Our Rating: 1 out of 5
Reviewer: Charity Bishop
HBO knows how to make superb entertainment. With a wonderful cast of actors, a highly respected director, and a marvelous 1920's setting, Boardwalk Empire should be high class entertainment... and by the world's standards, it is. By mine? Not so much.
The word "Prohibition" sends a shiver down the spine of every man on the street in January of 1920 on the eve of it being put into place. But for Nucky Thompson (Steve Buscemi) it is a golden opportunity to make a buck, since just because it's illegal doesn't mean anyone is actually going to stop drinking it! The Atlantic City Treasurer and a widely respected man in the community, Nucky actually runs his own small empire of smugglers, crooked politicians, paid off cops, and street thugs -- among them Jimmy Darmody (Michael Pitt), a recently returned WWII vet eager for a piece of the action. Nucky's intention is to hook up with other well known crime lords from New York and Chicago and start smuggling in bootlegged alcohol at a hefty price. While he is busy laying down the groundwork for this operation, his impassioned speech at the Temperance League Meeting inspires Margaret (Kelly Macdonald), a battered housewife with an alcoholic husband, to approach him for help. And then there's the FBI breathing down their necks.
Disenchanted with his appointed job as an associate to a small-time politician, Jimmy makes the acquaintance of another driver from Chicago and forms a friendship and a plan that could have dire consequences for all of them. His new associate? Al Capone (Stephen Graham). The remainder of the dozen episodes features the intrigues of bootlegging, corruption on all fronts, and the seedy underworld of the boardwalk, peering into the lives of all involved for varying amounts of time. One of the weaknesses of it is that it is somewhat slow to get started, with a less than inspiring pilot, but the pace picks up as the saga unfolds and we rapidly grow to like certain personalities and distrust others. However, some of the characters are less than interesting, so their presence becomes tedious -- one could complain that too much time is spent with such figures, rather than keeping a more narrow focus. There's also a distinctly anti-religious undercurrent and the implication that all the misbehavior is on the side of Republicans. The cast is magnificent, comprised of lesser known but superb acting talent -- it's just a shame they're not given better material to speak with.
For me, when any project resorts to common profane language such as the f-word, I immediately dismiss it as shoddy writing. With so many incredible words with a variety of meanings to choose from, for a series like this one to resort to mundane and offensive rather than flowery and powerful takes it from high class to lowbrow entertainment in one fell swoop -- and the nudity and graphic sexual content doesn't help matters. If there's a woman in the room for the first half of the series, it's guaranteed she'll not be wearing much -- if anything at all. The camera doesn't shy away from fully naked bodies, sheets are never drawn up, and the sex scenes (about a half dozen in all) leave nothing to the imagination. Everyone is immoral and the ones who aren't we don't like because of their racist, holier-than-thou, slightly demented tendencies. (The one Christian FBI agent is depicted as a hypocrite, as anti-Semitic, and an adulterer, who occasionally flogs himself with a photo of a beautiful woman in the room, implying he receives sexual pleasure from it.) Two lesbians carry on an affair, with lots of passionate kissing (one's husband doesn't seem to mind, and tries to entice them into a threesome).
F-words flow thickly through the dialogue, along with other vulgar terms I won't repeat, a dozen or more abuses of Jesus' name and GD, and common profanities. Violence ranges from men being shot in the head at close range (blood spatters on walls and other people) to a man beating another man almost to death; an abusive husband leaves his pregnant wife crying and battered on the floor (she has a miscarriage). Family planning for the times is discussed, and a woman chooses to become a powerful man's mistress -- the friend she goes to for help offers her no alternative or decent advice. Smoking and drinking are, of course, frequent. Just as disturbing is the horrific scene in which a man attempts to force another man to confess his sins and be baptized -- when the man, as a Jew, refuses, the other man drowns him in a lake.
Boardwalk Empire is an Irish version of The Godfather, with just as many memorable characters and tragic situations. It entices us with promises of glamour and peril only to turn around and present us with sleaze and tastelessness. Where the latter film did contain some issues that are problematic for more conservative viewers, in comparison it is positively saintly. I enjoy a good story told well in a manner that isn't needlessly profane -- but this show is shocking merely for the controversy of it. In other words, it's a well-cast, beautifully filmed, and low-class attempt to capitalize on our fascination with the mafia.