HBO's "Boardwalk Empire," the fall's most ambitious, handsomely crafted new television series, whisks viewers back to the days of Prohibition, when the nation ran dry and some exploitative citizens became drunk on power.
Brought to you in part by Martin Scorsese, it's the lurid story of Enoch "Nucky" Thompson (Steve Buscemi), the treasurer of Atlantic City. He's a cunning little wharf rat bent on making his seaside resort the bootleg capital of America.
"We got a product the fella's gotta have," he tells a band of his crooked cronies. "Even better is we got a product he ain't allowed to have."
Loosely based on the real-life boss of Atlantic City during the Roaring '20s, Nucky is an intriguing study in contrast. One moment we see him gracefully charming the frilly hats off the ladies of the Temperance League. The next, he's ordering a vicious beat-down on some unsuspecting chump. Tony Soprano, that other famous Jersey hoodlum, has nothing on this guy.
Over his celebrated film career, Scorsese has examined moral rot to the point of obsession. He knows the turf. So it's with a sure hand that he directs the 70-minute series pilot from a script by series creator Terrence Winter, who as a key writer on "The Sopranos," earned his own share of gangster cred.
With a "Mad Men"-like zeal, Scorsese and his collaborators devote meticulous attention to period detail, from Nucky's ravishing wardrobe to the Boardwalk's baby incubator sideshow, where patrons can gawk through the glass at premature infants. And as the cameras swoop across the vast pier, with its shimmering lights and colorful storefronts, you can practically taste the salt water taffy.
"Boardwalk Empire," in fact, is so gorgeously shot and stylistically rendered that, at times during the pilot, it feels more like a postcard than a TV show. Consequently, you might find yourself admiring it at arm's length rather than plunging headfirst into the saga. It doesn't help, either, that the narrative becomes a bit boggy as Scorsese strives to impart a great deal of historical information and introduce an array of characters, including real-life outlaws such as "Lucky" Luciano and Al Capone.
Fortunately, by the end of the opener, a web of intriguing plot lines (and their treacherous overtones) are firmly in place. As ensuing episodes unfold, the story finds its beating heart as the characters substantially deepen.
At the center of it all is Buscemi, taking his first real shot at leading-man status. It's a curious - and risky - piece of casting: With his scrawny physique, bugged-out eyes and screwy smile, he's certainly not the imposing figure you might expect.
Then again, Buscemi offers a refreshing departure from the Tony Soprano type of gorilla brute. Sure, his Nucky might appear comically wimpy as he fails to bust down the locked door to a bathroom in which his pouting lover is sequestered. On the other hand, he possesses plenty of brain power, which he uses to artfully negotiate his way out of trouble.
Through it all, Buscemi tactfully inhabits the role, exuding traits that range from openhearted sympathy to greed-fueled nastiness while chewing the scenery right down to the knotty boardwalk planks.
The rest of the cast is first-rate, as well. Michael Pitt, in particular, shines as a former Princeton student who has returned from the Great War and is eager to prove his worth in Nucky's operation - maybe a little too eager. And then there's Kelly Macdonald, who as a struggling Irish immigrant, gains Nucky's compassion and will certainly win your heart.
Period pieces don't always excel on television as HBO learned with the fall of "Rome." Even "Mad Men," despite all its acclaim, plays to only a paltry audience. But considering its wealth of talent in front of and behind the camera - and America's fascination with organized-crimes sagas - "Boardwalk Empire" might have what it takes to be another mob hit.
9 tonight on HBO