Preview: Boardwalk Empire

The long-awaited new channel, Sky Atlantic, finally launches tomorrow night, following the five-year deal with American cable giant HBO, giving access to it’s fantastic back catalogue as well as brand new shows. Following the Mariella Frostrup-fronted preview hour which kicks of the channel at 8pm and is to be simulcast across seven of Sky’s channels (just in case you’ve it’s not been promoted heavily enough…), the first programme on the channel will be Martin Scorsese’s Golden Globe-winning Prohibition-era drama, Boardwalk Empire.

The first episode opens at a murky harbour, as a shipment of illegal booze arrives from Canada. We then go back three days, to find ourselves on the eve of Prohibition coming into effect. Although there are some residents of Atlantic City who are happy to see a victory for the temperance movement, many others are preparing to hold a wake for their old friend alcohol, determined to enjoy every last legal drop of liquor. Chief among them is Enoch “Nucky” Thompson (the excellent Steve Buscemi), the city treasurer who, with the rest of the city’s political establishment, wants to keep the drinks flowing and the dice rolling.

Of course, this all comes at a price, with gangsters being involved (including one of the most notorious names of the era), the Feds on the case and Nucky having to straddle a political tightrope. The cast is very good, with Kelly Macdonald as an irish immigrant whose story shows the worst effects of alcohol and Michael Pitt as Nucky’s young protegé Jimmy, just back from the trenches of World War I. Of particular interest to fans of The Wire is a cameo by Michael K Williams, Omar himself, who will feature more prominently as the series goes on.

This is the most expensive television pilot episode ever made, and it seems that much of the money was spent building on the huge boardwalk set, with the 1920s Atlantic City seafront shown in gloriously sumptuous period detail, from the brightly painted shops and towering billboards to the lavish nightclubs. Everything from the costumes to the motor cars seem to be exactly right, with Boardwalk Empire feeling in many ways more like a motion picture than a television series.

With many of these complex dramas with a large ensemble cast, there often comes a point in the first episode where it’s hard to keep track of who’s who, which happens here when we’re introduced to a group of gangsters, something perhaps given a nod to with an amusing exchange between two snooping government agents.

Gripping and epic, Boardwalk Empire really does live up to the hype. It’s clearly Scorsese through and through, feeling like a serealised version of one of his films. Utterly absorbing and dripping with quality, it’s easy to see why Sky have chosen it to launch their new channel.

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