Originally aired on BBC2, the Birmingham gangster series Peaky Blinders has recently been made available for American audiences (provided they have Netflix subscriptions) who might otherwise have missed out. Starring Cillian Murphy as Tommy Shelby, up-and-coming head of the gang known as the Peaky Blinders, the show recalls many HBO-style period dramas by favoring style over authenticity. But once you rub the Boardwalk Empire and Deadwood out of your eyes, the pilot plays quite well on its own two feet.
Created by Steven Knight (who directed the brilliant Locke), Peaky Blinders focuses primarily on the underhanded dealings of the various gangs of 1919 Birmingham. The pilot episode introduces Tommy as a contemplative foil to his otherwise short-fused gang cohorts, all of whom seem to have the same haircut. Cillian Murphy, as usual, holds the screen with ease. His silences often say more than an entire scene of dialogue between two lesser actors, but we’ll discuss the dialogue again in a second. The flip side of the story – at least in this pilot episode – comes in the form of the indomitable Sam Neill, who plays Chief Inspector Chester Campbell. Campbell, newly arrived to Birmingham, makes it his mission to clean the city of the nefarious gangs.
The soundtrack and frequent slow-motion shots all add to the stylishness of Peaky Blinders, a stylishness, again, that takes clear precedence over authenticity. The writing supports this kind of television and is mostly solid, fast-paced dialogue, minus a few ridiculous lines. It’s the sound of the words rather than their meaning that distracts most of all, as the casting has forced Brits and Irishmen and Americans into an unclear accent that fluctuates noticeably again and again. It’s not a big deal, but it will hopefully improve as Peaky Blinders progresses.
And the casting is actually pretty great if we ignore the accent thing. Murphy is perfect for the man-of-few-words Tommy, always thinking and observing and plotting, and his presence makes an exciting prospect of watching Tommy rise to power. The Tommy vs. Campbell juxtaposition is also an interesting set-up that promises to come to a head sooner rather than later. Campbell doesn’t strike me as the kind of antagonist that will cause trouble for the Peaky Blinders past the first season, and if he does then he likely won’t be the antagonist. The sense is that this is the small and humble beginning of what could be a sprawling and epic journey.
And what more should you ask for from a pilot episode?