Nov 102010

I have to admit that I was underwhelmed by the much-touted pilot episode directed by Martin Scorsese, but after watching a few more episodes, the series is growing on me. I would have thought that a period gangster series would be right up Scorsese’s alley, but I just realized that I have come to expect a certain style from HBO and Scorsese’s lack of a sense of humor dragged down the pilot.

Although I originally checked the show out because of the gangsters and Prohibition, I am more interested in its portrayal of the time. Soldiers back from France want their wives to do French sex tricks using their mouths, the Klu Klux Klan is recruiting, Henry Ford is spreading racist conspiracy theories about the Jews and many men have open contempt for the idea of giving women the vote.

The acting is excellent but some odd decisions were made when casting the lead actors. Steve Buscemi’s Nucky Johnson is surprisingly nuanced and I am curious to see where the character goes. The real Thompson was larger-than-life with huge appetites but executive producer Terrence Winter probably did not want do another Sopranos, and it is nice to see Buscemi have his own show after so many years as a character actor. Al Capone was a big, meaty Italian with a savage temper. Stephen Graham is a small, British guy who plays Capone with a savage temper. Graham nailed Baby Face Nelson in Public Enemies, but is jarring as Capone.

Big Jim Colosimo, the leading gangster in Chicago, was executed by Frankie Vale because he refused to get involved in bootlegging, preferring to go for carriage rides with his new girlfriend. It seems likely that Vale did the hit as a favor for Johnny Torrio, since they used to work together in New York. Torrio was the man most likely to benefit from Colosimo’s death, since he was Big Jim’s right-hand man. Capone quickly became Torrio’s right-hand man because he trusted Torrio’s judgment on when to employ violence. Most important, soon after succeeding Colosimo, Torrio persuaded the main gangs in Chicago to agree to stay out of each others’ territory but time is moving slowly on the show because the treaty has not appeared. Rothstein is great in the series. He was brilliant and famous for marathon poker games, but the idea of him threatening a hardened thug like Vale is a bit hard to take seriously.

Finally, the Prohibition Bureau agents quickly became a byword for corruption, which is why alcohol was sold openly, but the only honest Prohibition agents in the United States appear to have been assigned to Atlantic City. Otherwise, everything is superb, especially the weird relationship between Thompson and Margaret, the suffragettes’ struggle for the vote and the re-emergence of the KKK, which had existed for less than a decade after the Civil War and then fizzled out. While the contraception methods shown may seem bizarre, Margaret Sanger, an early birth control advocate, had produced pamphlets advising women to use douches of cleaning agents like lysol to prevent pregnancy. Life was a lot different before condoms and the pill.

While the producers have jumbled up the history a bit more than I would like and it is no Deadwood, Boardwalk Empire is definitely worth watching.