First Night: Boardwalk Empire, Sky Atlantic, 9pm

Scorsese remakes history – but it's no vintage drama

By Tom Sutcliffe
Wednesday 02 February 2011 01:00

"Step right up friends... what are you waiting for?" Like the carnival barker who turns up a little way into Boardwalk Empire, Sky Atlantic have been making a lot of noise about the big attraction they're hoping might lure customers inside the tent.

Roll up, roll up for the most expensive pilot ever made – with a rumoured budget of £20m! Roll up for Terence Winter, producer and scriptwriter on The Sopranos! Roll up too for the cinema great Martin Scorsese, directing his first ever drama for television! And just in case those aren't enough to lure you in, there's Al Capone, scantily clad chorus girls, boxing dwarfs and the incubator babies in a bizarre seafront tourist show, evidence that Boardwalk Empire's designer has done his homework. Who wouldn't put their penny down for all that? Which is why it's sad to report that – just as with quite a lot of carney shows – once you get inside, the contents don't live up to the promotional spiel.

Boardwalk Empire begins on the eve of Prohibition – with mock funerals for "John Barleycorn" parading down the streets and the Women's Temperance League of Atlantic City meeting indoors in happy anticipation. "Prohibition means progress", they are told by Nucky Thompson, City Treasurer and apparently a pillar of civic rectitude. But what they don't know is that Nucky defines progress entirely in terms of his own pocketbook: "I am in the midst of arrangements that will keep Atlantic City as wet as a mermaid's t**t," he boasts to his assembled cronies later, toasting those "beautiful ignorant bastards" in Washington who have ensured that prices are about to increase 20-fold. As the big man in town, with the local sheriff in his pocket, he's ideally placed to do well, deploying a combination of violence and sentimental largesse that is reportedly true to the real-life character on which Nucky is based.

The screen is busy with expensive detail, from the slightly too antiseptic-looking hoardings on the boardwalk itself to the roistering arena of Babettes, a grand saloon where midnight is greeted with a cascade of balloons and suddenly illegal drinking. And those looking for the distinctive Scorsese touch don't have to wait too long. Nucky's arrival at Babette's brings to mind the bravura tracking shot near the beginning of Goodfellas – there's also a beautifully constructed heist scene at the heart of the first episode which intercuts between boardwalk entertainments and the backwoods of New Jersey, where Nucky's impatient protégé Jimmy is taking a short-cut to advancement.

What is missing, though, is emotional focus, or a sense of propulsive narrative urgency. "I'm going to hell, Nuck," says Jimmy – anguished at what he's learnt about his own capacity for violence while away at the war. But the line sits on the scene like a Post-it note, in much the way that the sequence of Nucky staring wistfully at a premature baby seems too obviously designed to signal an inner-yearning for domestic virtue. As in the design, there's too many billboards, not enough human stain.

For the moment, certainly, you find yourself thinking of past glories as often as present ones. That scene in the woods, for example, echoes Winter's justly celebrated "Pine Barrens" episode of The Sopranos. The wary meetings between New York and Chicago gangsters offer a costume-drama reprise of similar scenes in both Scorsese's films and those of Francis Ford Coppola – in particular a floridly executed hit in which a Chicago bosses' brain-matter ends up splattered across the Caruso record he's been listening to. The viewer's brain-matter, by contrast, is pleasured and mildly titillated – but rarely disturbed in the way both Winters and Scorsese have proved themselves capable of in the past.

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