By Louis Allred

The pilot for “Boardwalk Empire” – after a teaser showing a shipment of liquor being collected offshore, then taken in a roadside robbery – opens with a meeting of the Women’s Temperance League, discussing the imminent prohibition of alcohol. In it, Atlantic City’s treasurer, Enoch “Nucky” Thompson (Steve Buscemi) praises the ladies for their conviction, and tells a story about how he was once forced to murder and eat rats for dinner one night. The story moves the women, and he excuses himself for “county business.” On the way out, his young right-hand man, Jimmy Darmody (Michael Penn, who will probably still look nineteen thirty years from now) expresses shock regarding the story. Nucky replies, “First rule of politics, kid: never let the truth get in the way of a good story.”

Such is Nucky Thompson, well-loved politician amongst the people of Atlantic City and kingpin of its illicit after-hours recreation. He plays both sides of the law and has been for a while. He sees it all as the business of politics, and Prohibition offers him his biggest opportunity yet. He’s no stranger to getting his hands dirty; however, he seems unprepared for the amount of dirt needed for this job. His story is the spine of “Boardwalk Empire.”

“Boardwalk” is very interested in getting the period right, and, though my experience with the era is limited, it looks to me like it hits the correct notes. No expense seems spared, especially with the enormous boardwalk set, and the costuming and design all work. As lush as it all looks, it still maintains some grit; it feels grounded. The show captures the idea of Atlantic City as the ultimate adult amusement park: anything you want, from showgirls and booze to midget boxing, is there. But it also succeeds in showing the seedy side – the moonshine still running out of the crawlspace of a funeral home is a perfect example.

The acting is good across the board; maybe nothing quite award-worthy, but we’ll see how the season goes. Buscemi’s particular brand of hangdog world-weariness is well-suited for Nucky. He’s a man who’s been at the top of the chain for quite a while, but his Prohibition plan threatens to swallow him whole, making his juggling of the worlds of law and crime more of an effort than he’s used to. Pitt is also fine as Jimmy, who, in the span of this episode, becomes an example of how Prohibition changed the game in Atlantic City. As the financial ante is upped, so does the level of violence. Nucky isn’t a fan of how bloody Jimmy’s heist of the Chicago mob’s booze went (and the heist was a reckless move to begin with), but Jimmy’s also aware that this is how things will go in the future. He has the best line of the episode when he talks about this, telling Nucky, “You can’t be half a gangster anymore.” The Buscemi/Pitt dynamic is a great illustration of this; the mentor desperately trying to rein in his protege, and the protege informing the mentor that his way won’t be the right way for very long.

The supporting players are entertaining as well. Stephen Graham plays Al Capone as Jimmy’s near-doppleganger: another young man brimming with ambition and ideas about how things need to happen for bootlegging to become successful; of course, they partner up on the Chicago mob heist. Michael Stuhlbarg is great as the calm, collected Arnold Rothstein; the kind of guy who never raises his voice, but who would probably have you killed with very little provocation. Kelly Macdonald, after No Country For Old Men, has the “quiet, strong-willed woman” thing down, and on “Boardwalk” her character Margaret looks to be similar. And Michael Shannon and Michael K. Williams (a lot of Michaels in this thing, no?) look promising, but their characters are barely cameos at this point.

But the big attraction here is Martin Scorsese. His name (along with creator Terrence Winter) has been plastered on all the ads, and as director, he made this pilot one of the most anticipated shows of the fall. Scorsese has certainly left his fingerprints on this episode. Though a lot of it follows standard television direction, some trademark shots of his are used – long, brisk zooms and the like. There’s also the standard-issue Scorsese sex and violence. Though it’s not a wall-to-wall bloodbath, the pilot had its graphic moments, including some poor sucker getting half his head blown off – lengthwise, even. (More remarkable is that, with scenes that grotesque, this still only got a “Violence” warning before the show, instead of “Graphic Violence.” I’m not against violence in fiction in any way, but you’d think a guy’s head splitting in half would garner a stronger warning.) This is the kind of story that seems tailor-made for the Scorsese treatment, and even if it’s not the high creative point of his career, he still proves that he was a great choice as director.

Obviously, discussing the first episode of a TV show is a different game than discussing a film. In a film, you judge how well it resolved the elements it began with. For a TV pilot, you judge how well it sets up the elements for further exploration as the season progresses. More simply, will you keep watching? I think that’s a yes in the case of “Boardwalk Empire.” Even if the immediate obstacles were resolved by the end of the episode, we’re left with bigger and more interesting ones. Will Jimmy prove to be a liability for Nucky as the bootlegging continues, or does Jimmy have the right idea? And for a guy who shows little real interest in the public’s lives, why is Nucky so interested in helping Margaret? Where will that relationship go? And can Nucky keep on track with his plans, or will his deals with the Chicago mob derail them? I don’t know if it’s the artistic triumph HBO was clearly aiming for, but “Boardwalk Empire” is just damn interesting, and I’m ready to see where it goes next.

Besides, I just like the name “Nucky.” I’m naming my first kid that, pending my wife’s approval (she will not approve).