True Blood may be HBO's biggest hit since a certain series about mobsters in New Jersey.
By centering on gangsters operating further south in the Garden State, HBO figures to have another Nielsen and critical winner on its roster.
Boardwalk Empire is a grand spectacle, intersecting the worlds of good and (mostly) evil in Atlantic City, Chicago, New York and Washington, during the early days of Prohibition. It's also derivative of such genre notables as The Godfather, Once Upon a Time In America, Casino and Goodfellas. And why not, Martin Scorsese directs the 70-minute pilot.
Not surprisingly given Boardwalk creator Terrence Winter's pedigree with its HBO predecessor, there are more than a few hints of The Sopranos as well.
At the center of it all is character actor and Sopranos on-air and behind-the-camera alum Steve Buscemi stepping into the lead role of Nucky Thompson, based on the real-life Enoch (Nucky) Johnson, the political boss who once ruled Atlantic City. As treasurer of AC, Thompson is at the top of everybody's tribute list.
Moreover with Prohibition just instituted and with the means and clout to keep the hooch flowing, Nucky, who commands his employees and business associates with one-liners and disdain, is about to live even larger at the Ritz Carlton. There, he shares conversation and sex with lover Lucy (Paz de la Huerta), a whiny, former showgirl, redolent of many of Tony Soprano's chippies.
Thompson's world is further complicated by his protégé Jimmy Darmody (Michael Pitt), a college student turned World War I vet, whose impulsive violence threatens Nucky's nook like Christopher Moltisanti messed with his mafia chieftain.
Nucky has also run afoul of the calm, yet calculating Arnold Rothstein (Michael Stuhlbarg), and his hot-headed New York running mate, Charles Luciano (Vincent Piazza), who isn't so lucky in facing a 1920 cure for a venereal disease. A yet-to-fully arrive Al Capone (Stephen Graham) also makes more than a few statements in Jersey and Chicago.
Meanwhile through the first three installments, religious zealot and Internal Revenue agent Nelson Van Alden (Michael Shannon) emerges as a nemesis, one who's not opposed to putting the squeeze on for information. For his part, Chalky White (Michael Kenneth Williams) proves to be very a tough negotiator with Nucky when it comes to stepping on booze and as a leader of AC's Black community.
Nucky holds a soft spot for Irish immigrant widow and mother Margaret Schroeder (Kelly Macdonald). She reminds the wheeler-dealer of his late wife, and when he inserts Margaret into a French dress shop job, it's sure to either expand or end their relationship.
For all the details and dollars HBO invested in replicating AC just after World War I and the start of the Roaring Twenties, I have some quibbles: More scuff marks are needed on the freshly constructed boardwalk, which looks way too new in several scenes. Also, some of the language seems a tad too modern.
Although far broader in scope than the more provincial world of The Sopranos, Boardwalk's proximity in terms of Garden State geography and timing -- just three years removed from David Chase turning TV screens to black -- could work against it building a truly large audience following.
It also may fail to create its own cache, something the best of HBO series always engender.
Boardwalk Empire debuts Sept. 19 at 9 p.m. on HBO.