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LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - If the motto "It's not TV. It's HBO" felt like an empty boast before, sample the network's new series "Boardwalk Empire," premiering Sunday at 9 p.m.; the scale of the spectacle on display in the pilot sets a new benchmark for the medium.
HBO reportedly spent as much as $20 million on the 70-minute premiere, and it shows: "Boardwalk's" re-creation of 1920s Atlantic City is a stunning achievement in production design. Having executive producer Martin Scorsese direct the pilot doesn't hurt either, though it's the subsequent episodes that sink their hooks into viewers by putting story ahead of scenery.
Not since "Mad Men" has a slice of history been so meticulously re-created for television, from its elaborate sets to resplendent costuming -- though HBO's 2005-07 series "Rome" would run a close third. But whereas few with access to a time machine would want to venture back to war-torn ancient Italy, "Boardwalk" beckons with its depiction of a lively ur-Vegas that seems great fun -- unless you happen to be the victim of its frequent violent crimes.
That comes courtesy of the series' focus: the city's sleazy underworld operating under the firm grip of treasurer Enoch "Nucky" Thompson (Steve Buscemi). "Boardwalk" begins with the passing of the Prohibition Act, which Thompson treats as an open invitation to water down and mark up illegal hooch with the help of homicidal cronies including his brother, who happens to be the equally crooked chief of police (Shea Whigham). Soon enough this bustling black market attracts a rogues gallery of mobsters and, inevitably, the feds, particularly Bible-thumping agent Nelson Van Alden (Michael Shannon).
Thompson and Van Alden are fictional creations, but "Boardwalk" provides a delightful kick by mixing them up with historical figures including legendary gangsters Arnold Rothstein (Michael Stuhlbarg) and Charles "Lucky" Luciano (Vincent Piazza). Cameos of other famous real folks are so perfectly handled that to reveal who shows up would represent an act of unacceptable spoilage.
HBO made a bold move by installing an offbeat figure like Buscemi in the lead, and though there's nothing wrong with his performance, it's possible "Boardwalk" would have benefited from a more conventional choice for such a crucial part. Then again, Buscemi makes sense given that the rest of the "Boardwalk" roster is a veritable dream team of character actors, including Kelly Macdonald, Dabney Coleman, Michael Kenneth Williams, to name just a few.
Such a top-notch, vast cast makes it almost worth wondering if there will be room for contenders from any other production in the supporting actor/actresses categories for a drama series come Emmy time. But two stand head and shoulders above the rest in the first handful of episodes: Shannon nicely channels the creepy intensity that nearly stole "Revolutionary Road" out from under Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio. As the coolly calculating Rothstein, Stuhlbarg does a 180-degree turn from the anxious schlemiel who starred in the Coen brothers' "A Serious Man." He is undermined somewhat in scenes where's he's paired with hothead Luciano; the contrast between the two men is played almost campily, as if they were villains from a forgotten "Batman" sequel.
Cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh strikes a nice balance between showcasing Atlantic City's luxe pleasure dens and darkening the very same halls, an authentic touch for a pre-halogen era. While "Boardwalk's" crime stories beg comparison to "Goodfellas" or "Casino," all the period detail Scorsese soaks up brings to mind a very different gem from his oeuvre, "The Age of Innocence." As in "Mad Men," there's plenty of small scenes depicting antiquated ways of yore that make you chuckle at how people lived during the 1920s (though you might pass out rather than laugh in the third episode when a gonorrhea treatment is shown with a surgical tool the size of a hockey stick). Other influences are nakedly derivative: A montage of murders in the pilot is so blatantly lifted from "The Godfather" that Francis Ford Coppola may take umbrage.
To some degree, the visual grandeur of "Boardwalk" can overwhelm to the point of distraction. It might take a few more episodes before the characters take on the texture we're accustomed to getting from creator/writer/executive producer Terence Winter, who reliably delivered such rich storytelling as a writer on "The Sopranos." The ghosts of "Sopranos" and "Mad Men" hover over "Boardwalk"; it's even in the former's old time slot. Beautifully rendered as the series is, there's a high-concept conflation of the two shows here in the way it marries the mob melodrama of "Sopranos" with "Mad's" period fetishism. It's a savvy programing strategy but robs "Boardwalk" of a certain freshness that would otherwise elevate it to the same echelon as those TV classics.