Late in the pilot of "Boardwalk Empire," Nucky Thompson (Steve Buscemi) peers into a fortune teller's shop, watching her read someone's palm. The camera frames him through the glass front door, the writing on the door standing out in front of his face, asking if he knows what his future holds. The question, of course, is directed at much at the audience as it is at Nucky himself (who barely even notices it). We in the audience, however, have just met this guy and are hopefully asking ourselves that very question. (Nucky is loosely based on historical figure Nucky Johnson, but his name's been changed to give showrunners greater latitude to play around with the actual figure's history and prevent stray Googlers from spoiling themselves.)
The irony, though, is that we have a much better idea of what the future holds for Nucky and his fellow Atlantic City wharf rats than we would have in a normal pilot. Even if we don't know specifically what will happen to these particular characters, we know that women will, indeed, get the right to vote, the prohibition of alcohol will end in just over a decade after a tidal wave of illegal booze and blood, and the young man named Al Capone will become one of the most famous gangsters of the era. Yet, we don't know everything. We don't know where Nucky or Jimmy or Margaret will be when this series ends. The greatest pleasure of the wave of period pieces sweeping TV in recent years comes from contrasting what we know of history with what we don't know about the characters. We have an idea of what's coming to slap them hard across the face, but we don't necessarily know how they'll react to it. That creates a tension, a sort of struggle against the sweep of history that can't be resolved until the series ends.
A pilot of a TV show is any number of things. It's an introduction to the characters and the world they live in. It's a statement of purpose, a way to say, "Here's what we're going to be doing." Ideally, it's also a compelling story in its own right. The very best pilots work both as general introductions and as episodes of television. Think of how "Mad Men" reinserted the viewer in the world of the 1960s but also told a complete story about Sterling Cooper's pursuit of the Lucky Strike account that's come to be one of the major threads of the series. Or think of how "Lost" introduced just how much weirdness could happen on one island but also told a complete story about how a plane crash happened and how its survivors tried to get a message out to find a rescuer. Both of these pilots -- and a host of others before them -- blend the epic sweep of the best TV shows but also the day-to-day grind of just churning out episode after episode. It's not an easy blend to master. Many, many pilots skew so heavily on the side of introduction that there's no indication of what the show is going to be. But the best are like nothing else, mini-movies in which you know the sequel will follow very shortly.
The pilot for "Boardwalk Empire" is one of those pilots. The two primary creative forces behind it are writer Terence Winter -- a longtime TV producer who knows what it takes to craft an entertaining show -- and director Martin Scorsese -- one of the most acclaimed directors in cinematic history. As with similarly ambitious HBO series, such as "The Wire," "Deadwood," "Rome" or "The Sopranos," the pilot for "Boardwalk" is a massive thing, introducing dozens of characters and expecting the audience to keep up. In some places, it may feel like a Scorsese gangster epic condensed to 70 minutes of time, and that can make some of the storytelling feel a bit constrained. But Winter and Scorsese are aware of just how much information they're throwing at the audience. There's a wonderful scene in whic God-fearing Prohibition agent Van Alden (Michael Shannon) tries to lay out all of the major players here to a partner who keeps getting confused, and the partner is obviously supposed to be a stand-in for us. Don't worry, the producers are saying, if you don't know who everybody is right now, you will in time. Be patient.
And indeed, I've seen enough episodes of the show to assure that by the third or fourth, you'll know exactly how Arnold Rothstein connects to the sweep of the series and how the spirit of Prohibition informs what's going on and just what Omar from "The Wire" is doing hanging out here. The pilot primarily focuses on three players, and as long as you understand what those three players are doing, you know more than enough to continue with the show. The greatest fear with a pilot like this, in which so much is happening at any given moment, is that you've missed everything and you're going to be lost for the rest of the series. But "Boardwalk Empire" confidently focuses our attention on those three people. Briefly, let's run them down to make sure we're all on the same page.
Nucky Thompson (Buscemi): Despite being the central figure and main character of "Boardwalk Empire," Nucky Thompson remains a mystery to the audience in many ways. What motivates this man to take care of an Irish immigrant woman he's just met? Why does he spend long moments staring into the window of the boardwalk's oceanfront incubator at the premature infants resting there? Is he genuinely a bit reluctant to take his operation and make it rougher, or is that just a guise he's putting on for show? And just how does he feel about all of the other people in his circle? Presumably, the question of just who Nucky Thompson is and why what he is drives him to do the terrible things he does will be the driving force of "Boardwalk Empire" going forward. In the pilot, though we get a good look at several aspects of his personality, there's never that central key to who he is that would make it all snap into place. Obviously, that doesn't have to be the case in a pilot, but if we haven't gotten a better idea over the course of the first season, the show will be in trouble.
Nucky's story line is perhaps the easiest to grasp while watching the pilot. He's the county treasurer, who puts on a good show of being happy that Prohibition has been passed, but he's also planning to use Prohibition to make serious money, by keeping Atlantic City a town where the alcohol is flowing and charging a hefty markup for it. This, in and of itself, is nothing new. Criminals have been selling contraband goods at increased fees since civilization began, and Nucky is good at what he does. He cuts several deals, keeps the over-eager Jimmy at arm's length and finds a way to negotiate a potentially impossible situation in which he has to appease several angry parties all at once in the late going. The way he figures out of his problem hints at another side of his character, a more romantic one. He's grieving his seven-years-dead wife and seems to have a bit of a thing for the Irish woman who comes to see him. When he learns that her husband beats her, he makes her husband -- dead, of course -- the solution to his problems, pinning everything he can on the corpse and getting away free and clear (presumably at least). That all of the problems in the pilot can be solved so easily by one man's death could be an issue of clumsy storytelling, but Winter makes viewers believe that Nucky' is clever enough to figure this all out. (And even if Nucky's a smart guy, it's still possible for him to be outsmarted -- or perhaps to not think big enough -- as Rothstein very nimbly turns the tables on him around the midpoint of the episode.)
Or maybe Nucky's not so much smart as he is ambitious. His grand goal of bringing the liquor into the country via the ocean and then reselling it to figures in the criminal underworld around the country seems to be going well enough for a while, but he underestimates how ruthless he'll have to be to get the best of these guys. He wants to make it to the top, but he doesn't want to have to do anything that will get too much blood on his hands on the way up, the better to make sure his image (which allows him to speak at women's temperance meetings) is preserved. But he seems to be catching on awfully quickly in the pilot, or maybe that's just because he has the help of ...
Jimmy Darmody (Michael Pitt): Numerous other writers have made this observation before, but it's a good one, so I'll steal it: If Nucky Thompson is Tony Soprano, Jimmy is Christopher Moltisanti, a smart young man who had promise in other areas but ended up drawn into the web of criminal intrigue weaved by the older man he so wants to impress. In some ways, Jimmy's journey in the pilot is even more complicated than Nucky's. He too has to extricate himself from several sticky situations, including the feds sniffing around him (and trying to recruit him), and his solution is much less graceful than Nucky's. But there's a certain genius to the way he gets himself out of trouble, and it's clear that he has Nucky's number in a lot of ways and that the two men have a certain affection for each other. Jimmy is married with a son, and in marked contrast to some of the other couples on the show, he seems to really love his wife. Jimmy was in World War I (a fact he commiserates about with a young Al Capone), and no one seems to be terribly impressed by his service. The big setpiece of the episode -- that late-night heist of the contraband alcohol -- is revealed to have been carried out by Jimmy.
Margaret Schroeder (Kelly MacDonald): Although there are more major characters in the pilot -- like Arnold Rothstein -- the show seems to be building Margaret into her own, completely separate narrative strand. Her arc in the pilot is fairly predictable, but well handled by MacDonald (an underrated actress who has always deserved a part in a project this notable). Margaret's husband, for whom she visits Nucky to see about getting him a job, is a ne'er-do-well lout who beats his wife, scaring their two kids. She has another kid on the way, but by the end of the hour, a severe beating from her husband has resulted in a miscarriage. The only person who seems to have a great deal of empathy for her is Nucky, who brings her flowers while she recuperates (to close out the episode). Since we first see Margaret at a temperance meeting and since Nucky seems to be courting her, it almost seems as if she'll get an arc about how much otherwise innocent people might let money and proximity to power corrupt them.
There are plenty of other characters here to get to know, from Van Alden to Rothstein to Lucky Luciano. But I think if you understand the story arcs for the three characters above, you more or less understand the pilot and will be positioned to understand the series. The big questions in "Boardwalk Empire" are about how all of these things and characters are connected, how the sorts of boardwalk amusements the characters take in -- like a silent movie or a comedy routine -- are funded by corrupt activities and how the well-meaning actions of the women's temperance league are egged on by criminals who see an attempt to make a buck. For as much as HBO wants people to compare "Boardwalk" to "The Sopranos," the tone of "Boardwalk" is much closer to something like "Deadwood," another period piece with an elaborate set that told a lengthy story about how the actions of one person in a small, tightly knit community can zig and zag throughout that community until they unexpectedly affect someone else.
But if the three characters listed above are the characters you need to understand to understand the pilot, then the hero of the pilot is Scorsese. Admittedly, much of his direction of the first episode seems like it's taken from a greatest hits album of his work. There are stylishly shot murders, lengthy montages set to period-appropriate music, cameras moving here and there through the people out on the boardwalk and lengthy tracking shots that attempt to tie together people both powerful and powerless. Scorsese's work is showy without being flashy. Sure, he's often calling attention to the direction, but every camera move and every unconventional shot is chosen with a focus on how it benefits the story being told or illuminates the characters. I'm particularly impressed by the way his direction constantly calls attention to the time or what day it is. The pilot opens with one of my least favorite devices -- the exciting moment, followed by an abrupt cut to black with the words "Three Days Earlier" displayed -- but Scorsese and Winter figure out a way to make this less a narrative crutch and more a mystery. How did these men come to be in the woods? And who are the people underneath the masks? It all becomes clear soon enough, but Scorsese and Winter let the pieces snap into place in an incredibly satisfying fashion.
There's plenty more to say about "Boardwalk Empire," but I suspect we'll have time to talk about those other elements in the weeks to come. There's a temptation to try to understand absolutely everything that happens in a dense, complicated pilot like this one, but what I like best about "Boardwalk" is that you can enjoy it, even if you're not exactly following it. Winter and Scorsese make sure that absolutely every scene has something of amusement or entertainment in it, but they never do so in a gratuitous fashion. This is big, crowd-pleasing entertainment, but it's also entertainment that doesn't coddle. That's tough to do and brutally hard to do well. But there's a reason there are so many shots of audiences enjoying themselves or voyeurs peeking into store windows in this one. Winter and Scorsese are inviting us to sit down and peek into a life that's not our own for a while and have a good time. But they're also inviting us to contemplate what's to come, the many ways that little threads tying us together can turn into webs that eventually hold us down.