My feeling with television series is that you withhold judgment until about the third episode of the show because the pilots need to do so much heavy lifting-exposition, scene-setting, character establishment, etc.-that it is unfair to render a decision on a project based on the way it brings you in. So I’ve been extremely patient with HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire” thus far. I thought the first episode was pretty great, if extremely scene-setty and box-ticky (“There’s Arnold Rothstein!” “Hey, it’s Al Capone!” “Oh, he’s Lucky Luciano!” If the black guy waiting impatiently for Steve Buscemi in the anteroom during the premiere shouted something like, “You tell him Bumpy Johnson doesn’t have time for this,” I probably would have thrown something at the TV.) I gave the second episode a similar pass, based on the epic aspirations of the program, which, after all, we’re stuck with it for two years, at least. After last night, my patience has run out: It is time for this show to be a show.
Don’t get me wrong: I don’t dislike “Boardwalk Empire.” I have reservations, mainly centered around Steve Buscemi’s ability to carry a series. (These will hopefully prove unfounded. We’ve seen glimmers of depth, which I can only assume will rise to the surface as the series goes on.) I’m impressed by the attention to detail, but also a little irked by it: It’s not hard to see it as a pissing match between Terence Winter and his former “Sopranos” colleague Matthew Weiner: “Oh, so you can get the Sixties right? Try the Twenties, motherfucker!” (Last night’s “What does ‘motherfucker’ mean?” felt like a huge winking nod to everybody.) I’m a little weary of the fruit of the David Chase coaching tree: Both this show and “Mad Men” contain a multitude of moments that I feel like I’ve seen before in That Jersey Show. Even the opening-and we’re getting down to incredibly minor details here, but isn’t that the point?-lacks flair; I can’t see watching it over and over like I did with the beginning of “The Sopranos” or still do with “Mad Men.”
But these are all tiny doubts, and there have only been three episodes. As slow as the show can be-a friend calls it “Boredwalk Empire”-and as heavy-handed or obvious as some of the moments are (another friend, hearing the opera on the record player at the conclusion of the pilot, said, “Oh, it’s the ‘Italian guy gets executed’ music!”), I’m still interested in the show and where it’s going. The cast is almost uniformly talented, particularly Michael Pitt and the buttocks of Paz de la Huerta. I’m rooting for this one to be great, because I think it can be. But episode three is over. All the balls are now in the air. It’s time for “Boardwalk Empire” to be a TV show, and not history’s longest establishing shot. As they almost certainly did not say in Atlantic City in 1920, git ‘er done.