Boardwalk Empire, which returned to HBO for a fourth season Sunday night, is the best show on television that no one ever asks me about.
I am not cornered by co-workers in Monday-afternoon conversations about developments in Sunday’s episode. I don’t drown in tweets as an episode airs. When my time is too stretched, I can delay watching Boardwalk Empire for three, four, even five episodes and not get caught with my pants down. And it’s telling, don’t you think, that the show is not up for a best-drama Emmy this year?
This lack of thunder doesn’t mean people don’t watch and enjoy Boardwalk Empire; rather, I think, it underlines a certain maturity with which they do watch, employing a set of manners that hark back to a recent but finished era of viewership that didn’t involve such frantic displays of devotion. To lose yourself in Boardwalk Empire is to do so quietly, since, after all, you never lose the feeling that you’re in the presence of the dead, or those who are about to be.
Never has that been more clear than in the first of this season’s new episodes. Boardwalk Empire, created by Terence Winter, has established its formula and is in the process of beating itself to a pulp. The show still deserves high praise on its technical merits (and some achingly good performances), but you can tell that viewers are numbed to the violent world of Enoch “Nucky” Thompson (played by the never-wavering Steve Buscemi), the Prohibition-era liquor distributor of Atlantic City, very loosely based on the life of an actual racketeer. It’s a tense saga, but it has nothing like Breaking Bad’s relentlessly enthralling tension, pace and talking points. Instead, you just wait for people to get whacked.
Something’s got to give on this show, and soon; there must be some incredible payoff for those of us who’ve held tight since 2010. This season’s first half (caution: light spoilers and plot set-up will follow) unfortunately moves at a slow stride, with some shopworn tricks and debatable turns in the overall narrative. That includes the apparent death of a character that will not be as momentous as the death of Jimmy Darmody at the end of Season 2, but it’s a death that might serve as a pivot point for the overall Nucky story, rather than act as another in his long list of inconvenient tragedies.
It is early 1924 now, and we find Nucky still reasserting his grip on the regional underground booze trade, after a near-disastrous showdown last season with the terrifying — and now dead — Gyp Rosetti (in an Emmy-nominated performance from Bobby Cannavale).
We have to take the good things about Boardwalk Empire (the acting, the authenticity in its exquisite details, and most of the writing) along with the bad (the repetitiveness, the plodding). There’s a bigger role this time for Chalky White, played by Michael Kenneth Williams, who saved Nucky’s hide in last season’s finale and now runs the Onyx Club. There’s more schadenfreude to revel in when it comes to Gretchen Mol’s character, the faded flower Gillian Darmody, who is still on karma’s receiving end and hitching her hopes to a new love interest (Ron Livingston). Boardwalk Empire’s most contextualized and rivetingly complex character (and perhaps its only true soul), Jack Huston’s half-masked Richard Harrow, has wandered afield after a killing spree.
Kelly Macdonald, who plays Nucky’s estranged wife, Margaret, is absent the first half of the season, which is a real loss, no matter what kind of grand re-entrance the writers might have in store for her. Michael Shannon, who plays pathetically demoralized federal agent Nelson Van Alden (now living as George Mueller), has fallen victim to Boardwalk’s ambition to weave a national tapestry of the crime syndicates of the 1920s. He now works for Al Capone (Stephen Graham) in Chicago, a thread that feels more and more tangential as Boardwalk Empire continues its sprawl. (Southward this year: Nucky pursues a land deal in booming Tampa, to initiate a rum trade, which adds little to the show except banyan fans, swamp sweat, and Patricia Arquette.)
Following other much-trod techniques for story arcs, Boardwalk Empire brings on new antagonists each season. This time it’s Jeffrey Wright as Valentin Narcisse, an elegantly sinister presence. More intriguing is Brian Geraghty as Warren Knox, a young federal agent who reports directly to J. Edgar Hoover (Eric Ladin). Beneath his cornfed demeanor, he shows great potential for menace.
I saw your eyes glaze over several sentences ago; it takes as long to initiate and update a conversation about Boardwalk Empire as it does to simply watch the thing. And we should all keep watching, even though Boardwalk Empire provides little in the way of subtext, or meaning or, God forbid, hope. What it gives me is a level of quality assurance. It’s like a secret arrangement; we keep it under the table.