For me- BOARDWALK EMPIRE stands at the top of the heap, alongside BREAKING BAD, MAD MEN and GAME OF THRONES. In the tradition of other HBO shows, including the late, great THE WIRE, BOARDWALK has taken it's time setting up a complex and intriguing cast of characters. It's probably not to everyone's taste (indeed- several friends of mine think it's too slow), but like a good novel you can't help but getting sucked in.
BOARDWALK EMPIRE gets it's inspiration from actual events that took place during prohibition in Atlantic City- although they play fast and loose with history. No matter. Steve Buscemi finally gets his chance as a leading man with his part as Nucky Thompson having reinvented his screen presence in an almost Humphrey Bogart-ish fasion. Michael Pitt, an actor I never really cared for before BOARDWALK is similarly good as the James Cagney-esque Jimmy, although in season 2, he becomes a little to big for his own britches, leading to an inevitable showdown with Nucky.
The rest of the cast is similarly good, with one of my favourite actors, Michael Shannon, sinking his teeth into the repressed prohibition agent-Van Alden, who- in season one, murdered one of his fellow agents in cold blood, and got Nucky's ex-mistress pregnant. His moral slide continues in season 2, and Shannon's work is astounding. I also love Kelly McDonald as Nucky's sometimes sweet, sometimes vaguely sinister companion- Margaret, while this season also introduces STARDUST's Charlie Cox as Nucky's new IRA associate, and the great William Forsythe as Jimmy's Jewish liquor supplier.
As good as they all are- I must admit that the show is absolutely owned by Jack Huston as the disfigured Richard Harrow. While he stole plenty of scenes in season one, here- he becomes a leading character, with a good chuck of the first half of the season being spent examining the torment he feels due to his dis-figuration, and his envy of family man Jimmy. It all gives way to a tense, blood-soaked finale, that leaves the cast a little leaner, but also promises lots more drama to come is season 3.