[I'm hoping to do these quick and dirty posts on what I liked most about each episode every Monday. For detailed episode recaps, which these posts of mine will not be, you should read Edward Copeland's wonderful blog. His summation of the pilot episode can be found here.
Keeping in the spirit of what Jim Emerson has been proposing over at his blog (essentially that television is doing cinema better than cinema these days), "Boardwalk Empire" may just be the best "film" I see this year. I'm extremely excited to see where it goes from here.
A few notes about the pilot episode after the jump...
- I naturally thought of Shutter Isalnd (Martin Scorsese is one of the executive producers of the show, as well as the director of the pilot episode) during the opening sequence (a boat sits in the fog waiting to illegally unload its whiskey onto smaller boats); however, the iris shot of a pocket watch (the show's first image) made me think of The Age of Innocence and how Scorsese toyed with that particular cinematic trope in that film ("Boardwalk Empire", appropriately, closes with a reverse iris). I loved seeing the flashes of the Scorsese aesthetic (irises, freeze frames, jump cuts, title cards) throughout the episode. It really is the most interesting thing he's done in a long time...and I'm someone who loved Shutter Island.
- I love, love, loved the tracking shots...again, making a television show feel more like a film. I especially loved the way the camera just kind of swept over the boardwalk to give us a sense of place (and to notice the amazing set design).
- Speaking of those amazing sets: this reminded me a lot of "Deadwood" (I hope they don't cancel this show based on its costs, too) in how the setting is just as much a character as the interesting people that inhabit the town. I also like the way that Scorsese, like Milch did with "Deadwood", uses the logistics of the town to introduce us to all of the characters, and their connection to each other and the setting (the boardwalk).
- The casting is superb. Another home run by the people at HBO for shelling out the money not just for the construction of the fantastic sets, but for getting another show with quality acting. I like the casting of Steve Buscemi as Enoch "Nucky" Thompson, making me think of the innovative casting of shows like "Big Love", "The Sopranos", and "Deadwood" in how they used character actors (Bill Paxton, Chloe Sevigny, James Gandolfini, Ian McShane, Timothy Olyphant, John Hawkes, et al) to really carry their shows. Buscemi is really only known to the public as an oddball character actor who sometime appears in Adam Sandler comedies. However, as most cinephiles know, he is so much more than that as an actor (one of my favorite performances of his is Ghost World) and I'm glad that Scorsese (who apparently had a lot of say in the casting of the show) and show creator Terence Winter ("The Sopranos") saw an actor who could more than carry his weight as an ambiguous character. There's a lot we don't know yet about "Nucky", and I'm really interested in seeing where they go with this his character (will he be Al Swearengen, Bill Henrickson, or Tony Soprano to continue the HBO comparisons...all three different types of "leaders" who eventually go through varying degrees of madness by having too many responsibilities).
- Speaking of the acting: Michael Shannon as Agent Nelson Van Alden is fantastic, and Shannon continues to be the best and most interesting actor working today. His line about the feds doing a "God[ly] pursuit" was my favorite line of the episode. And everything he says sounds so damn ominous...it's great! Why wasn't he cast in Public Enemies as T-Man Melvin Purvis, by the way? Oh, and Michael Pitt as Jimmy Darmody, "Nucky's" right hand man, is also quite good. His character seems to have a lot of levels being introduced in the pilot, and I'm excited to see where they go with his character, too.
- I didn't see the trailer, so Al Capone's (Stephen Graham) reveal was a genuine surprise, and a great moment.
- Finally, it's so amazing to see a piece of entertainment use visuals as a means of exposition. Nothing felt superfluous in the pilot episode, and I loved that Scorsese and Winter decided to let the audience try and fill in the blanks, instead of using the pilot in order to lay a foundation of context through needless exposition. As beautiful as this episode of television was to look at, the two scenes that stood out the most to me where the quietest. These moments were when "Nucky" stares into the windows of two boardwalk businesses (an Incubator store where nurses are treating pre-mature babies, and a Fortune Teller) obviously thinking deeply upon something he's done, or needs to do. So rarely do you get these moments where the character's moment of contemplation washes over the audience, permeating the screen so that we are contemplating just as much as "Nucky" is. It's the best kind of mystery I've seen in a movie or on a television show this year, and Scorsese and Winter do a brilliant job trusting the audiences abilities of inference in trying to figure out the, ambiguous context for "Nucky's" past (he briefly mentions in the episode that his wife died, after that moment he walks on the boardwalk for some "fresh air" and this is when he stops by the window where he can see the nurses tending to the babies), as well as his present-day motivations. I hope the way they mete out the background information for "Nucky" is as good as the first season of AMC's "Mad Men" where we slowly became privy to the things that shaped Don Draper.
This is easily one of the best pieces of entertainment I've seen all year.