Boardwalk Empire, the lush new Prohibition-era gangster series from director Martin Scorsese and Sopranos writer Terrence Winter, premiered on HBO last night. Scorsese--making his first foray into television production--directed the $18 million pilot episode, a figure higher than the director's combined budgets of "After Hours," "Taxi Driver," "Mean Streets," "Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore," and "The Last Temptation of Christ." Will the filmmaker's creative genius be enough to return the network to the top of the Sunday night TV heap? A sampling of responses to how Scorsese acquitted himself.
Workmanlike Salon's Sam Adams wishes more of Scorsese's trademark flourishes were on display in the pilot. Without them, he found himself quickly losing interest. "For the most part," writes Adams, "'Boardwalk Empire's' first episode busies itself with setting the wheels in motion, introducing its cast of characters along the way. It's a big job, and it results in a handful of clunky scenes consisting of little more than people introducing themselves to one another.
Restrained but Exciting The director's sensibilities, if not his hyperkinetic visuals, are on full display, writes John Patterson of The Guardian. Patterson observes that while "Scorsese has been involved in all creative and casting decisions on the show since its inception, he directs the premiere episode relatively calmly...presumably to establish a workable template for the show's other directors to follow." Look hard enough, though, and "familiar Scorsese trademarks" begin to appear--"the edgy, upcoming young actors...the exquisite care taken in choosing perfect, often startling faces for major and minor roles alike; the ever mobile camera caressing the surfaces of period-specific knick-knacks, automobiles, textures and signage; intelligent musical cues and selections; and the occasional outbreak of graphically unpleasant, inventively filmed violence."
Gangs of Atlantic City The New Republic's Matt Zoller Seitz believes the show is Scorsese's mea culpa for Gangs of New York, his 2002 labor-of-love that was the subject of heated debates between the director and the Weinstein brothers. Compared to the circuitous route Gangs took to the screen (it was supposed to be his follow-up to Taxi Driver), Boardwalk Empire feels like Scorsese at his most alive and direct. Writes Seitz:
The filmmaker is working in hyper-accelerated expository mode here—the mode he first began investigating in "After Hours," perfected in "GoodFellas," and cranked up to another exhausting level in the first hour of "The Departed". The combination of dense storytelling, period detail, pitch-black humor and cynicism about human nature most vividly recalls "Gangs of New York," a compromised epic that has many brilliant passages, but was seriously harmed by miscasting in central roles (Leonardo DiCaprio and Cameron Diaz) and extensive studio interference. Many moments in the Boardwalk pilot evoke Gangs—especially the details about the collusion of corrupt public officials and gangsters—and throughout, the tough, funny, "This is how the world works" tone often suggests an unofficial re-do of that film. Although the setting is almost 70 years removed, Scorsese is covering some of the same pet subjects and themes here, and the result feels relaxed and exact. He's saying everything he wanted to say in "Gangs" in the "Boardwalk" pilot, with more precision and force, even though technically it's not him who's saying it.
Inert The show is good, but strangely synthetic, notes Entertainment Weekly's Ken Tucker. "The first few hours, even beyond the Scorsese opener," writes Tucker, "seem leery of dwelling on the historical details that made Atlantic City distinctive during this era...the show itself doesn’t do enough to make Atlantic City a distinctive character in its own drama." The good news, according to Tucker, is that the pace picks up in subsequent episodes Scorsese doesn't direct. "This week’s debut is probably the least typical (the showiest, the slowest) of the episodes I’ve seen," admits Tucker. "The production becomes more sleek, emotionally complex, and sly in its subsequent hours."