Sunday, September 25, 2011

"Boardwalk Empire" still aiming for greatness in second season

On the surface, HBO's "Boardwalk Empire," which starts its second season tonight at 9, has all the earmarks of being a great HBO drama, in the vein of "The Sopranos," "The Wire," or "Deadwood." It's meticulously well-made, with great pains obviously taken to re-create Atlantic City in the 1920s. It has a capable cast of actors, playing complicated characters. There's also the typical premium cable shenanigans -- nudity, coarse language, a bit of graphic violence here and there.

But, while "Boardwalk Empire" looks like a marquee HBO drama, it still lacks ... something. The first season was very good and the first episode of the new season is also strong. It picks up not long after last season left off, with politically savvy gangster Nucky Thompson (Steve Buscemi) still trying to be king of Atlantic City by making all the right connections, greasing all the right palms and hoping it doesn't all come tumbling down.
But his empire is more precarious than ever, now that his former protegee Jimmy (Michael Pitt) has allied with his father, The Commodore (Dabney Coleman) and Nucky's brother Eli (Shea Whigham) to conspire against Nucky.
Meanwhile, Nucky's girlfriend Margaret (Kelly MacDonald) is easing into life as the paramour of a man whom she admires somewhat, but whom she's also become dependent on financially. Other players in the story include Agent Van Alden (Michael Shannon), who is balancing his enforcement of prohibition (and his sometimes horrifying commitment to faith) with the news that he's gotten Nucky's former girlfriend pregnant.
The premiere has some good moments, mainly from showing the many contradictions in Nucky's character. In one excellently edited and acted scene, he's shown inspiring audiences at black church and then, in a quick cut, we see him giving a fairly identical speech to a group of KKK supporters. Nucky is a man motivated not by ideology, but opportunity.
In yet another wrinkly, he's also trying to be a father to Margaret's children and there are some half amusing, half sad scenes in which we see that he's not entirely equipped for that.
Speaking of parents, some other good moments come from examining Jimmy's complicated relationship with his parents -- not just his long-absent father but also his young mother (Gretchen Mol), to whom he's a wee bit too close. There's a scene in the premiere in which she makes a casual, but bizarre, confession to Jimmy's significant other, and it's satisfyingly squirmy.
In moments like these, the show clicks and indeed seems headed for the pantheon of great HBO dramas. But it might be trying to do too much. Some characters get a bit lost in the shuffle (last season woefully underused Michael Kenneth Williams as Chalky White, though, so far, there's evidence we'll see him more this season). It's hard to follow all the many machinations of all the different characters. I like that "Boardwalk" is smart and ambitious, but, sometimes, it just doesn't seem to know quite where it's going. So far, that's what makes this a very good show. Hopefully, as the season wears on, it will make bigger steps to a tighter focus. Then, maybe, it might achieve greatness.

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