I try to see.
Well, I guess that I'm blind.
It's fine with me
'Cause i'm going to keep trying.
And I've made disappointment
My very best friend.
I wait and see
Who you're going to be
-"Straight Up and Down" by The Brian Jonestown Massacre
From the opening credit sequence in which we hear the lonely guitar of the Brian Jonestown Massacre (a band I previously mistook for the Rolling Stones) as waves roll into the Jersey seashore, I knew Boardwalk Empire had me. A quick survey around the internet reveals just as many who hated the opening track, but I would guess many of these folks are oblivious to the stylings of this first episode's director, Martin Scorsese. While I can't recall such a blatantly anachronistic use of music in any of his previous films, Scorsese has always had an instinctive grasp of how to marry music to film to create cinema. In this case, "Straight Up and Down" feels so right that to quibble about it is a petty bit of complaining. But to do it after you've taken a peek at its lyrics is even more wrongheaded.
Whether the words are meant to represent those of Boardwalk Empire's protagonist, Enoch "Nucky" Thompson (Steve Buscemi) or those of someone else speaking about him, one thing is certain; they speak of a loneliness in the central character, a man apart-ness as it were, which seems to motivate his every move. There are glimpses of this in his first scene, where Nucky addresses a room of female temperance crusaders in his capacity as Atlantic City's treasurer. His speech about his struggles as a child—foraging for food after his alcoholic father abandoned his family—may pander to his audience, but it rings true nonetheless. One gets the impression after meeting his kid brother Elias, the town sheriff, that Nucky has managed to consolidate his power by calculatedly buying people, repaying others with favors, and smartly surrounding himself with loyal foot soldiers—who, incidentally, owe him one. And this disdain for their humanity initially seems to carry over in his dealings with women, if one were to hold up his main squeeze, Lucy Danziger (Paz de la Huerta), as a prime example.
There are clues to a deeper pain however. He touchingly reflects on innocence in jeopardy when he stands at the window of a sideshow/hospital for premature babies confined to incubators. He takes genuine pity on one of the crusaders who listened to him the other night—Margaret (Kelly Macdonald), a pregnant immigrant whose alcoholic husband beats her bad enough to cause her to miscarry. Is there a connection between these examples and the photographs of his late wife* he still enshrines?
*Yes, the photograph is of Molly Parker, the female lead of HBO's Deadwood (2004-6), a spiritual antecedent to Empire. Whether this is just an in-joke or if it foreshadows an appearance by the actress is still unknown.
Credit to the richness of Boardwalk Empire's lead character and his world goes to creator Terence Winter, Scorsese, and Buscemi. Together they fuse key elements that were so compelling about two HBO precursors: Deadwood, and the show Winter wrote for, The Sopranos. Like in Deadwood, and in fact most television shows, this is a show about a community which brings a lot of distinctive baggage: the unique boardwalk set, all the more glorious because we can't really see its CGI enhancements; the candy-colored period-accurate clothing; the talented cast of character actors (standouts are Michael Stuhlbarg as Arnold Rothstein and Stephen Graham as Al Capone); and the pervasive early jazz music.
Scorsese brings the dynamism of his best New York movies (yeah, I know it's set in Jersey, but that's just over the Hudson). This is his best work since 1999's Bringing Out the Dead, again featuring a contemplative protagonist with a skewed vision of the world. Never underestimate the power of a director when operating in the milieu he is most familiar with. By firmly entrenching the first episode in the world of Prohibition, yet still using inimitable stylistic devices—both those he is known for (freeze-frames) and those endemic to the time (closing the iris)—Scorsese poises Boardwalk Empire to transcend the limits even the classic The Sopranos ran up against early on by depending too much on gimmicks like Tony's dealings with his mom (Nancy Marchand died) and psychologist to spruce up some of the gangster cliches.
One thing no one can argue The Sopranos did right was to cast James Gandolfini, a talented but average-looking guy, as its lead. These days, the advantage television has over movies is its bravery in casting non-traditional leads. Even as ubiquitous a presence in film as Steve Buscemi still reminds you how sorely underused he's been when he's the star of a show like this. Buscemi's bug-eyed countenance is perfect here, taking on a haunted quality which belies Nucky's decisive demeanor.
Watch Boardwalk Empire's credit sequence again, listen to the tune now, and tell me it doesn't reveal something about Nucky.