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First Look: Why you gotta watch 'Boardwalk Empire'

boardwalkI may be in love. It's tough to say yet. "Boardwalk Empire" and I have only known each other for six episodes. You have to be cautious nowadays about giving yourself over to a serialized drama, especially one as ambitious as this. There are so many ways your relationship with a TV drama can all fall apart.

I should start at the beginning. You hear HBO is doing its second New Jersey organized crime series and your ears go up. Then you hear it's set in the 1920s, Atlantic City, during Prohibition, and Martin Scorsese is producing the series and directing the pilot. You have this vision in your mind what that TV show could ideally be.

"Boardwalk Empire" is remarkably close to what you imagined.

And its success comes despite a seemingly a crucial weakness.

Steve Buscemi, as the main character, Enoch "Nucky" Thompson, a Boardwalk crime kingpin, is a bit … off. It's as if he's reading lines that were originally written for another actor, somebody of more earthy gravitas.

There's another issue too. The Boardwalk itself is a sprawling set constructed with shops on one side, and a green screen on the other (where the ocean is digitally added). There's a dreamy, unreal, strolling-around-the-deck-of-1999's-"Titanic" quality to these scenes.

So wait, you say: Both the main character AND the Boardwalk set are less-than convincing? How can this show be any good?

Because everything else in "Boardwalk Empire" is terrific. And there's a whole lot of "everything else."

The cast is sprawling. Pretty much every character works. There's little about "Boardwalk" that feels like a TV show. It's rich and cinematic (many shots remind you of "The Godfather" trilogy), heightened with unique period music. There's so much more to the show than Nucky and the Boardwalk, particularly after the first episode (directed nicely by Scorsese, his camera prowling around, though his style stays out of the way of the story). It's almost like the network watched the pilot, then decided to expand the show's scope so Buscemi didn't have to carry the whole production himself.

The scripts are well researched, perhaps past the point of showing off. The research is utilized in interesting ways -- one detail will make you feel nostalgic, another will make you laugh, and still another will leave you horrified (such as a woman using Lysol as a contraceptive after sex).

Oh, and did you know that by the fourth episode, half the show takes place in Chicago? And that the Chicago storyline is, if anything, more compelling than the action in Atlantic City? (It's taking me every ounce of my anti-spoiler convictions not to say more about this subject ... though I suspect everybody will know all about it by the time the show debuts).

Period pieces have a tough time drawing audiences. "Rome," "Deadwood," "Mad Men." As good as they were/are, attracting big numbers is a challenge. "Boardwalk Empire" might be able to break through. Not only is this an excellent organized crime drama, but the female characters are diverse and well done. That's a crucial element for any TV show to draw a large rating, and a rare quality in this particular genre (usually you have the one feisty heroine and an assortment of mob floozies … here, even a mobster's squeeze who's portrayed as colossally stupid, gorgeous, spoiled and cruel manages to generate unexpected empathy).

OK. That's enough. THR will have its official review closer to the "Boardwalk" premiere date (Sept. 19). Here's the third trailer for "Boardwalk" that seems designed to sell Buscemi as a tough-guy lead...