TV: Don’t believe the hype

Despite being the flagship series of the newly launched Sky Atlantic channel, Boardwalk Empire doesn’t quite live up to expectations, writes George Morahan

There was a time when American premiumtelevision channel HBO was perceived as the gold standard of TV channels; a time when such shows as The Sopranos, The Wire, Deadwood and Six Feet Under were garnering critical plaudits galore and an ample niche in the pop culture conversation.

One by one, these storied series came to an end, leaving HBO to desperately grasp at any new show with promise. But with the rise of AMC and its enviable roster of shows (including Mad Men and Breaking Bad), HBO fell into mediocrity, coddling True Blood and pretending it was still what it once was. Sky’s new Atlantic channel is now the British and Irish outlet for HBO and will be showing old favourites as well as the latest programming from its surrogate.

The jewel in the crown? Boardwalk Empire, which is being set up as the catalyst for Atlantic’s launch and is branded with all the hallmarks of esteemed television dramas past and present. As a tale rooted in the genesis of the organised crime, it’s cut from the same cloth as The Sopranos and The Wire, its period setting in the 1920s hints at influences from Mad Men, and its many stars, including the likes of Steve Buscemi and Michael K Williams, allude to the kind of success and dexterity that marked HBO shows apart in the early 2000s.

However, does it live up to all the hype? After all, its pilot episode was the most expensive ever made as well as having the distinction of being directed by Martin Scorsese. Honestly, no. In the early episodes, there are some flashes of brilliance, but the show doesn’t really add up to the sum of its illustrious parts.

First and foremost, it’s an exquisite-looking piece; the sets are magnificent and plenty of attention has been paid to the minute details of 1920s life. The acting is solid across the board; Buscemi, forever to be known as “kinda funny lookin’”, embodies his role as fledgling gangster/charming politician “Nucky” Thompson with ease, despite his lack of threatening physicality or classic good looks.

There are also strong performances from Michael Pitt, Kelly MacDonald (as abused housewife, Margaret) and especially Williams as the leader of the black caucus of Atlantic City, Chalky White. One memorable scene sees Williams’s character pitted up against a KKK Grand Dragon and recounting a mesmerizing monologue about the death of his father at the hands of white supremacists.

As desperately as they are trying, the creators haven’t found the rhythm necessary to make Boardwalk truly must-see viewing. HBO, and now Sky, are hoping Empire will be the hit that brings their respective channels on top Instead, they have a well-crafted show that could flourish into something spectacular, just not yet.

Boardwalk Empire premieres tonight on Sky Atlantic