Atlantic City, 1920. The war has just ended, Prohibition has just started, and a new breed of criminal is on the rise.
Based on the true-life story of Enoch "Nucky" Johnson, this brilliant HBO series brutally kicks aside any romantic notions we might have had about the flappers'n'bathtub-gin era of American history. It's bloody, sexual, and full of cruel ruthless men who are saved from being TOTALLY despicable by little acts of kindness.
Enoch "Nucky" Thompson (Steve Buscemi) is the unofficial boss of Atlantic City. While officially only the state treasurer, he actually has his fingers in every business in the city -- and now that Prohibition has started, he's also the boss of the bootlegging biz in New Jersey. His creepy brother is the sheriff, so he basically controls the cops as well.
However, his "boardwalk empire" is constantly under threat. His protoge Jimmy (Michael Pitt) is involved in a whiskey robbery that ends up becoming a huge bloody mess, and soon fanatical Prohibition agent Van Allen (Michael Shannon) arrives to uncover what REALLY happened. So now Nucky must fend off the Feds, as well as dealing with a lynched black gangster, boardwalk thefts, the "Celtic Dinner," and weeks of pre-election politicking.
And while all this is going on, Nucky is forced to play hardball with Jimmy, who is now wanted by the New York mob. He also becomes acquainted with Margaret Schroeder (Kelly Macdonald), a lovely young Irish widow who appeals to Nucky in a way his sleazy showgirl mistress does not.
There are only twelve episodes of "Boardwalk Empire Season 1," and somehow that's never quite enough -- they're packed with so much blood, sex, politics, murder, booze and subterfuge that it's dizzying to watch. And there are at least a dozen intricate subplots, all of which are constantly changing from one episode to the next.
And the writers are unafraid to unleash some really graphic violence (head blown off, severed fingers, a shooting where the guy's BLOOD SPLATTERS ON THE CAMERA LENS), as well as exploring the ugly underbelly of this glamorized age. The dialogue is strong, quick and peppered with the F-word, and the characters are outlined carefully by the stories they often tell (such as Chalky informing a KKK jerk about how his dad died).
And how do they manage to make us actually LIKE these cruel, ruthless characters like Nucky, Jimmy and Luciano? Well, just when you're preparing to hate them... they suddenly reveal a soft spot for premature babies, or they tear up about their deaf child. Steve Buscemi is absolutely wonderful as Nucky -- he's a wise-cracking, politically savvy bootlegger, but you do NOT want to cross this guy.
And there are some great smaller performances by the pretty-faced Pitt, Macdonald, Shannon, Shea Wigham, Stephen Graham, and a lot of other solid actors. The one downside? Paz de la Huerta as Nucky's mistress Daisy -- she's basically there to lounge around naked in almost every scene, whining in a creepy little-girl voice about random topics.
"Boardwalk Empire Season 1" is a rich, amazingly-written slice of American history -- that is, the American history that is often glossed over because of its ugliness. A must see.