Watching the premiere of Boardwalk Empire, we were marveling at why no one had bothered to set a TV drama during Prohibition since The Untouchables, which ran on ABC from 1959-63. "It seems so obvious," a friend said. "I would totally watch Miller's Crossing: The Series." The era's rife with violent drama, sex, forbidden substances, and the kind of eerie classic music that sounds great laid over scenes of, well, violent drama, sex, and forbidden substances.
We had high hopes for the series, created by Terence Winter, a producer and writer on The Sopranos, and directed by the heavyweight champ of gangster stories, Martin Scorsese, and those hopes were well-founded. The pilot episode roared out of the gate and set a high bar for what will follow, but if every one of the first season's remaining 11 episodes is like this one, it'll be the best show on the air.
Scorsese and Winter got a lot done in the pilot, which ran closer to 75 minutes than the typical hour it will regularly fill. This is a sprawling world they've re-created, and it's no easy task to establish even the central group of a cast of characters that will encompass crooks, lawmen, and working-class people of all stripes. As a result, some characters destined to be key players were only briefly glimpsed -- Michael K. Williams (Omar in The Wire) didn't even get name-checked as Chalky White, and he did nothing but speak two lines and look like a stone pimp in a checked suit and bowtie. But the story they focused on was gripping.
The beginning of Prohibition in 1920 kicks off the story, which revolves around the bootlegging and political operations of Nucky Johnson (Steve Buscemi) in Atlantic City. Nucky's a cheat, a kingpin, and an all-around ruthless guy, but he knows that a man must have a code, and as such he sticks to certain rules. He thinks nothing of buying and selling huge quantities of booze and running a variety of scams, but he can't abide it when younger punks like Lucky Luciano (Vincent Piazza) interrupt him. He's part of the old guard of the criminal empire, not just willing to put on a show but convinced that the show is half the point.
On the other side, you've got guys like Lucky, and Al Capone (Stephen Graham), and Nucky's own right-hand man, Jimmy Darmody (Michael Pitt), who's back from the Great War and itching to rise through the ranks. He's so gung-ho that he teams with Capone to steal a load of hooch Nucky was going to sell to Arnold Rothstein (Michael Stuhlberg), and even when the heist winds up with a body count, he doesn't get shaken. More than that, he knows that this is the way things have to go. He kicks a cut back to Nucky and says Nucky can't be "half a gangster" in times like theirs. If I can make another shameless reference to The Wire, the game is the same; it's just getting more fierce.
Plus there's also a team of newly appointed federal agents trying their best to catch these mobsters who still operate in the open, though Nelson Van Alden (Michael Shannon) seems to be far and away the sharpest one. His frustration at a fellow agent's note-taking while they spy on a meet demonstrates his skill at his job, and his unwillingness to tolerate mediocrity. It's also just funny, an example of the quick, dry humor the show creates out of the often mundane moments that come with being a crime lord or just trying to hunt one. It's obviously not a sure thing that such moments will continue to occur, but it seems likely. Winter's track record shows he can mix the high and low with skill and confidence.
The episode's central heist perfectly illustrates the nature of the world these men inhabit, and the story also deals nicely with the mercurial nature of charity and dependence, from Nucky's surprising comeuppance to the tidy way he turns a fleeting enemy (a gambler who beats his pregnant wife) into the ideal fall guy for the job. It's a great pilot episode for the way it hints at things to come and sets a world of wheels in motion. Definitely worth checking out.
• Seriously, when did music from that era cross the line from nostalgic to terrifying? The scratchy vinyl and warbling voices of Prohibition-era standards are creepy like nothing else. Maybe I've just played too much BioShock .
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• A commitment to authenticity means having a jazz parade of guys in blackface. That was rough.
• Although each episode's director will likely put his or her own spin on things, I loved seeing the Scorsese touches like the open-and-close of the iris, and the freeze-frame before the flashback. Awesome.
• First Williams shows up, then Graham (Mike Ranney from Band of Brothers). I think HBO keeps these guys in a pen.
• I really hope 1920s slang catches on again. You on the trolley?