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TV Quickshots #5

TV Quickshots

Boardwalk Empire – Season Two (HBO; 2011)

When we last left the painstakingly-detailed 1920s recreation of Atlantic City offered by this latest HBO flagship crime drama, Enoch “Nucky” Thompson (the legendarily bag-eyed Steve Buscemi) was celebrating a triumph in the election he worked hard to rig while the various enemies he’s made licked their wounds and conspired to unseat “the boss.” The second season of the Emmy-winning Boardwalk Empire draws out these cliffhanger promises with narrative richness and moral sophistication if not always with particular symbolic depth.

Nice boutonnier, Nuck.

Nucky faces a federal prosecution for election fraud that threatens to dredge up other dark deeds from his past and possibly increase his sentence. Although the government is ostensibly after him, this assault on his power is masterminded by his former mentor the Commodore (the bluff Dabney Coleman) with able assists from the old man’s ambitious but violence-prone son and heir Jimmy Darmody (Michael Pitt) and Nucky’s disillusioned brother, Sheriff Eli Thompson (Shea Whigham).

Nucky must also contend with other obstacles to his continued largesse, of course. There are the demands put to him by the local African-American kingpin Chalky White (Michael Kenneth Williams, aka Omar from The Wire), whose community is beset by reprisals from the Klan. There are the interests of his Irish countrymen, who ask for money and (possibly) arms to support their War of Independence against Britain. There is the dogged but increasingly inept vendetta against him by sanctimonious Prohibition agent Nelson Van Alden (the ever-waxen Michael Shannon), whose private misdeeds threaten to overwhelm him in a way that Nucky never allows his own to do. And, closer to home, he must tread lightly with his domestic partner Margaret Schroeder (Kelly Macdonald), whose shrewdness is a match for his own and whose Catholic guilt threatens constantly to tear their makeshift family apart.

Boardwalk Empire certainly has much to recommend it, from impeccable period detail to sharp writing to fantastic acting. Shannon is electric even if his character’s arc is often ridiculous, Pitt broods far more effectively than his babyface would suggest he’d be able to, Michael Stuhlbarg is a delight as refined New York gambler and gangster Arnold Rothstein, and Buscemi and Macdonald surprise with their depth of character involvement again and again. The sprawling scope also leaves plenty of room for an extended coterie of swaggering young actors to impress as well (although there’s hardly enough of Stephen Graham’s superb wiseguy Al Capone to go around this season).

But the grandness of the tragedy envisioned by creator and showrunner Terence Winter can often induce nausea. As the pace quickens and the bodies start piling up by the season’s end, it all really gets to be too much. Darmody’s narrative in particular becomes outlandishly Oedipal, its rampant Freudian anxieties clad in the gleaming armour of Arthurian myth but grounded in filthy violence. The symbolism can get cumbersome in its obviousness, as well: childrens’ dolls burning, murders next to angelic statues and war memorials, the Commodore’s parlour full of mounted animals. As absorbing a telenovel experience as Boardwalk Empire can be, its inflated sense of proportion can occasionally overcome its simpler, more human charms.

Categories: Reviews, Television

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