so cool when you see historical figures represented in 2010 no spoilers, but their is some great names that should figure prominently.

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