TV Review: Boardwalk Empire

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Get blown away with mafia hit Period crime drama Boardwalk Empire lives up to all the hype, writes Deborah Hill Cone.

Bigwig Enoch Johnson (Steve Buscemi) and temperamental mistress (Paz de la Huerta). Photo / Supplied
Bigwig Enoch Johnson (Steve Buscemi) and temperamental mistress (Paz de la Huerta). Photo / Supplied

When you read that Boardwalk Empire is "the greatest television drama ever made" it is tempting to want to be contrary just because it seems sheep-like to join such a long queue of fans.

But, if you can, sit down to watch this new series (debuting on Prime from Tuesday) and forget all the bossy hype - most expensive pilot episode ever made, directed by Martin Scorsese, created by former Sopranos writer Terence Winter and all that. Try to go all zen. Just empty your mind and come to it as if you were flicking through the channels and just happened upon an unknown new programme about the Prohibition era, starring Steve Buscemi playing criminal kingpin Enoch "Nucky" Johnson. If you do that, it may just blow you away.

Not because it "returned HBO to top form", as Variety said. Not because it had $115 million lavished on its accurate period details. Personally, I found the 1920-era sets too off-puttingly pretty and perfect. But Boardwalk Empire may blow you away simply because it is a wild ride - dirty, violent, sexy, scary and exciting.

It wouldn't be so captivating without Buscemi, who intriguingly manages to make Nucky a human being as well as a monster. And it helps that the script crackles with electricity - and expletives - with lines such as: "We can't have dead bodies lying around the road. It's bad for business."

Without sounding like a media studies lecturer, there are also some prescient themes in the Prohibition era that seem to chime with present-day zeitgeist - death, stench, corruption and a gaping chasm between the respectable public face and the secrets hidden behind the facade. The desperate pursuit of thrills and ogling at freakishness - fortune tellers, boxing dwarfs, the biggest saltwater taffy, the smallest babies - might have been a quaint feature of the Atlantic City funfair but it doesn't seem so different from our own appetites for the weirdos of reality TV.

The vibe of the bootlegging era seems to echo the extremes of do-goodishness and immorality of our time. The social commentary about the place of women seems timely, too. Kelly Macdonald is wrenchingly understated as Margaret Schroeder, a young Irish woman terrorised by her drunken, gambling husband. It feels strangely bold to be reminded how powerless women were not so long ago. "A fella goes to divorce court. The judge says, 'I have decided to give your wife $25 a week'. The man says, 'That's swell of you judge. I'll try to send a few clams myself now and then'."

Boardwalk Empire is not perfect. Some of the complex sub-plots are distracting and hard to follow. Nucky's protege Jimmy Darmody (Michael Pitt) pouts like a young Paul Newman. Darmody doesn't convince as a shell-shocked war veteran and seems drippy rather than traumatised. But that's a minor distraction. If you sit down to Boardwalk Empire with no expectations, with maybe a 100-proof bourbon as company, you might find yourself watching the greatest television drama ever made.

Boardwalk Empire debuts on Prime TV, Tuesday at 9.35pm.

-Herald On Sunday / View

- NZ Herald

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