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'Boadwalk' masterpiece

TELEVISION | HBO hits jackpot with mob series filled with sex, violence, corruption and other attractions

September 17, 2010

This project can't have been difficult to greenlight. It has writer-producer Terence Winter of "The Sopranos," and the oversight of Martin Scorsese. He even directed the first episode, seizing the chance to combine parts of "GoodFellas" with "The Age of Innocence." (The pilot reportedly cost $20 million to film.)

"Boardwalk Empire" is ostensibly the history of organized crime in Atlantic City, N.J., but it's a convenient springboard into all kinds of tangents TV viewers can't ignore: mobsters, sex, violence, prostitution, dirty politics, religion, little people dressed like leprechauns, the Ku Klux Klan, an intense Eliot Ness type, fancy dress balls, and Gretchen Mol, startlingly naked.

What's not to like?

HBO's 12-parter plays like an extended Scorsese mashup, but it works because of some genius casting. Steve Buscemi, a character actor who has steadily upset all expectations, is fascinating as Enoch "Nucky" Thompson, who runs just about everything in Atlantic City in 1920. (He's based on the real-life boss Nucky Johnson, but the name change promises lots of leeway.)

Buscemi is a natural as a godfather, playing nice with the Women's Temperance Union while inventing the bootleg business and making inroads with black voters. He intimidates with a withering glance, and the ladies can't resist him. But when Buscemi halts the action to quietly contemplate the boardwalk, you don't doubt that his power is a burden as much as a blessing.

Another large role goes to Michael Pitt, an interesting actor who's sort of an art-house Leonardo DiCaprio. As Jimmy Darmody, he idealistically signed up for World War I, only to return to New Jersey as a trained killer. Jimmy looks up to Nucky but soon joins forces with fellow driver Al Capone.

Lurking around the edges of the gorgeous sets is Michael Shannon as an obsessive lawman with a few quirks of his own. He glowers and he stalks. He complicates. He talks with a strangled voice and seems coiled with violence.

There are women, of course, notably Kelly Macdonald as an abused wife, but they're ultimately all required to work double duty as muse/whore. I got a kick out of Paz de la Huerta as Nucky's flapper paramour Lucy. The men might have been busy pioneering crime, but I suspect that Lucy inspired the inflatable doll.

The gangsters travel from Atlantic City to New York and Chicago, chasing their own perverse version of the American dream. The characters are unforgettable, and the history, of course, is more entertaining than fiction. The filming of "Boardwalk Empire" just may be more decadent than the decadence it's celebrating.

It's not TV, and it's not really HBO. It's an event, not to be missed.