BOARDWALK EMPIRE BEGINS in Atlantic City on January 16, 1920, the evening before the implementation of the Eighteenth Amendment. Enoch “Nucky” Thompson (Steve Buscemi), the Treasurer of Atlantic County, stands before a crowded meeting of the Women’s Temperance League. He is every bit the model politician, first paying tribute to the branch’s chairwoman and then recounting his impoverished childhood, ravaged by his father’s alcoholism. The crowd hangs off his every word, the camera panning over their tearful faces as they gasp and look on in sympathy and admiration. Nucky delicately takes his leave — not before offering support for women’s suffrage — with an assertion that, “Prohibition means progress.”
Outside the meeting, Nucky’s driver and understudy Jimmy Darmody (Michael Pitt) marvels at the harrowing tales divulged on stage. Nucky shakes his head with a wry smile as he climbs into his Rolls Royce. “The first rule of politics,” he reminds Jimmy, “is to never let the truth get in the way of a good story.” The yarns he has spun for the meeting are certainly more story than truth, but the phrase’s wider meaning becomes clear as the engine starts and the car drives off. From the chastity of the Women’s Temperance League — envisioning a teetotal society standing to moral attention — we cut to the Atlantic City waterfront, resplendent with flappers, brass bands, and copious amounts of liquor.
Buscemi’s character walks through these hordes with ease and familiarity. To the League’s members he was introduced as Enoch, but to the Boardwalk’s revellers he is always Nucky: it’s clear which group knows him best. There is even a mock funeral for drunkenness, complete with a bottle-shaped coffin and black balloons. At midnight, the revelling crowds count down to Prohibition as you would the New Year, offer five seconds silence as the clock strikes 12, and then pop the corks on another round of champagne bottles. The king is dead. Long live the king.
This latter image of the Roaring Twenties is closer to the truth of Prohibition America than the chaste sobriety that campaigners yearned for, and thankfully, it makes for a much better story. There is perhaps no era more mythologised in the American psyche than the Jazz Age, or at least no era that more greatly epitomizes that kind of decadent splendour which so demands to be captured on film. Boardwalk Empire debuted on HBO in 2010 to greater expectation and media hype than had greeted a new television series in recent memory. Following the final seasons of The Sopranos (2007) and The Wire (2008), in 2009, HBO was without a great drama series — specifically a great crime drama.
Instead, the televisual zeitgeist had shifted over to AMC, who held all of the serial drama trump cards in the form of Mad Men, a stylized period drama and media darling, and Breaking Bad, a disturbing and tirelessly inventive series that lives up to HBO’s own motto: “It’s not TV.” Ultraviolent and revolving around drug production and terminal lung cancer, Breaking Bad was exactly the kind of show on which HBO had cut its teeth, only this time it was not theirs to tout. The network needed a series on which to build from those recent successes, and Boardwalk Empire can be seen as a cherry-picking of HBO’s finest talent and an attempt to fus...read more