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Crime and prohibition

Artful details give Boardwalk Empire its roaring edge, writes Elmo Keep.

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HBO's Prohibition-era gangster drama is back on our screens with nary an anachronistic hair out of place.

Details. They are what luscious, expensive, period-drama television series live or die by.

We've witnessed this evolution as pioneered by Carnivale's re-creation of the 1930s California Dust Bowl, which had its costume designers spraying period-sourced clothing with dirt-packed pressure hoses to achieve an authentic-looking level of grime. Then there was Mad Men's famously stringent adherence to correctness, with its set designers hand-rolling the cast's cigarettes to give them the exact look and feel of those sold in the 1960s (a fastidiousness that also extends to finding fruit the right size for table settings; our modern, genetically enhanced apples are way too big).

This minute attention to detail comes full circle in Boardwalk Empire, Terence Winters' fictional re-creation of the roaring '20s in Atlantic City, and the violent, culturally heady days of Prohibition in the US. The lengths to which its production teams go to conjure a world few are left alive to remember is mesmerising, inviting viewers to immerse themselves in a hermetically sealed vision, that for one hour a week you can almost imagine how it really felt to be there.

Its bona fides are well established: Winters came into his own as a writer-executive producer on The Sopranos, whose unofficial saint, Martin Scorsese, directed the Mark Wahlberg-produced Boardwalk Empire pilot to the tune of $US18 million. Returning recently to Showcase for a third series, Boardwalk Empire's richly realised world revolves around the fictional character of Enoch ''Nucky'' Thompson, portrayed with a languid menace by Steve Buscemi.

Atlantic City's corrupt and powerful treasurer, Nucky resides year-round at the boardwalk's Ritz-Carlton Hotel and through its foyer come and go characters from all stratas of society: from WWI veteran and street tough on the make Jimmy Darmody (Michael Pitt), to Irish immigrant and temperance unionist Margaret Schroeder (Kelly Macdonald). From the Mob enforcers visiting via Chicago, pursued by the FBI's fanatically unhinged agent Van Alden (played with a disturbing, riveting zeal by Michael Shannon) to an indelible performance from Paz de la Huerta as an addled call girl, Lucy.


This barely touches on the number of characters, given the detailed, criss-crossing story arcs in the show, but getting to know them all is the primary pleasure of Boardwalk Empire. Not least the boardwalk is a character unto itself, a meticulously re-created backdrop against which the machiavellian machinations of the ensemble cast play out. Buscemi's character was written specifically for him, and is based on a real-life '20s crime boss, Enoch L. Johnson, but Winters wanted to fictionalise Nucky and other key characters to allow an element of surprise in an otherwise faithfully accurate depiction of people, places and events from history.

As Nucky, a powerful bootlegger, comes into the orbit of real-life criminals Al Capone, Lucky Luciano and Arnold Rothstein, a certain amount of ignorance of this point in American history is advantageous, not a hindrance. But even if you can't resist looking up the fates of these figures, or overlooking what you might already know about them, there is much more to enjoy about Boardwalk Empire, which rewards viewers' investment in its complex characters and storylines.

Unlike Mad Men, Boardwalk Empire is unconcerned with using a historical framework to tell contemporary allegories about our lives. And although it delves deep into racism, classism, the folly of war and the realities of life as a woman in the early 20th century, it steadfastly resists the urge to distort these stories through a modern lens. Its second season in many respects owed its pacing to the pulp literature of its time, which was so adept at weaving the ripping yarns that had readers forking out to buy the next instalment, just as they would have from the hawkers on the boardwalk.

As regular viewers will be familiar, last season's shocking denouement proved Boardwalk Empire is unafraid to break with narrative convention in the service of pushing its audience's boundaries and expectations. As the players now gather on New Year's Eve, 1923, all the escalating desperate grabs for power that drive the show - both personal and political - remain anyone's game. After an initial slow burn, Boardwalk Empire is gearing up to prove that future lists cataloguing the ''best TV shows ever'' might very well find it at the top of the heap.