A toast to HBO's new 'Boardwalk Empire'

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Steve Buscemi stars in HBO's

Steve Buscemi stars in HBO's "Boardwalk Empire." Photo Credit: HBO

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The blue-gray fog rolls in off the cool Atlantic, and out in the water, a sloop is immobile, awaiting a shipment of Canadian Club.

Somewhere beyond the gloom, the destination for this cargo awaits - a big, rollicking, glamorous resort where people are getting drunk and intend to continue getting drunk, even though Prohibition looms.

That's your opening scene of this 12-episode series, based on the Nelson Johnson book of the same name, about Prohibition-era Atlantic City, bootleg capital of the East, and ruled over by one man - Enoch "Nucky" Thompson (Steve Buscemi) - with help from his brother, Sheriff Elias Thompson (Shea Whigham) and others.

Nucky Thompson is the city's treasurer, which is sort of like putting the fox in charge of the henhouse. He's a political fixer and party boss and runs around town with his hand out; his singular insight at the outset of Prohibition is this: People will pay more for something they cannot legally get. His job thus expands, as he oversees various illegal stills, including one run by Chalky White (Michael Kenneth Williams - Omar Little on "The Wire") who runs the city's burgeoning black community.

Meanwhile, Nucky's driver and assistant - back from the Great War - is baby-faced, blue-eyed killer Jimmy Darmody (Michael Pitt), who overreaches and draws the attention of the Feds - most notably Agent Van Alden (Michael Shannon.) This production was conceived by Martin Scorsese and produced by Terence Winter, longtime executive producer of "The Sopranos." The masters' touches are evident throughout.

MY SAY

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After watching cherished character actor Steve Buscemi for nearly 30 years, you'd assume we've seen all there is to see in his bag of tricks. Those great Coen brothers films - from "The Big Lebowski" to "Barton Fink" - edged him nicely with that paranoid-psychotic bent we've come to love and (frankly) expect. His comic chops got a nice workout in a bunch of more recent films and then he stormed back with Tony Blundetto in "The Sopranos" - as perfect a match of actor to character as any in that classic's run.

But with "Boardwalk Empire," all assumptions are demolished. The Valley Stream-raised Buscemi is a leading man here, with an entire series resting on his shoulders, and that means you have to completely, utterly - unquestionably - buy his portrayal of Thompson as a genial crook with the slightest sentimental streak.

The miracle is, you probably will. In fact, you pretty much have no choice. There's another major star here besides Buscemi - the gorgeously re-imagined lost world of 1920s Atlantic City, which Thompson glides through like king and pasha. They almost seem made for each other, and in Scorsese and Winter's estimation, they clearly were. There probably are some antecedents here. The Coens' "Miller's Crossing," also set during Prohibition, comes to mind, or Scorsese's "Gangs of New York," another lavish period piece. But "Mad Men" is an obvious one, too. To believe that world, you must first see it. In "Boardwalk Empire," you see, hear, smell and very nearly taste it.

BOTTOM LINE