Martin Scorsese is an executive producer of HBO's "Boardwalk Empire." But the gangster-filled Prohibition-era drama owes less to "Goodfellas" than it does to the Greeks – not to mention Freud and Shakespeare.
The Atlantic City-set tale of bootleggers, corruption and dangerous deceptions teems with booze-fueled rivalries and betrayals that lead to murder and families ripped asunder. Just about all the characters are living various lies at a time when the country tried to pretend nobody was drinking.
Brother fights brother – and father, and father figures – as Oedipal issues abound (quite literally, as we saw in the most recent episode). But the women, in some respects, are better at controlling their emotions and using self-illusion – if only out of self-preservation – to gain a tenuous foothold in this world of cutthroat men.
The trip back in time got off to a seemingly drawn-out start when “Boardwalk” premiered last year. But it was a deliberately slow burn, leading up to what’s sure to be an explosive ending Sunday – capping a second season that's solidified "Boardwalk" as HBO's most compelling drama since "The Sopranos."
The action is propelled by a mix of characters fictional and otherwise (Al Capone, Lucky Luciano, Meyer Lansky), all brought to life by some of the strongest ensemble acting to grace the small screen in years.
Michael Shannon’s rigid prohibition agent Nelson Van Alden is a literally self-flagellating holly roller who drowns in sin after a dipping toe into the whiskey tide of corruption he can't stem. Gretchen Mol is Lady Macbeth and Jocasta in a flirtatious flapper's guise, unnaturally manipulating her son (Michael Pitt) in a bid to transform him into the kind of powerful, ruthless man who made her life hell. Dabney Coleman crowns his career as the former king of Atlantic City, whose fearsomeness can't be quelled by the stroke that's taken his speech and whose determination to rule ends only in his final breath. Jack Huston offers a haunting turn as a World War I veteran who returned from Europe with a tin mask covering the missing half of his face, but with what's left of his soul laid achingly bare.
The biggest revelation, though, comes in Steve Buscemi who goes from character actor supreme to a surprisingly effective leading man playing corrupt, savvy pol-without-an-office Nucky Thompson, whose struggle to maintain his hold on an empire built on alcohol fumes and deceit drives the intersecting internal and external dramas.
Buscemi vacillates from charming to compassionate to cruel to violent (his character’s fight with his much bigger brother Eli marked one of the TV’s most arresting scenes of the year) with the expression on the most expressive of faces only subtly changing.
We’ll see how Buscemi’s Nucky faces his woes in Sunday’s season finale, as his life grip on power becomes undone, between indictments, trouble at home with the widow of a man he ordered killed and a tangle of vicious underworld feuds coming to a head. Last week's epic episode offered a master class in character reveal, showing how we got to this point. That’s helped build an anticipation reminiscent of the excitement that once greeted the season-enders of “The Sopranos” – the classic show “Boardwalk” creator Terence Winter play a key behind-the-scenes role on for years.
The psychological and organized-crime elements, the New Jersey setting and Winter’s and HBO’s involvement beg inevitable comparisons between the dramas. Tony Soprano and his pals were more knee-jerk bloodthirsty, though the carnage was tempered with gallows humor. Nucky Thompson's Boardwalk is, in some respects, a tenser place than Tony’s Jersey, making the violence all the more jarring.
The Boardwalk is its own world, revolving around a magnificently evocative set constructed for the first episode, directed by Scorsese, who helped set the emotional and visual tone for the series. Like bootleg liquor during Prohibition, the more “Boardwalk" we soak in, the thirstier we get.
Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992. Follow him on Twitter.