Character development, all-star cast aid in success of HBO’s newest drama

For the reason why HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire” is such a predictably enjoyable show, one need only look toward two other critically acclaimed series of the past decade: “The Sopranos” and “Mad Men.”
Since “Sopranos” scribe Terence Winter created the show, it comes as no surprise that “Boardwalk” has the same slow, character-building pace that “Sopranos” had. “Boardwalk” has that same feel that all the episodes of the season are building up to a cataclysmic finale. With each episode and each negotiation or misunderstanding, “Boardwalk” acts as a carefully orchestrated chess match, and by the season’s finale on Dec. 5, everything will be in place for an explosion.
But perhaps what “Sopranos” lacked was a truly compelling way to make the time pass before the explosion. For all of its bravado, “Sopranos” was ultimately a talk-y show that usually lacked action. And while Christopher Moltisanti was entertaining enough, too many plot points around Tony Soprano’s kids were boring filler.
But in this way, “Boardwalk” is, instead, like “Mad Men.” Both shows have that cool period-piece setting, making them telescopes into a forgotten era. Set in the 1920s, “Boardwalk” makes political arguments interesting, because viewers do not hear much about surprise candidate Warren G. Harding on CNN these days.
And aspects of society that were less progressive in the ’20s — like thoughts on gender roles and sexuality — become much more intriguing plot points in the world of “Boardwalk” than in the world of “The Sopranos.”
“Boardwalk Empire” follows mastermind Nucky Thompson, who has wrestled control of Atlantic City for himself and engineered a far-reaching bootlegging process during Prohibition.
From ads — and there were plenty of them before the show debuted in September — potential viewers might think it’s just a show glamorizing illegal alcoholic excess during Prohibition.
But in essence, just like “The Sopranos” was a character study of Tony Soprano, “Boardwalk Empire” is one of Nucky Thompson, principally his struggle between good and evil.
The show thrives from a cast that generally all made their names in film well before the premiere of “Boardwalk.”
Series star Steve Buscemi (as Thompson) needs no introduction from his film career comprised of several classic Coen Brothers’ movies in the 1990s, as well as his masterful turn in Quentin Tarantino’s “Reservoir Dogs.” Everyone knew Buscemi had the chops to anchor HBO’s new flagship show, and he’s delivered in spades.
The rest of the cast all have stood out in at least one movie or another in recent years. Michael Pitt plays Jimmy Darmody, who provides a look into the life of a rising gangster in the ’20s. Pitt stole the show in 2008’s American remake of “Funny Games.”
Kelly Macdonald stars opposite Buscemi as Margaret Schroeder, a tea-totaling woman who gradually falls under the spell of Nucky’s money, influence and charm. Macdonald’s uncanny Southern accent was a highlight in the Oscar-winning “No Country for Old Men.”
Prohibition agent Nelson Van Alden, played expertly by Michael Shannon, is the series’ most intriguing character. A dark moment with Van Alden caps off the series’ strongest episode — its sixth, “Family Limitation” — as he struggles with his obsession over Schroeder. Like Pitt, Shannon stole the show as a supporting character in 2008’s “Revolutionary Road.”
Finally Michael Stuhlbarg, as New York kingpin Arnold Rothstein, provides a delicious foil to Buscemi’s Thompson. While the two share calm and calculated approaches to business dealings, Rothstein comes off as much more vindictive and emotionless than Thompson. Stuhlbarg’s starring role made the Coen Brothers’ last film, “A Serious Man,” one of the best films of 2009.
Put the excellent acting and superb writing together, and it's no wonder why “Boardwalk” scored the highest ratings for an HBO premiere since 2004’s “Deadwood” and has already been renewed for a second season. It’s probably not too early to predict that “Boardwalk” will soon become one of those classic television shows that is talked about for ages.