Does “Boardwalk Empire” (8 p.m., Sunday, HBO) live up to its hype? Yes, yes, a thousand times yes. I haven’t been so excited about a series since “The Sopranos,” and I don’t think I’m alone.
Among the chief pleasures of this lush, expensive, gorgeously photographed, well written, funny, violent, poignant and historically resonant series is its unlikely leading man.
Best known for his scene-stealing tragicomic supporting actor turns in films like “Fargo,” Steve Buscemi achieves grace and gravitas here without losing any of the quirks and eccentricities that have made him one of the most amusing character actors of his generation. Dressed in dapper period garb, he looks more like a 21st-century Raymond Massey than the bug-eyed goof we’ve come to know and love.
Here he plays Enoch “Nucky” Thompson, the titular treasurer of 1920s Atlantic City, a wide-open corrupt town that he runs like a private fiefdom with the help of his brother (Shea Whigham), the police chief.
In a brilliant opening moment, Nucky is seen addressing a meeting of the local women’s temperance society, embracing prohibition with a speech that leaves the female audience in tears. In the next scene, Nucky sits down with his political cronies and fixers, and extolls Prohibition as a wonderful windfall for their many rackets.
Like “The Godfather,” “Empire” explores the creation myth of organized crime, featuring characters, like Nucky, torn from the pages of history. Arnold Rothstein (Michael Stuhlbarg), the New York gambler who fixed the 1919 World Series, arrives, as does gangster Lucky Luciano (Vincent Piazza), Chicago Boss Jim Colosimo (Frank Crudele) and an up and comer named Al Capone (Stephen Graham).
A strong subplot involves Nucky’s ambitious war-veteran driver, Jimmy Darmody (Michael Pitt), and an abused Irish immigrant mother, Margaret Schroeder (Kelly MacDonald in a star-making turn), who brings out Nucky’s tender and protective side.
Shot on an elaborate set costing millions, “Empire” is a feast for the eyes and makes the most of its corrupt playland setting. The film also asks viewers to revisit the 1920s, a time not unlike our own, when rapid economic and social changes wrought powerful and contradictory reactions from political and religious groups trying to return America to their vision of “normalcy.”
If I have to find fault with “Empire,” it’s that some of the younger players are not quite up to their more veteran co-stars, including Gretchen Mol and Dabney Coleman, who are both wonderful. Its depiction of a federal prohibition agent as a self-flagellating religious fanatic also seems a bit one-dimensional.
But these quibbles are minor. The pilot was directed by Martin Scorsese, and the entire series shares his operatic flourish, fluid camera movement and sustained interest in the internal dynamics of various subcultures — from big time racketeers to Nucky’s sideshow collection of midget boxers. Later episodes are written and directed by “Sopranos” veterans including Tim Van Patten.
Like many Scorsese efforts, “Empire” makes the most of period music. Just as “O Brother Where Art Thou?” turned viewers on to the roots of country music, I fully expect many “Boardwalk” fans to fall in love with the bawdy, innuendo-laden songs of the Victrola era, many heard here for the first time in decades.
Not for the timid, “Empire” has a TV-MA rating and makes the most of it. Sex, profanity, violence and nudity abound. To be honest, many of Buscemi’s bedroom scenes are hilarious. Gosh, a gangster drama filled with sex, bloodshed and blue language set in New Jersey. Where have we seen that before?
• Scheduled on “48 Hours Mystery” (8 p.m. and 9 p.m., CBS): Vegas mysteries.
• Showdown in the laboratory on the season finale of “Being Human” (8 p.m., BBC America).
• A macabre motel looms large in the 2009 shocker “Vacancy 2: The First Cut” (8 p.m., SyFy).
• Adam’s boss (Billy Baldwin) adds to his stress on “Parenthood” (9 p.m., NBC).
• Betty White hosts “Saturday Night Live” (10:30 p.m., NBC), featuring musical guest Jay-Z.
• Audrey Hepburn plays a blind woman terrorized by thugs in the thriller “Wait Until Dark” (7 p.m., TCM).
• The Indianapolis Colts host the New York Giants on “Sunday Night Football” (7:15 p.m., NBC).
• On two episodes of “The Gates” (ABC), trust issues (8 p.m.), moving day (9 p.m.).
• “Masterpiece Mystery” (8 p.m., PBS, check local listings) presents “Inspector Lewis: Your Sudden Death Question.”
• Will wants a change of venue on “Rubicon” (8 p.m., AMC).
• An arbiter of taste salutes fashion icons on “Martha Stewart Presents: The Women Who Dress America” (8 p.m., Hallmark).
• A killer goes to college on “CSI: Miami” (9 p.m., CBS).
• A gift has many meanings on “Mad Men” (9 p.m., AMC).