After the Sopranos raised the bar, HBO brought in Martin Scorsese and Mark Wahlberg to provide the follow-up franchise, and they certainly didn’t disappoint at first. The once little-known origins of a national crime syndicate born in Atlantic City are now known throughout the world because the acting, writing and production quality of this show are peerless. Playing against type, Steve Buscemi really brings Nucky Johnson to life, a man who wielded power with immense grace and charm, although Nucky’s velvet glove hid an iron fist. But not all is great with this show, in fact, and there are some minor flaws I feel should be addressed:
1) Face it, the title credits are a disaster. While the Sopranos’ theme-song was a sheer delight, this entire sequence quickly turns to torture. The show is loaded with great songs from the period, one of which obviously should have been used; and the set recreation of the Ritz and nearest pier (built in Brooklyn) were amazing. I’d so much prefer to see a fly-over of Atlantic City in the 1920s than extreme close-ups of the craggy-faced star and some broken glass (no offense, Steve); this opening is claustrophobic and has mediocre music.
2) There is no attempt to maintain historical accuracy, and the show is constantly jumping the shark. Historical dramas are so much more effective when accuracy is maintained. The telescoping of time can still be achieved. I wish the writers had just told the real story. They could have thrown in an invented character or two, but this version really confuses fact with fiction. I would have based the show around Nucky’s confrontations with William Randolph Hearst, who was his real mortal enemy.
3) The real Nucky lived over half the year in a large apartment overlooking Central Park. He was a fixture at the finest clubs, casinos, and speakeasies in Manhattan during the roaring twenties, well-known as the biggest tipper in town. Nucky is never seen out and about in Manhattan, where he rubbed shoulders with the super rich and famous. Atlantic City was a working class resort town. Nucky transformed it into the convention center of America, which gave him leverage in national politics. When in Atlantic City, almost every day, Nucky would get into a push-cart and for hours hand out dollar bills to the poor, his incredible generosity (learned from the Commodore) is largely missing. But this generosity had a purpose: it was used to maintain his loyal minions and keep them supporting the local Republican Party monopoly.
4) The Atlantic City boardwalk pushcarts were pushed only by blacks, usually big, strong ones. And most of them had canopies to protect the occupants from the sun. Most people with money did not stroll on the boardwalk, but moved about in pushcarts. When gangsters showed up in town, after breakfast at the hotel, they traveled straight to the beach in a pushcart, removed their shoes and socks, rolled up their pants, and waded into the water. This is how many important meetings were held, not in Nucky’s suite at the Ritz. In the show, only whites push the carts, and none have canopies, and we never see the image of men in suits standing in a circle in the ocean with their pants rolled up to their knees.
5) Margaret Schroeder was a real person, and Nucky did ban her husband from his gambling establishments because he had a gambling problem. But Nucky didn’t kill Hans and marry his widow. Nucky only married on the eve of going to jail, and then only to have a secure connection to the outside world. Naturally, Nucky married the most beautiful show girl in town, and they remained faithful for the rest of their lives. The show girls had immense power. In fact, Nucky’s downfall was really initiated because William Randolph Hearst fell in love with a show girl and discovered Nucky was also making advances at her at the same time. Hearst was a Democrat and unsuccessful candidate for Mayor of New York. He’d soon launch reefer madness in retaliation for losing a million acre ranch to Pancho Villa’s pot-smoking army in Northern Mexico, but first he launched Nucky madness in retaliation for Nucky trying to seduce his girl. At one time, Hearst actually had plans to take over and run Mexico as his private fiefdom, plans that were shattered by Pancho’s revolution. But it took years for Hearst to bring Nucky down. Strangely, although Hearst was considered a strong opponent to British influence in America (evident in his support for William Jennings Bryant), Hearst made most of his fortune in mines owned with J.P. Morgan and the Vanderbilts, our staunchest anglophiles. And his campaign against Nucky’s corruption was certainly hypocritical considering he created the bloodiest newspaper circulation wars of his time. Nucky was not a psychotic murderous thug like so many of the elite rich and streetwise gangsters he circulated amongst. He had no competition and no need to kill anyone. Nucky owned everything in Atlantic City. Nucky’s real legacy should be his efforts to end the murder and competition and work out a peaceful plan for a bright economic future. His downfall through Hearst’s legal campaigns against him just happened to coincide with the end of prohibition and the depression; the combination destroyed Atlantic City. After spending a few years in jail, Nucky returned to a much different town, although he continued to be a fixture at all the important ceremonies, wearing his signature blue Homburg and red carnation.