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Review: In Season 2, 'Boardwalk Empire' Proves to Be an Expensive, Expansive Misfire

by Maureen Ryan, posted Sep 22nd 2011 3:30PM
'Boardwalk Empire' (9PM ET Sunday, HBO) appears to have all the trappings of a quality cable drama.

It has a gifted cast and a conflicted central character. It has outstanding production values, a high-class pedigree and it spins out multiple narratives depicting people involved in questionable, if not nefarious, activities. It's an expensive period drama that airs on HBO, for goodness' sake.

And it should be to 'Boardwalk Empire's' credit that it does its utmost to lay out a meticulous panorama of Atlantic City in the '20s. We critics are always complaining about shows that drop plots, lose focus or go down blind alleys, but 'Boardwalk Empire' has a certain relentlessness when it comes to building the world of bootlegger and politician Nucky Thompson (Steve Buscemi).

But there's a problem here. Despite all the attention to detail, or maybe because of it, 'Boardwalk Empire' is a slog. For long periods of time, it's boring, glum, bloodless slog.

It's a Frankenstein's monster built from elements that are supposed to work when placed in proximity to each other, but, aside from moments when certain supporting characters are on screen, this enterprise fails to come alive with any consistency. For 'Boardwalk Empire,' the structure of the story appears to be more important than the people moving through it. How can this drama get under my skin when it frequently fails to do just that with its own characters?

The creeping suspicion that 'Boardwalk Empire' suffers from too-much-of-a-good-thing-itis began in the second half of the show's first season, which didn't really conclude as much as it rolled to a stately stop. At some point, you want a show to ratchet down the world-building and start raising the stakes for the characters, and when a season ends, the audience should be deeply invested in where things go next.

But I've seen half of the second season of 'Boardwalk Empire,' and though it features occasional confrontations or bursts of action, I'm no more interested in Nucky's fate than I was last year (and that's not saying a lot).

On occasion, especially when it spends time on disfigured World War 1 veteran Richard Harrow (Jack Huston) and gangster Chalky White (Michael K. Williams), 'Boardwalk Empire' perks up and becomes truly compelling for a scene or two, but those moments don't come as regularly as they should. And soon enough, as the show methodically depicts rival groups attempting to control the flow of illegal liquor in and around Atlantic City, the show subsides into its preferred pace -- the metronomic rhythm of items being checked off a grocery list.

The show's lack of passionate engagement with its characters is deeply frustrating, given that Kelly Macdonald has a steely spark as the redoubtable Margaret Schroeder, Nucky's girlfriend, Michael Stuhlbarg is effortlessly charismatic as gangster Arnold Rothstein and Stephen Graham is endlessly watchable as Al Capone -- the list goes on and on. The truth is, for all its Quality Drama trappings, there's a superficial quality to 'Boardwalk Empire' -- character moments are rarely unexpected, illuminating or moving. The show gives us a light gloss on who each character is and what they want, and things tend to remain at that glancing level for long periods of time, and the story line of Michael Shannon's federal agent, Nelson Van Alden, is truly glacial this season. He doesn't even get to be entertainingly weird.

Some will love the deliberateness of 'Boardwalk Empire,' and the painstaking work that has gone into a story structure that, this season, depicts young Jimmy Darmody's attempts to wrest power from his mentor, Nucky. But the show doesn't do nearly enough to make viewers invest in Nucky's cause, or Jimmy's. I'm not one of those who doubts Buscemi's leading man possibilities, but Nucky's never really the center of this elaborate machine. I'm not sure it even has a center.

Nucky, whose two main modes are tired and annoyed, is just another character in a vast sea of them. We don't get to know many people in this world well, but maybe it's a supposed to be a consolation that there are so many of them.

And though Michael Pitt has had his moments as Jimmy, he's mostly a gloomy enigma this season. The relationship between Jimmy and his wife, Angela (Aleksa Palladino), is a perfect example what 'Boardwalk Empire' gets wrong. There's supposed to be pathos in the way these damaged people try and fail to connect, but we see so little of the pair that it's hard to care about their relationship.

To make a novel "worthy of attention, the canvas should be crowded with real portraits, not of individuals known to the world or to the author, but of created personages impregnated with traits of character which are known," Anthony Trollope wrote in his 'Autobiography.' "To my thinking, the plot is but the vehicle for all this; and when you have the vehicle without the passengers, a story of mystery in which the agents never spring to life, you have but a wooden show."

I'm not arguing that 'Boardwalk Empire' never springs to life, but it does so only fitfully, and that "wooden show" line is too often an apt description of Nucky's richly appointed surroundings. 'Boardwalk Empire' looks like a million bucks (more like tens of millions, if HBO's lavish budgets are anything to go by), but it never approaches the liveliness of 'Downton Abbey,' which is set about a decade earlier, or the tautness of 'Breaking Bad,' which manages to inject addictive suspense into a story about the trade in illicit substances. 'Boardwalk Empire' appears to be most interested in creating a map of Nucky's world, and when tries to make a thematic point, it frequently does so with large servings of overkill (if a particular sentiment is being expressed in a scene, there's a good chance a song on the soundtrack, a book held by a character or a glimpse of a film clip will reinforce that sentiment with all the subtlety of an anvil to the head).

It brings me no joy to bail out on 'Boardwalk Empire.' I thought the start of its first season was stylish and promising, but for me to stay interested in a group of people, I need to feel that the show itself is deeply intrigued by them. The problem is, long stretches of 'Boardwalk Empire' feel like a PowerPoint presentation come to life. The information is there, the aesthetic approach is "correct," but too frequently, I remained unmoved and uninvolved.

Watching the show's second season, I kept thinking back to Nancy Franklin's cogent review of the first season in the New Yorker. "Even if its point is to show you the ugly side of fun, 'Boardwalk Empire' should be much more fun to watch," Franklin wrote.

That's so true. Aren't gangster movies usually kind of thrilling (or trying to be)? And in the show's pilot, executive producer Martin Scorcese gave the show a visual pop that made it seem like Nucky was really going places. But these days, he's still in that suite in the Ritz, making deals, looking wan and tired of the high life. It may be the Roaring '20s, but he gets no kick from Champagne.

And it doesn't just have to be about fun: I wouldn't mind being moved to tears, being shocked, being surprised, even being ticked off by 'Boardwalk Empire.' Another HBO drama, 'Game of Thrones,' was clunky when it was first putting the pieces of its story in motion. But by focusing on a manageable number of people in that world and delving deep into their emotional and political quandaries, it managed to create an exciting moral and visual feast. I was gripped, even though I knew where that story is going.

I don't know exactly where 'Boardwalk Empire' is going, but I'm fairly sure the journey will be... organized.

Note: Ryan McGee and I also discussed 'Boardwalk Empire' in this podcast.

Follow @MoRyan on Twitter.

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dinadots

Maureen Ryan read my mind. This a very perceptive and well written review that illustrates the genuine failings of Boardwalk Empire. So much of what Maureen has managed to cover is what I've been feeling about the show. I gave it a second chance and I don't plan to continue watching. It's truly unfortunate that an opportunity of this magnitude has been wasted with bad story telling. The characters are one dimensional. Game of Thrones pops more and makes you care more. Maybe too much smoke was blown at these writer - producers for them to do a decent job. It's really sad. Or this distance they keep from the characters is actually judgment. Not one character except for half face man is someone you can care about and that is due to to the genuine talent of that actor rising above what little storyline he's been given. Knowing Boardwalk they'll blow him up soon as they don't know how to write to character which is what the medium of TV does best. Have they watched Downton Abbey? Breaking Bad? Mad Men? The Good Wife? Clearly not.

September 27 2011 at 1:00 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Raymond

Sean, Maureen isn't saying she finds it boring. She's just saying for all the effort she puts into the show - it takes a lot of patience and concentration to make it through an episode - she's not getting anything out of it. And that's the impression I'm getting too. Still I'm hoping season 2 will improve on season 1, so I may continue sticking with the show (for a while).

Compared to Mad Men, or other HBO series like say, The Wire, I have to say that BE is taking far too long to lay out its characters' motives and their nuances. Mad Men, for example, may be an example of what you call slow TV, but within the first 3 episodes the show has already laid out VERY clearly the personalities of its characters while keeping the mystery behind those characters intact. Some of the characters of BE are, unfortunately, really vague, and some (not all) of the events in the show seem inconsequential, never leading up to any little nugget of knowledge of the different characters.

September 27 2011 at 12:20 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Raymond

Sean, Maureen isn't saying she finds it boring. She's just saying for all the effort she puts into the show - it takes a lot of patience and concentration to make it through an episode - she's not getting anything out of it. And that's the impression I'm getting too. Still I'm hoping season 2 will improve on season 1, so I may continue sticking with the show (for a while).

Compared to Mad Men, or other HBO series like say, The Wire, I have to say that BE is taking far too long to lay out its characters' motives and their nuances. Mad Men, for example, may be an example of what you call slow TV, but within the first 3 episodes the show has already laid out VERY clearly the personalities of its characters while keeping the mystery behind those characters intact. Some of the characters of BE are, unfortunately, really vague, and some (not all) of the events in the show seem inconsequential, never leading up to any little nugget of knowledge of the different characters.

September 27 2011 at 12:20 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Sean

This article denies the return of antiquity. To say BE is boring goes against the knowing what true art is. This series gives us an inside look on how corrupt our country was (and still is) and gives a historical view of the effects of alcohol on a legal, economic, and cultural level.

September 25 2011 at 11:09 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
Jim Parks

This is going to be an exciting season. can't wait for it!
http://tinyurl.com/Boardwalk-Empire-2-Trailer

September 25 2011 at 12:42 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Alison

I'm really glad you posted this. BE is the kind of show I SHOULD love - looks gorgeous, compelling performances, complex and suspenseful interpersonal dynamics - but I realised last season I was just really bored, and I didn't know why. I was really hoping something had changed, but looks like it'll pile up unwatched for a while again.

September 25 2011 at 3:20 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Melanie Egan

I barely made it through Season 1 - and even then I only managed to finish it months after it had finished it's run, mostly because I was sick of seeing it in my TiVo lineup. Looks like Season Two has learned nothing from the mistakes of the first season. Ho hum. I'm taking a pass this time.

September 23 2011 at 2:33 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Tony

I enjoyed the 1st season of BWE; I'm looking forward to what else Nucky has in store. I thought it was a good story, not very fast paced but still enjoyable.

September 22 2011 at 10:54 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Sareeta

The best part of season 1 was Michael Pitt's character, Jimmy Darmody. He was the only character I felt any sympathy towards. If I tune in for season 2, it'll be to see what he's up to after his little sit down with the Commodore and Eli in season 1.

September 22 2011 at 9:24 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
TVMallory

A friend sent me your review and asked if I was the ghostwriter for it. :-) I couldn't agree more with your analysis of the problems with Boardwalk. I never could get excited about anything in Season 1, and the two other people I was watching it with felt the same. When there's nothing that's really pulling me into the show, I don't see the point in wasting my time watching it just to say that I did. I'm sure there are plenty of people out there who enjoy the methodical pacing, but personally I'm too impatient to deal with it.

September 22 2011 at 6:52 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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