From Terence Winter (Emmy-winning writer on HBO's The Sopranos) and Oscar-winning director Martin Scorsese, Boardwalk Empire is set in Atlantic City in 1920 at the dawn of Prohibition. The series chronicles the life and times of Enoch Nucky Thompson (Steve Buscemi), the city treasurer whose double role as politician and bootlegger makes him the city's undisputed czar at a time when illegal alcohol has opened up highly lucrative opportunities for rumrunners and distributors. In a city defined by notorious backroom politics and vicious power struggles, Nucky must contend with ambitious underlings, relentless Feds, rival gangsters -- including Arnold Rothstein, Lucky Luciano and Al Capone -- and his own appetite for women, profits, and power.
In fine (and bloody) style, HBO's Boardwalk Empire returns to 1920 when the ban on booze led to a syndicate of bootleggers and smugglers. Created by Sopranos scribe Terence Winter and coproduced by director Martin Scorsese, the story centers on Atlantic City treasurer Enoch "Nucky" Thompson (Steve Buscemi), who schemes in private while preaching temperance in public (Mark Wahlberg and Tim Van Patten also serve as producers). Jimmy (Michael Pitt, Buscemi's Delirious costar), a war veteran, acts as his right-hand man, while zealous Agent Van Alden (Michael Shannon) and refined mobster Arnold Rothstein (A Serious Man's Michael Stuhlbarg) represent significant threats to his enterprise.
Nucky's other associates include his sheriff brother Eli (Shea Whigham), sexpot girlfriend Lucy (Paz de la Huerta), and distributor Chalky (The Wire's Michael K. Williams). If Nucky has little regard for law and order, his soft side emerges in his dealings with Irish immigrant Margaret (Kelly Macdonald, excellent), who segues from abused wife to kept woman. As Nucky puts it, "I try to be good. I really do." After he sends Jimmy away a spell, his sidekick joins forces with Al Capone (Stephen Graham, Public Enemies) and disfigured vet Richard Harrow (Jack Huston), abandoning his son, common-law wife Angela (Aleksa Palladino), and mother Gillian (Gretchen Mol), who has a fling with Lucky Luciano (Vincent Piazza).
Inspired by Nelson Johnson's book, Boardwalk Empire takes a Deadwood-like approach to history by combining characters both factual and fictional with blue language and ladies without brassieres. Winter, who won an Emmy for The Sopranos episode Pine Barrens, takes liberties with the historical record, but the series never claims to represent the truth and nothing but--which is only fitting when everyone's hiding secrets. If the entire ensemble deserves praise, Buscemi rules the show as thoroughly as Nucky rules the city. --Kathleen C. Fennessy