9 p.m. Sunday
As tempting as it is to compare Boardwalk Empire with that other HBO series about organized crime in New Jersey, let's not go there just yet.
Instead, let's appreciate this new series for what it is: a sprawling take on how corrupt politicians and gangsters are a lot alike. Creator Terence Winter wrote 25 episodes of The Sopranos, and he knows how to create a fully formed world that's both dramatic and perfectly real. And as he shows here, he's gifted when it comes to blending history and fiction into a believable mix. I'm four episodes in and so far I've been fascinated, disturbed and thoroughly engrossed. I'm looking forward to whatever's next.
Boardwalk Empire is set mostly in Atlantic City, N.J., but also in Chicago, just after Prohibition went into effect in 1920. Atlantic City is run by Enoch "Nucky" Thompson (played by Steve Buscemi and based on a real person, as are several of the show's characters), who controls everything from booze to jobs to votes. He wants it all, and he expects to have it all.
The federal agents investigating him say Nucky lives like a pharaoh, and they're not far off. He lives in a luxury hotel with a man-servant (hilariously played by Anthony Laciura in an almost Peter Sellers-like way) and a smoking hot but not terribly bright paramour named Lucy (Paz de la Huerta). He wears the finest camel-hair coats and perfectly shined shoes, and he eats the richest, most delicious foods.
His brother, Eli, is the sheriff, and his job is to protect and serve Nucky. (Shea Whigham, who plays him, does an exceptional job bouncing back and forth between cagey and not quite up to the job.) If there's a crime to be committed or covered up on Nucky's behalf, the sheriff is there.
But when we meet Nucky, the faÃ§ade is beginning to crack, however slightly. One of his men, a World War I veteran named Jimmy Darmody (Michael Pitt), is freelancing. The feds are looking into his business. Other bootleggers are trying to muscle into his territory.
And Nucky, of course, has a secret sorrow. Just as Tony Soprano had his mother, Nucky had a wife who died of consumption. That pain plays out – and will continue to play out – in the interest he takes in an Irish immigrant named Margaret Schroeder (Kelly Macdonald), who's attractive and, unlike Nucky's girlfriend, smart. If Nucky and Margaret get together – and that seems entirely possible – you wonder who will have the greater influence on the other.
If Boardwalk Empire had been a movie, the cast would have been loaded with major stars. To its credit, other than Buscemi and Dabney Coleman (in a relatively minor role), HBO went with relative unknowns, so you're seeing the characters – especially the historical ones – with fresh eyes. Vincent Piazza is spectacularly scary as young Lucky Luciano, a mobster with a hair-trigger temper. Stephen Graham is disarming as young Al Capone, a baby-faced assassin who's vicious and a bit dim. And Michael Pitt plays Jimmy Darmody expertly, giving him multiple dimensions as intelligent, adept, emotional and confused.
With all that said, you might be wondering how this series stacks up against The Sopranos.
My feeling is: Who cares? I know what I'll be watching Sunday nights for the next 12 weeks.