'Boardwalk Empire' review: HBO mixes a great dramatic cocktail

boardwalk-empire-review-320.jpgWhen you think "leading man," Steve Buscemi is probably not the first name that comes to mind. But the career character actor is at the center of HBO's new series "Boardwalk Empire," and he's fantastic.

The series, which premieres at 9 p.m. ET Sunday (Sept. 19), is big in scale -- one of its sets is a huge re-creation of the Atlantic City boardwalk circa 1920 -- and in scope (if you have trouble keeping track of who's who in early episodes, you won't be alone). It's also really, really good -- one of the best new shows of the fall, and one that gets better the deeper you get into it.

Former "Sopranos" writer and executive producer Terence Winter created "Boardwalk Empire" (it's based on a book by Nelson Johnson), and Martin Scorsese directed Sunday's premiere episode. As you might expect from that combination, the show at its core is a gangster tale. But like "The Sopranos," it's also a deeply realized character study, and it's that element that elevates the show above standard gangster stuff.

Buscemi plays Enoch "Nucky" Thompson, the treasurer of Atlantic County, N.J., and a man who has his hand in pretty much everyone's pocket. As Prohibition begins in January 1920, he and his cronies are celebrating. They've already set up deals to distribute liquor up and down the East Coast (and to Chicago as well), and their town will remain as wet as the ocean (Nucky's straight-faced speeches to temperance crusaders notwithstanding).

With that new power, though, comes a new set of problems. Nucky may be corrupt, but he's not as ruthless as some of some of his new business associates, men like Arnold Rothstein ( Michael Stuhlbarg of "A Serious Man"), Lucky Luciano ("Sopranos" alum Vincent Piazza) and a young Al Capone ( Stephen Graham, "Public Enemies"). As his right-hand man Jimmy Darmody ( Michael Pitt, "The Village") tells him, "You can't be half a gangster anymore."

While Atlantic City is the focus in "Boardwalk Empire," the show also travels to New York and Chicago to keep up with Capone, Rothstein and others in Nucky's orbit are up to. (Nucky is based on a real-life Atlantic City figure named Nucky Johnson, but Winter has said he fictionalized the character so he could be freer to take the story where he wants it to go.) The scope of the liquor business during Prohibition was that big, and by not confining the show to one locale Winter and his fellow writers are able to show just how far Nucky's reach extended.

All this activity attracts the attention of the feds, represented by a dedicated -- or maybe fanatical -- agent named Van Alden ("Revolutionary Road's" Michael Shannon, who's wonderful in the part). He begins by trying to recruit Jimmy, a World War I veteran who's chafing at his underling role, and he's able to get a line on one of Nucky's stills early on, but in the first few episodes, at least, Van Alden is more pest than real problem. We suspect that will change as the series continues.

Visually, the series is instantly one of the most impressive on television. The boardwalk set (which is in Brooklyn rather than New Jersey) is a marvel to look at, and Scorsese's direction of the premiere is, as you might expect, impeccable. Subsequent directors Tim Van Patten and Allen Coulter also do a fine job at keeping the style set by Scorsese.

What makes the series really hum, though, is Buscemi's performance as Nucky Thompson. Buscemi, an Emmy nominee in 2004 for his role on "The Sopranos," displays Nucky's intelligence and sharp sense of humor, which is not much of a surprise, but he's also surprisingly good as a romantic lead. His girlfriend Lucy ( Paz de la Huerta) may be out of his league appearance-wise, but it's not especially hard to see why she's with him. And when he helps out a woman ( Kelly Macdonald, "No Country for Old Men") with an abusive husband, he shows an unexpected caring side as well.

Here's how packed "Boardwalk Empire" is: It's taken this long to mention that Michael K. Williams of "The Wire" is also part of the cast. He plays Chalky White, who enters into a business arrangement with Nucky and has a couple of great moments in the show's third and fourth episodes.

"Boardwalk Empire" has everything you'd expect in an HBO drama -- sharply drawn characters, large-scale stories intercut with intimate moments and a sense that you couldn't find something like it anywhere else on the guide. It's maybe the best new show HBO has launched in several years.

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Photo credit: HBO