HBO’s latest must-see drama spectacle Boardwalk Empire has just hit our shores like a welcome cargo of illicit contraband, although unfortunately available only to Sky subscribers from the new channel Sky Atlantic - a channel tantamount to an admission that HBO makes the most compelling television, and that, rather than water down our American brethrens’ entertainment with our own weak home-brewed efforts, Sky would rather keep it pure. Maybe they’ve been taking lessons directly from Boardwalk Empire’s prohibition-era economics. After all, a case of genuine 12-year-old single malt scotch whiskey could be worth a damn sight more than a hundred bottles of cheap moonshine, even if fewer people get to enjoy it. The Martin Scorsese produced mini-epic will undoubtedly make its way onto terrestrial, but Sky has already come under fire for increasing the demand amongst “young people” for illegal downloads of shows like Mad Men, The Sopranos and Boardwalk Empire by tying them exclusively to the new Sky channel (and therefore the necessary subscription), forcing would-be viewers online to illegal entertainment saloons for their fix.
I don’t mean to sound down on British produced television, but the grandeur and sheer magnificence of HBO’s latest offerings serve to illustrate the contrast between televisual entertainment on each respective side of the ocean. Boardwalk Empire’s pilot episode has the record for the most expensive ever made in TV history, amassing costs of $18 million before a network had even agreed to make a whole series. That’s a huge amount of faith to put in the success of a new show, but with a team behind the scenes including Scorsese, Mark Wahlberg, Terence Winter (one of the main writers of The Sopranos) and Tim Van Patten (who has directed episodes of The Sopranos, The Wire and The Pacific) and loveable, googly-eyed outsider Steve Buscemi in front of the camera, it’s a powerful concoction unlikely to be anything other than extremely engaging.
Boardwalk Empire tells the quasi-historical story of Enoch ‘Nucky’ Thompson (Buscemi), the epicentre of political corruption in Atlantic County. As the hammer of prohibition falls on Thompson’s circle of cronies they laugh together in realisation that the creation of a black market for alcohol has effectively granted them a license to huge profit, especially with the proximity of Atlantic City to New York. This is the conception of vice tourism and with Nucky’s plans to keep Atlantic City “as wet as a mermaid’s twat” it presents a great opportunity for his inner circle to operate bars, casinos and smuggling operations. Of course where opportunity lies visitors are bound to come knocking, and it’s not just the welcome flow of tourists that flock to the coastal city’s charms. What had been a gentlemen’s club of political backhanders is quickly transformed by the fermentation of outright criminal activity into an open market for racketeering, paving the way for the brutal rise of the career gangster, with Nucky crossing paths with infamous individuals Al Capone, Frankie Yale and Arnold Rothstein, as well as the investigative fervour of Federal Prohibition Agents.
The historical detail in Boardwalk Empire’s plot is impressive, weaving together several well-known stories, scandals and characters to illustrate the impact of prohibition-era corruption on the face of the American nation. The detail does not end there though, and Boardwalk Empire seems to have been taking notes from HBO buddy, Mad Men, with its obsessive attention to period detail. It is commendable and fascinating that Boardwalk Empire takes its interest far beyond historical events, politics and even the individual characters, to give a broader view of the way of life under post-war prohibition. This was the era that popularised art and entertainment in a way never before seen, with movies just beginning to take form as what we recognise today, while photography becomes accessible to even the working classes, and the influence of international fashion was making itself felt by the elite. Advertising was a new and powerful force born of the inventiveness of wartime propaganda, and life was changing at a rapid pace with American women about to be awarded the vote (although apparently still frequently knocked about by their drunken Irish husbands behind closed doors). Boardwalk Empire’s depiction of these minor details gives a much greater impression of the overall whole, even if not quite as easygoing and naturalistic as the period detail of Mad Men. The 300 ft. custom built set was designed to be “period-perfect” with additional details added in 3D and based on vintage postcards. Even the costumes were based on original 1920s tailoring books.
Boardwalk Empire feels like a film you never want to finish. Buscemi is fantastic as the charitable yet corrupt politician, up to his neck in a murky underworld of smugglers and gangsters. Michael Pitt makes a powerful performance as his sometime right-hand man Jimmy Darmody, recently returned from the war and not quite the same as when he left. Kelly Macdonald continues the Great American Tradition of cross-casting Scottish and Irish actors but with pretty convincing accent. Liverpudlian Stephen Graham doesn’t seem the most natural choice to play Chicago’s Al Capone, but then again having already starred in Scorsese’s Gangs Of New York and HBO’s Band Of Brothers it becomes more obvious why he might have been cast in the role, and to his credit his trademark depiction of seething rage and short-fuse seems apt to the character. Federal Agent Nelson Van Alden (Michael Shannon) initially seems the most one-dimensional of the show’s characters, with facial expression barely faltering from pious indignation, but by the end of the series his deep puritanical repression sees itself manifest in self-harm, adultery and even a bizarre encounter with baptism that becomes more like waterboarding. While most other characters serve to demonstrate the machinations of under- and overground prohibition politics, Van Alden demonstrates the corruptibility of a nation’s moral fibre.
While in some ways glorifying alcohol as a social drug, Boardwalk Empire is by no means a one-sided story and goes out of its way to consider the darker side of alcohol abuse on a personal level and in a deeper and wider sense. Having said which, it seems like it would be hard to resist the revelry of a 1920s speakeasy. Much like today’s digital smugglers of contraband video, it seems people are unlikely to be put off from breaking a few laws where their entertainment is concerned. If prohibition has taught us anything it’s that restricting the legal supply does not prevent distribution, it merely creates a black market, and while many will buy into Sky’s new HBO monopoly countless others will find ways to bypass it. Boardwalk Empire certainly gives them good reason.