Television Revision: Boardwalk Empire – Season 1

Television Revision: Boardwalk Empire – Season 1. Starring Steve Buscemi, Kelly Macdonald, and Michael Pitt. Rated R. By Andrew Williams.

Television Revision is a weekly feature in which our tuned in TV critic trawls through the best the box has to offer, giving you a primer on some of history’s finest shows (and warning you away from the specific episodes – or even seasons! – that might have ruined their reputation). 

Now this is a story all about how… Enoch ‘Nucky’ Thompson (Steve Buscemi) navigates the political system in Prohibition-era Atlantic City, New Jersey, while bootlegging on the side. He interacts with figures both fictional and historical, including widow Margaret Schroeder (Kelly Macdonald), returned serviceman Jimmy Darmody (Michael Pitt), and prohibition agent Nelson Van Alden (Michael Shannon).

Happy days? Boardwalk Empire boasts one of the finest creative teams ever assembled for a television show. Writer and Executive Producer Terence Winter made his name on The Sopranos, the cast includes six of the finest character actors working in America right now, and some hack called Martin Scorsese directed the pilot. By rights, it should be the biggest, baddest, best behemoth on the box. However, watching Boardwalk Empire is a bit like watching an All-Star game of the sport of your choice. The great players might all be out there, having their moments, but when it doesn’t feel like they’re trying to achieve a goal that really matters, it’s just not as fun to watch.

The seeds for the season’s primary problems are sewn in the pilot. Boardwalk Empire is so intent on depicting the sprawling, immersive world of 1920s Atlantic City  it forgets we still need to have interesting, dynamic, developed characters to lead us in. While there are certainly plenty with potential, their sheer number means there just isn’t time to develop them all to a satisfying level.

With talent like this involved, though, it would be impossible for Boardwalk Empire to be genuinely poor; it’s just relentlessly above average. The supporting performances are terrific; so much so that you’re left wishing they all had more to do. The direction is first class, the sets are gorgeous, and the costuming remarkable. Still, they can’t cover up problems like the lacklustre narrative tension and aforementioned character glut.

The final frontier: It looks beautiful, brims with talent, and does have its rewards, but at the end of each episode of Boardwalk Empire’s first season, I felt no compulsion to watch the next. There’s an unbelievable amount of potential not fully realised. Yet.

Top Three Episodes: 4) Anastasia. For Michael Kenneth Williams’ ‘bookshelf’ monologue alone, this episode is worth a watch. It’s the season’s standout moment. 11/12) Paris Green/A Return to Normalcy. As it closes out Season One, Boardwalk Empire starts to show signs that Season Two might be a significant improvement.

Worst Episode: 3) Broadway Limited. Feels like table-setting for the season to come, and is just not interesting or entertaining enough to warrant the amount of overwrought exposition.

Season MVP: Michael Pitt. In this cast, it’s no easy feat to be the standout, but that’s exactly what Pitt achieves with a consistently nuanced, heartfelt, and thoughtful performance.

Boardwalk Empire – Season 1 is available on DVD and Blu-ray, and can be streamed instantly on Quickflix PLAY until December 7, 2012.

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