Boardwalk Empire Review: Event Television At Its Best

Once upon a time there was something called ‘event television’. Essentially, this signposts a programme with a broad national appeal, something the whole country wants to tune in to watch. This was partly the result of living in a pre-VCR age when taping and re-watching wasn’t an option. However, even after the VCR had become an everyday household appliance, programmes like the final episode of Blackadder, the epic Jewel in the Crown series, the BBC’s production of Pride & Prejudice and Angus Deayton’s post-hooker mauling on Have I Got News For You still managed to attract vast audiences who, instead of recording it, tuned in during the original broadcast to see it ‘live’. The debut of Boardwalk Empire in America this week was one such moment (scroll down for our review of the pilot..)

But why do some programmes continue to grab the national conscience? Well first of all, no one likes going into the office the next day and, picking up on the end of a conversation, inadvertently hearing that Tiffany got run over by Grant who was commandeering a runaway train which had just decimated the Queen Vic. Secondly, in general, people like to feel that they are a part of a larger audience than the one in their living room, that they’re part of the ‘event’. It’s the choice between contributing to the conversation at the water cooler or being the poor fool who has to spend the whole day covering their ears with their hands to stop any leakage of information seeping in.

Now that we live in the internet age, garnished with hundreds of different channels, ‘event’ television is at risk of extinction. People don’t seem to even talk about television anymore, perhaps because most people get their drama fix via DVD box sets rather than waiting with feverish anticipation on a weekly basis for the next episode to surface. The current definition of ‘event television’ implies either sporting competitions or reality show finals when the resulting media coverage will make said programme impossible to avoid. It’s not that ‘event television’ doesn’t happen anymore, it’s just the parameters have shifted.

Well, last Sunday, unbeknownst to many in the UK, there was a great example of one of these old-school ‘events’. Admittedly it happened 4000 miles away but for those with a little internet know-how and a lax ethical stance concerning piracy, the ‘event’ took place in the early hours of Monday morning, when the first episode of HBO’s new prohibition drama, Boardwalk Empire, began surfacing on torrent and streaming sites across the internet. For a generation brought up on classic HBO dramas from Oz through to The Sopranos and Curb Your Enthusiasm, the temptation to get a sneak preview of a show with such an immense pedigree attached to it was simply too much to bear. Martin Scorcese directing. Steve Buscemi in the leading role. Swathes of the creative team from The Sopranos taking writing and producer credits. This wasn’t just event television – it was mouth watering, hands down trousers, champagne chugging cause for outright celebration. It felt like an event but, unfortunately, there was hardly anyone to talk about it to afterwards.

It’s at this point in the article you’re going to become one of two people: you can either join the crowd who stayed in to watch it or you can spend the day sneaking round the office trying to avoid the conversation. If you fall into the latter category, get your act together and come back once you’ve caught up. For the rest of you, here we go…

The action begins in Atlantic City on the eve of prohibition and one hell of a party is going down. People are filling up wheelbarrows full of liquor whilst Enoch “Nuckyâ€? Thompson (Steve Buscemi) – a curious half-breed of politician and benevolent mobster – and his associates delight in the fact they aren’t just sitting on top of a nest egg – they’re about to be sat on top of the world, given the riches they stand to make. And it’s all thanks to Uncle Sam and the good ol’ government of the U. S. of A. The alcohol may have been taken off the shelves but the clientele have gone nowhere and there are plenty of guys willing to fill the vacuum to get a taste of the action.

Nucky may just be another politician on Capitol Hill but in Atlantic City he might as well be President. With his protégé Jimmy Darmody (Michael Pitt) wanting to put his experiences in the trenches to good use and an alliance forming with two eminent Chicagoan mobsters – Arnold Rothstein (Michael Stuhlbard) and “Luckyâ€? Luciano (Vincent Piazza) – everything for building a successful hooch racket appears to be falling into place. However, with criminals predisposed to murderous bouts of claustrophobia in any business setting, any happy union is likely to be short lived and indeed, by the end of this feature length pilot, a couple of gun shots have rung through the air and scores set up to be settled. Did I mention Al Capone is also waiting in the wings?

Pilot episodes, particularly HBO dramas, tend to leave audiences somewhat disorientated as they juggle character names, plot strands and motivations into a coherent whole and Boardwalk Empire is no different in this respect. However, without revealing any of the show’s cards, if parts of the script left you feeling dizzy, particularly the dialogue concerning the ins and outs of running a successful prohibition ring, then the characters are more than sufficient in reeling you in. Whilst it’s too early to declare Steve Buscemi’s performance as a work of genius, his trademark vocal delivery and thin vulnerable frame make him as enigmatic a screen presence as he has ever been. Joined by a superb supporting cast that includes Kelly MacDonald, Jack Huston and Shea Whigham (channelling the ghost of James Cagney) and production values to rival most Hollywood A-list productions, Boardwalk Empire displays enough positive signs to suggest that Sunday nights/Monday mornings will be the most important event in the schedules for weeks to come.