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'Boardwalk Empire' on HBO is fall's best new series

Dale Roe

If you don't subscribe to HBO, you should seriously consider doing so for the cable network's new series "Boardwalk Empire," which premieres Sunday, Sept. 19. The hourlong drama by far the best new show of the fall season on any network seems poised to help the network regain luster lost to the likes of AMC and Showtime.

It's easy to forget just how convincingly the network opened doors for those channels. Certainly, HBO's early original hourlong dramatic series were its best: 1997's "Oz" broke ground by striking the mold for cable's shorter seasons and pushing the envelope for subject matter and production values. "The Sopranos," which debuted in 1999, took home 21 Emmys (two for Outstanding Dramatic Series) out of 111 nominations. Alan Ball's "Six Feet Under" enjoyed widespread critical and popular acclaim during its 2001-05 run, and "The Wire" (from David Mills, creator of the current HBO drama "Tremé"), which ended its six-year run in 2008, was simply one of the densest and best television dramas of all time.

But the trailblazing network has been hard-pressed to repeat the success of that amazing run of programming, and subscribers number just 28.6 million, the network's lowest total in four years.

Oh, the crimson-hot "True Blood" (also from Alan Ball) is campy good, unclean fun — and a ratings success, too — but it will never reach the artistic heights scaled in HBO's heyday and, four seasons in, it's really more of a guilty pleasure than a prestige show. The resilient "Big Love" has arguably jumped (and re-jumped) the shark in a way its predecessors never did, and though "Carnivale," "Deadwood" and "Rome" enjoyed small but rabid groups of fans, none of those efforts lasted more than a handful of seasons.

Trying to recall the names of other hourlong HBO dramas — "Tell Me You Love Me" and "John From Cincinnati" for example, both from 1997 — is about as easy as coming up with the network's other slogans ... you know, all of those that aren't "It's not TV. It's HBO."

As far as "Treme," the network's current signature show, the jury's still out. It's another column for another day, but I viewed the first three episodes of the slow-as-molasses, post-Katrina New Orleans study before checking out.

I devoured six hours of "Boardwalk Empire," though, and immediately wished I could watch a dozen more.

The show, created by "The Sopranos" scribe Terence Winter and directed in the pilot episode by executive producer Martin Scorsese, is set in Prohibition-era Atlantic City, N.J. The era would seem to provide an endless wealth of story lines, and the boardwalk setting — which expands in short order to include New York and Chicago — is stunning, alternately cotton-candy tacky and obscenely opulent.

The odd and wonderful Steve Buscemi has found the role of a lifetime in Enoch "Nucky" Thompson, a power-broking county treasurer based on real-life historical counterpart Enoch Johnson. The actor plays Thompson as a kind-hearted, put-upon opportunist pipsqueak with a serious — and I mean serious — mean streak. In a position of authority in a coastal city, Buscemi's gregarious, oily character navigates organized crime and politics to the point where the two become interchangeable.

Many of the series' events (the Ku Klux Klan activity; women's suffrage; the Temperance movement) and characters, including Al Capone, Lucky Luciano, James "Big Jim" Colosimo and Arnold Rothstein, are treated in historically accurate fashion. But Winter took creative license in fictionalizing Buscemi's character so that the writers could take him in unpredictable directions. In the Internet age, Winter expressed fear that viewers would Google the real-life Johnson and spoil key plot points.

If the character and his actions are not biographically accurate, they've certainly captured the spirit of Johnson, as described by Winter, who said Prohibition catalyzed the politico's transition from white collar criminal to violent thug. "If you weren't predisposed to do that," he said, "people would kill you to get you out of the way so they could do it."

Buscemi has acknowledged the character's flaws, but said he believes there's "something in him that wants to do good."

That desire manifests itself as the character comes to the aid of Margaret Schroeder, a teetotaler Irish immigrant (played by Kelly Macdonald) who suffers at the hand of an abusive husband. Well, perhaps his motivation is to help; it's nuanced. Thompson at first accommodates Schroeder because it's convenient, then politically (and violently) expedient. Ultimately, one suspects, he views Schroeder as an investment, but one he truly cares for.

Other notable cast members include Michael Pitt as returning World War I hero and Thompson protégé Jimmy Darmody and Michael Shannon as seemingly straitlaced IRS agent Nelson Van Alden. Michael Kenneth Williams (Omar Little on "The Wire") is great as Chalky White, an ex-boxer and bootlegger who is the de facto mayor of Atlantic City's African American population, and Gretchen Mol is perfectly cast as a showgirl. Paz de la Huerta is appropriately petulant as Thompson's paranoid girlfriend. If there's a weak link at all, it's Paul Sparks' creepy giggling portrayal of small-time crook Mickey Doyle.

With the involvement of Winter and Buscemi and the gangland setting, not to mention its resident network, "Boardwalk Empire" is bound to be compared to "The Sopranos."

Good.

Judging from what I've seen, the comparison is apt: "Boardwalk Empire" matches up to the Soprano saga in terms of acting, writing, production value, entertainment, humor, brutality and critical as well as — I hope — popular acclaim. I expect you to get sick of hearing the title invoked so often when next year's awards season rolls around.

‘Boardwalk Empire': 8 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 19 on HBO