Boardwalk Empire

HBO's lavish costume drama doesn't live up to the hype.

Boardwalk Empire, Sky Atlantic

It's hard to review a show as hyped as HBO's Boardwalk Empire (began 1 February, 9pm). Fall in line with the heavy breathers - their excitement has been stirred because the series was created by Terence Winter, who wrote and produced The Sopranos, and one of its executive producers is Martin Scorsese, who also directed the first episode - and you feel like a sheep, baa-ing with the flock. Air your disappointment, on the other hand, and you risk sounding even more predictable: yet another cynical clever clogs, going after a classy series just for the hell of it. All I can tell you is that my disappointment is great and sincere.

I watched the first two episodes in a state of mild interest - it's hard not to be a little bit interested in anything starring Steve Buscemi and his amazing, un-American teeth - but I never came close to feeling properly engrossed. Boardwalk Empire's big problem is its naked ambition. In television, as in life, money is no substitute for love, and the show's lavish attention to period detail - it cost $20m to make the first episode alone - is distancing and oddly inert. It is impossible to forget, even for a second, that the action is taking place on a set. In Mad Men, Don and Peggy do not just wear their costumes; they inhabit them. In Boardwalk Empire, everyone looks as if the costume department finished with them seconds before.

The series is set in Atlantic City, New Jersey, during Prohibition. Buscemi, his eyes rolling like marbles, plays Enoch "Nucky" Thompson, the city's de facto ruler. Nucky's power is absolute, being both political (he is the city treasurer) and criminal (he is a gangster, and his tentacles extend everywhere). In his hands, the Prohibition laws - whatever he might say about them to the rapt voters of the temperance movement - are meaningless.

Atlantic City is a playground and visitors to it will pay even more for moonshine than they did for the legal stuff. Nucky will soon be printing money. Does he have any weaknesses? Perhaps. Far below him on the tacky rungs of the city's social ladder is Margaret Schroeder (Kelly Macdonald), an Irish immigrant on whom he appears to take pity - if you can call bumping off her violent drunk of a husband pity. Also, there is Jimmy Darmody (Michael Pitt), his protégé. Darmody is clearly going to be an important character. He has ambitions that could cause trouble for Nucky and, as a veteran of the trenches, his feelings have been usefully cauterised: Atlantic City is a cinch after Flanders. But Pitt's performance is strangely underpowered and the character's backstory is sketched too thinly. He should be haunting but all he is right now is pasty.

Who will prove to be Nucky's nemesis? Will it be Margaret, or Jimmy, or Nelson van Alden (Michael Shannon), the creepy federal agent on Nucky's trail? (In part two, van Alden sniffs a ribbon that has fallen from Margaret's hair; it seems that he isn't motivated only by a belief that whiskey is the work of the devil.) I don't know. But finding out could take a while. Encouraged by the good reviews the show received in the US, its ratings and its performance at award season, HBO has already commissioned a second series. What's more, the real-life character on whom Nucky is apparently based ruled Atlantic City for 30 years.

Is it worth sticking with the show? I can't answer this question, either, although I'd be lying if I said that the preview DVDs of episodes three, four and five were calling to me from the top of my television set. This series is a kind of Sopranos-lite: all the killings and the violence, without any of the psychology. There are strange sights that intrigue momentarily (along the boardwalk, next door to the place selling saltwater taffy, is a freakish shop full of incubators where visitors can see "real-life premature babies!") and Buscemi's performance is, as usual, marvellous (watching his expression move from vulpine to melancholic to long-suffering and back again is like watching a magician working a pack of cards).

But these things are not enough. A series this big and this expensive should act like a net. It should catch and hold its audience, not allow it to drift slowly away.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 07 February 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The New Arab Revolt