February 4, 2011 11:31 pm

Intoxicating allure of prohibition

‘Boardwalk Empire’ captures a sense of the epic

Boardwalk Empire (Tuesdays, Sky Atlantic) is a lot of fun, certainly for the lads among us. There’s a macho swagger about it: fights, shootings and parties abound, with men swigging booze continually. There are cars of 1920s vintage, boxy and high off the ground, which toot about the streets, and there are pretty girls who often take off their clothes.

A gangster series with a lot of class, it is set in Atlantic City, New Jersey, which after the first world war is becoming the good-time centre of the US, with casinos, nightclubs and brothels. The story begins in January 1920 as prohibition is coming into force, celebrated with whisky and champagne by the city’s corrupt elite, who have grasped that this triumph of puritanism is the business opportunity of a lifetime.

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John Lloyd

The boss of this infernal paradise – from around 1910 until he went to jail in 1941 – was the real-life Enoch “Nucky” Johnson (called Thompson in the series). His leadership of the Republican party machine in the county and city brought him a series of private and public posts and undisputed leadership. Power was a family affair: he inherited some of it from his father and shared a little of it with his brother, by ensuring he is elected as sheriff. Nucky is played by Steve Buscemi, one of the great acts and faces of American film; the series depends hugely on him, and he doesn’t let it down.

The first episode of the 11-part series is directed by Martin Scorsese and, at 80 minutes, is more of a main feature than a standard TV series opener. It establishes Nucky as the Boss, dominating every scene, every room, every hall, every speakeasy. His role as county treasurer is a means to collecting vast tribute from every one of the pleasure principals in his boardwalk empire, a space he traverses constantly, impeccably dressed, often riding in a powder-blue Rolls-Royce.

The figures and tensions that surround him are swiftly introduced: his protégé, Jimmy Darmody (Michael Pitt), back from the trenches a war-shocked, reluctant and conscience-crippled criminal; Margaret Schroeder (Kelly Macdonald), who is married to an abusive husband and seeks Nucky’s help, drawing him to her with gentle intelligence, a reminder of his wife who died young; Nelson Van Alden (Michael Shannon), federal agent and foe of the pleasure principals, a puritan with a badge; Eli Thompson (Shea Whigham) the dumber brother and sheriff; Lucy Danziger (Paz de la Huerta), Nucky’s sex-kittenish mistress; Al Capone (Stephen Graham), who needs no introduction but is dropped in casually (to grow greater later).

From the first shots – a ship bringing in bootleg whisky, followed by a women’s temperance league meeting addressed by Nucky in high hypocritical style, pledging his power and person to their great cause – we know what we’re in for: rising criminality centred on Atlantic City, with excursions to Chicago and New York, peopled by a young Al Capone and already matured and powerful figures such as Lucky Luciano and Arnold Rothstein. All of it is held together by Nucky, capable of spanning pillage, politics and piety because he himself is pulled in every one of these directions.

There is, to be sure, something enclosed, even stifling, in the piece and the performances. The $20m set for the seafront boardwalk is, no doubt, period perfect but it’s decisively a studio. Something of that artifice affects Buscemi. He’s a nonpareil for introversion, inhibition, malevolent bitterness – hence his attraction to the Coen brothers – but when called on to do glad-handing, splashy hypocrisy, crime-is-good inspirational addresses, there’s a slight strain. He’s not miscast: he can muster these moods and do them well but they are not the places his natural talent inhabits.

Sky Atlantic debuted on Tuesday and is programmed by the hyperactive Stuart Murphy, who adds it to his boardwalk empire of Sky channels 1, 2 and 3. It’s the showcase for the fruits of a $150m deal with the protean US channel HBO. Sky has also stolen series five of AMC’s Mad Men from the stupidly programmed graveyard slots accorded to it by the BBC. No need, says its publicity, to buy those box sets or to go out on Saturday night – and Boardwalk Empire does a passable job of reproducing Saturday at the movies without leaving the armchair.

It also captures what’s become the mark of the new US TV drama: a sense of the epic, of a slice of life being formed or exposed to our gaze. Mad Men hardly leaves the office yet it chronicles the crafting of a new commercial sensibility, the coupling of creativity and product. The Wire took police procedure to previously unseen heights of moral ambivalence, redefining the fictional treatment of good and evil. Boardwalk Empire shows the binding of politics to greed, lust and the desperate snatch of earthly pleasures on one hand, and the striving for salvation through renunciation and stern example on the other. It is a piece of enormous skill. The storyline is kept pulsing along, the characters imprinting themselves vividly on the memory – and all the while the era, the start of something big, rotten and narcotic, spreads before us on the boardwalk.

john.lloyd@ft.com

More columns at www.ft.com/lloyd

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