Gangsters were supposed to have had their day. In the three years since The Sopranos faded to black, we've embraced a parade of new American anti-heroes from Mad Men's world-weary advertising executives to the campy bloodsuckers of True Blood. We no longer care about Mob bosses, the mooks who work for them or the molls who turn a blind eye to their crimes. The guns, the girls, the gambling, we've seen it all before. Or so the perceived wisdom goes.
Perceived wisdom exists to be challenged, however, and so it that Boardwalk Empire, the most anticipated new drama of the year, is set to thrust the gangster life back into the spotlight with its big-budget take on life and crime in 1920s Atlantic City.
Not that this is any old Mob drama. Based on a well-received book by Nelson Johnson, scripted by the former Sopranos writer Terence Winter (the man behind the much-loved "Pine Barrens" episode), with a pilot directed by Martin Scorsese (his first foray into television for 25 years) and starring Steve Buscemi, Boardwalk Empire, which starts on HBO this Sunday before coming to Sky in 2011, is a lovingly detailed re-creation of a time when sin was sexy and greed more than just good.
Naturally, that sort of quality doesn't come cheap. The lavishly shot pilot was rumoured to have cost anywhere between £12m and £33m depending on which newspapers you read, while in order to re-create the feel of Atlantic City in the 1920s, the show's creators built a ghost town in Brooklyn's Greenpoint at an estimated cost of £3.5m. It's a huge investment, particularly when you consider that it's not so long ago that HBO was cancelling Deadwood and Rome because of the heavy costs involved in both shows.
Despite this HBO is confident that its latest gamble will pay off, restoring the network to its Sopranos-era heyday – not least because the setting lends itself to a new spin on the age-old gangster tale. For, in contrast to today's down-at-heel resort, frequented largely by sad-eyed gamblers and best known for the lurid antics of Snooki and co in reality show Jersey Shore, the Atlantic City of 1920 offered rich pickings to those both clever enough to seize the moment and venal enough not to care if they had to cut corners to stake their claim.
"It was Vegas before Vegas was invented," says Winter. "It's this adult playground, it's eye candy... It had everything from highbrow to lowbrow... It's just such an incredible palette to draw stories from."
And the show is happy to play on the dissonance between the resort's glittering surface and the whiff of corruption lurking just underneath. "You can't be half a gangster any longer," Jimmy Darmody, war veteran turned hired muscle, tells his boss, corrupt city treasurer, Nucky Thompson (Buscemi), in an occasionally convoluted but always compelling first episode, which immerses us in an America where Prohibition is just beginning and away from (and sometimes under) the eyes of the law pretty much anything goes. For Nucky who has earlier announced: "Never let the truth get in the way of a good story", the words have an added resonance as he struggles to choose between the man he is and the man he'd like to be.
"It's [about] the charting of the nature of this world, the underworld," Scorsese, who is also the show's producer, has said. "And also the nature of America's love affair with the gangster as a sort of tragic hero... loving the gangster for doing everything he can't do, but wanting him to pay for it in the end."
We've been here before, of course, not just in The Sopranos but in Scorsese's own work from Mean Streets to GoodFellas and, best of all, in Jimmy Cagney's furious classics, White Heat and The Public Enemy. This is the America of The Untouchables and Miller's Crossing, a Wild West-style world of opportunity where weary-eyed lawmen battle to install order even as the line between politics and crime grows ever more blurred.
Yet while the subject matter might be familiar it retains its power. From the opening scenes it's hard not to be drawn into Boardwalk Empire's enjoyably amoral world in which any can which anything can (and frequently does) go. Real-life characters such as Al Capone (This Is England's Stephen Graham) and Lucky Luciano (Vincent Piazza) mingle with fictional ones although while Nucky himself is based on real-life Atlantic City treasurer Enoch "Nucky" Johnson, he has had some crucial elements of his story changed. Not least of which is his appearance: the real-life Nucky was apparently a broad-shouldered bruiser of a man with a certain brutal charm. As Winter admitted in an interview with Variety: "If we were going to cast accurately... we'd have cast Jim Gandolfini."
To do that, however, would have been to turn Boardwalk Empire into little more than "The Sopranos: the Roaring Twenties Years". Instead, the elevation of Buscemi to leading-man status works very well, perhaps surprisingly so given that he is the sort of actor who has made his name on the sidelines. Generally cast as the perfect sleazy sidekick (a role he played to perfection as Tony's volatile cousin in The Sopranos), Buscemi has always seemed like the Peter Lorre of his era, his occasional vulnerability, like that of Lorre, as likely to repel as to entice.
In Boardwalk Empire, however, he takes that vulnerability and turns it into something strangely appealing. We know that his Nucky will do anything to hold on to his growing empire, yet Buscemi somehow makes us believe that for all his sins he could yet be redeemed.
It's a neat trick and one that Boardwalk Empire, and in particular the show's writer Terence Winter, delights in. For if the opening episode seems vintage Scorsese, the lingering (occasionally too lingering) tracking shots, the clever camerawork, the loving attention to period detail from clothing to music, Winter's writing is what gives it its heart.
In many ways both the best and the most straightforward of the writers on The Sopranos, Winter was also clearly fond of a good old-fashioned gangster tale. In contrast to show creator, David Chase, who often treated the series as a battle between himself and the viewers, enjoying playing with expectations and inverting the tropes of the genre, Winter's best episodes from "Pine Barrens" to the traumatic "Long Term Parking" fashioned something new from familiar surroundings, allowing us to laugh at the out-of-their-depth Christopher and Paulie in "Pine Barrens" and weep for Adriana's sad, inevitable end in "Long Term Parking".
Those strengths are very much to the fore in his new show. Nucky Thompson might be a crook and a villain but he is an oddly fragile one. In part that's due to Buscemi's own slithery appeal but it's also a credit to Winter's writing that Nucky might be a familiar movie character (a gangster/ politician on the make) but he is a beguilingly vulnerable one. Similarly, Michael Pitt's Jimmy Darmody, the graduate and war veteran walking willingly to the dark side, has been seen before, most famously in The Godfather, but Winter's writing makes his dilemmas seem fresh even as Pitt, best known for his off-kilter performances in Funny Games and Last Days, hints at a welcome complexity behind his killer's eyes.
There's fun to be had too with the appearance of Michael K Williams, best known as that modern-day anti-hero The Wire's Omar Little, as the flamboyant bootlegger and "de facto mayor of Chickenbone Beach" Chalky White while Kelly MacDonald turns in a quietly affecting performance as a battered wife and Women's Temperance League member who attracts the interest of both Nucky and upright prohibition agent Nelson Van Alden (the excellent Michael Shannon).
Best of all though are the entertaining parallels drawn between today's world and Atlantic City on the make. Both, Winter hints, are societies careering recklessly out of control in which poverty and extreme wealth exist almost side-by-side, where war veterans struggle to readjust and prizes are there for the taking for those with a sharp eye for the main chance.
It's a familiar world, true, but ultimately it is that very familiarity that HBO is counting on to make its show a hit. After all, just because we've walked these mean streets before doesn't mean that this latest twisting journey down them will be any less enjoyable.
'Boardwalk Empire' starts on HBO on Sunday 19 September and screens on Sky in 2011Reuse content