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Boardwalk Empire: The Complete First Season DVD

By Manu Ekanayake on 20 December 2011

Nucky Thompson (played by Steve Buscemi) sums up his role in the ‘Boardwalk Empire’ with one line to his protégé Jimmy Darmody (relative newcomer Michael Pitt), ‘You wanna be a gangster in my town, then you’ll pay me for the privilege.’

That’s who Nucky is – he’s Atlantic City’s political boss, not its crime boss. Well, not yet, anyway.

But as Nucky’s driver/gopher/surrogate son Jimmy put it back in the pilot, ‘You can’t be half a gangster Nuck, not anymore.’

Nucky was always planning to be a bootlegger (the 1920-set pilot shows Nucky and his political cronies crowing over how much money Prohibition will make them) but thanks to an unsanctioned and bloody robbery by Jimmy, he is soon at war with New York’s Arnold Rothstein.Rothstein is a real gangster… one who has future crime bosses Charlie Luciano and Meyer Lansky on his payroll.Plus he’s a professional gambler who fixed the World Series, as well as being wonderfully well-played by controlled-yet-compelling Michael Stuhlbarg.

So within the first few episodes, Nucky becomes both political boss and crime boss of Atlantic City. He is already A.C’s thoroughly corrupt treasurer: everyone pays him, from hookers to hoteliers, but in the pilot he also meets another person for whom he will cross the line from corrupt to criminal; the seemingly-innocent Margaret Schroder (rising Brit star Kelly McDonald), whose husband likes to beat her despite her pregnancy.

Nucky might be a bad guy, but like all the best TV bad guys, he has some standards. And he’s also a sucker for a damsel – we later learn that she’s not the first woman he’s tried to ‘save’… Jimmy’s Lady Macbeth of a mother being just one example.

And who’s Jimmy’s real father? Oh just Nucky’s old boss, the former boss of the city… yes, shit gets deeper.

So that’s the rather impressive set-up (minus the commanding Michael K. Williams as AC’s black boss, Chalky White – spin on that, Jim Davidson!) but despite all the evidence to the contrary, the problem here is the casting. ‘Boardwalk Empire’ is a good show that cannot be great because it’s hamstrung by the lack of charisma of its leading man.

The show’s creators called Buscemi’s character Nucky Thompson so they could add some made-up characters because the real guy, Nucky Johnson, was pretty much unopposed until he got nicked in the 40s, when he finally married his showgirl mistress.In reality he was a big, garrulous guy who everyone loved even though they knew he was a sonofabitch – rather like Tony Soprano as played by James Gandolfini. Not the miserable little Buscemi, whose hangdog face few women could love and most men could easily break.

‘Boardwalk Empire’ has won awards for its looks and its plotting (which is glacially slow, though it does pick up in Season 2) but my theory is that the presence of Scorsese as the pilot’s director and actor’s actor Buscemi has meant that no one will state the obvious: this show has all the potential in the world.  But, as viewers of ‘Boardwalk Empire’ can’t help but learn, it’s all about having the right man at the top. And he isn’t.

‘Boardwalk Empire: The Complete First Season’ is released on DVD on 9 January 2012.

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By Manu Ekanayake

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