“Boardwalk Empire” is among the best new shows of the season — if not the standalone favorite — but that does not make it phenomenal. The Martin Scorcese-directed series delivers on many of the unspoken promises of an HBO original series: an all-star cast backed by big-name producers, production value out the wazoo and a premise heretofore unexplored on television. But HBO struggled just like Steve on “Blue’s Clues,” not knowing how to arrange these three pieces once it had them all figured out.

“Boardwalk Empire”

Sundays at 9 p.m.
HBO

We enter a world about to go parched: Atlantic City in 1920, as prohibition first seizes its grip on a country of wastrels, gamblers and no-good crooks. Our no-good crook of interest is the city’s treasurer Enoch “Nucky” Thompson, for whom Steve Buscemi (“Big Fish”) gives a portrayal as adept as it is unsettling. Behind his façade of public hero — which he maintains only for a select few ignorant women searching blindly for a champion — Thompson is nothing more than a ruthless crime boss.

Buscemi is clearly the standout actor of the cast, as he well should be in a lead role. But he is closely followed by Michael Pitt (“The Village”). Pitt takes on the personage of Jimmy Darmody, Nucky Thompson’s one-time apprentice who went off to college and then to war — quite selfishly, Thompson might add. Pitt’s performance shows the most emotional depth, as he manages to make Darmody’s struggle to fit back into his own life feel sincerely jarring.

But beyond Pitt and Buscemi, no actors manage to stand out. That said, it’s not entirely their own fault. There are just so damn many of them. We’re presented with the entire city council of Atlantic City, several officials from other major cities looking to get in on Thompson’s smuggled booze, and all of the assistants and lackeys those politicians need to muscle each other around while keeping it under wraps. It becomes unmanageable, and scenes lose their spark in an instant when the viewer can’t even identify who’s on screen. There is an exception to this problematic trend though, and he’s just a lackey — well, just a lackey who’s name is unceremoniously revealed to be Al Capone (Stephen Graham, “Gangs of New York”).

And really, what makes “Boardwalk Empire” captivating at all is its subtle presentation of the prohibition era and its turbulence. Where HBO has always succeeded is not hitting its viewers over the head with obvious symbols, while at the same time bringing smaller details to the fore. A champagne bottle, popped in celebration of prohibition’s official beginning, is tossed into a montage, while Thompson spends a full minute staring through a window as nurses attempt to save babies born drastically underweight. And all this is highlighted by HBO’s requisite stunning set and costume design. Without feeling like they’re being patronized, audiences can see the 1920s as though they were living them. They also see that this Thompson fellow might not be totally heartless. After all, that same cruel treasurer who turned down a drink invitation with “I already got what I wanted, what the fuck would we talk about?” comes to an abused wife’s aid — by having her husband killed. Nobody’s perfect.

And while the writers certainly pull off strong dialogue and some gripping events that fit well in the epoch, they struggle to pull together a cohesive, compelling story. The consequences of everyone’s actions are made clear by the end, but the plot itself is somewhat of a blur. A lot of similar men in suits sit around a lot of similar tables making similar business deals, then some people get shot. None of it is particularly memorable, but luckily for “Boardwalk,” the show’s success does not depend solely on the sensibility of its story.

The real focus of “Boardwalk Empire” is power. In an era when political and economic influence came in a corked bottle, it was only a matter of time before one crook smashed the bottle over the others’ heads. “Boardwalk” is about men trying to maintain the lifestyle of the affluent emperor, whatever the cost. As Jimmy Darmody says, “That’s what we all want. At least I got the gumption to take it.” And in this respect, the series prevails. We get sucked into a dark, dirty, amoral but well dressed world where the only light to see by is the brothel marquee. We meet ruthless, believable and captivating characters, battling to control this world. But as it unfolds, that battle is a muddled and forgettable mess.

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