Because HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire” was created by one “Sopranos” alum (writer/producer Terence Winter), because it stars another (Steve Buscemi) and is crewed by many more (most notably lead director Tim Van Patten), and because it takes place in Tony Soprano’s home state — albeit way back in the 1920s — it was easy to wonder in the show’s early days if this would finally be the rightful heir to “The Sopranos” legacy. Instead, as “Boardwalk” returns for a fourth season Sunday night at 9, the classic HBO drama it seems to have more in common with is “The Wire.”
Don’t get me wrong. “Boardwalk” is never going to be as thematically or sociologically rich as “The Wire,” nor is it as likely to have the kind of visceral impact on its audience. It’s a Hall of the Very Good drama living in the shadow of its Hall of Fame predecessors, and though the start of the fourth season (I’ve seen five episodes) is perhaps the show’s strongest opening to date, it hasn’t suddenly found a higher gear. It is what it is: a handsome, marvelously acted pulp gangster drama, with occasional moments that aspire to (and achieve) something more complex.
But more than any series since “The Wire” — other than perhaps “Wire” creator David Simon’s own “Tremé,” which will conclude its run this December — “Boardwalk Empire” evokes Simon’s vision of a novel for television. It’s a less literary work — it’d be shelved in the crime/mystery section rather than with general fiction — but one that becomes far more satisfying at the conclusion of each season than it is from chapter to chapter.
The show’s second season retroactively took on much more power at the end, after Buscemi’s Atlantic City fixer Nucky Thompson murdered his protégé Jimmy Darmody after Jimmy’s failed coup attempt. What had seemed to be a familiar war of equals that would end with both men resolving their differences for the sake of a TV show that didn’t want to do without either one of them instead revealed itself to be the final story of the tragic, too-brief life of WWI veteran Jimmy.
Last season, meanwhile, seemed to be stumbling around for large chunks, trying to service various supporting characters — Michael Kenneth Williams as Nucky’s African-American counterpart Chalky White, Jack Huston as Jimmy’s scarred buddy Richard Harrow, Kelly Macdonald as Nucky’s wife and sometime-consligieri Margaret, Michael Shannon as fugitive ex-Treasury agent Nelson Van Alden — in what felt more like a desire to keep the actors busy than anything that fit the larger story. By the end of the season, nearly all their stories wound up tying in neatly to the main arc about Nucky’s war with the New York mob, giving the final plot movements much greater emotional weight than if the series hadn’t taken what seemed like unnecessary detours away from Nucky.
That third season earned a lot of patience for me with the series going forward, which came in handy as I watched the start of the fourth. A lot of time is devoted, for instance, to Nucky’s nephew Willie (Ben Rosenfield) as he struggles to fit in at a fancy Philadelphia university. It’s far from the most gripping of the season’s storylines, but I’ve learned by now not to start demanding for a shift away to a more dynamic character like Chalky or Richard, because Winter, Howard Korder and the rest of the “Boardwalk” writers presumably have a plan to wrap everything up with a neat little bow by the end of the year. Similarly, I’m not worried that Margaret’s presence is all but non-existent in the first part of the year (though Macdonald remains part of the regular cast), because it feels like a more honest way to deal with her decision to end her marriage of convenience to Nucky. If she wound up back in Brooklyn by episode 2, it would feel every bit as false as if Nucky had let Jimmy live a couple of years ago.
Because Margaret’s elsewhere, and because the show has bumped off so many notable characters over the last few years, this is a season to shine for the show’s remaining bench players. There’s an awful lot of Chalky, who opens a jazz club that becomes Nucky’s new base of operations, and who gets entangled with Harlem fixer Dr. Valentin Narcisse (Jeffrey Wright), a Caribbean immigrant with a rigid philosophy of “Libyan” self-sufficiency” from the “Nordics” who are keeping them down.(*) And after being comic relief for most of three season’s as Nucky’s long-suffering butler Eddie, Anthony Laciura makes the most of his character’s increased prominence in both the show and the Thompson organization.
(*) Wright plays the role with such relaxed, almost hypnotic charm, that Narcisse instantly became one of my favorite characters in the history of the series. In addition, Narcisse and Chalky’s ongoing discussion of race relations at the dawn of the Jazz Age makes for one of those rare times when “Boardwalk” feels interested in the period for more than the cool suits and cooler gangsters.
The narrative remains geographically spread out. Richard goes on an extended trip to explore his past. Van Alden gets mixed up in Al Capone’s (Stephen Graham, also shining in an expanded role as the most famous of the show’s real-life wiseguys) rise to power in Cicero. And Nucky explores a new business opportunity down in Tampa, in an episode that evokes Dennis Lehane’s ‘20s crime novel “Live By Night.” Lehane began writing for “Boardwalk” this season (though he didn’t pen the Tampa episode), in an arrangement that feels just as natural as when Lehane and fellow authors George Pelecanos and Richard Price were all working on “The Wire.”
In the Tampa episode, a local mobster says he’s excited to meet Nucky; “Most people are,” Nucky replies, “until they do.” It’s a self-deprecating line, as well as a winking acknowledgment of how Nucky inevitably clashes with most of his partners, but it’s also an interesting one for him to say in the middle of a stretch of episodes where he’s the only major “Boardwalk” character lacking a clear arc. Over the course of these five episodes, it’s obvious what Chalky is trying to do, and what Richard, Eddie, Van Alden, Capone and so many others are, where Nucky seems to drift from story to story, problem to problem, often helping others without having a direction of his own.
Buscemi’s a great actor, but Nucky’s cagey passivity makes him at times seem like the fourth or fifth lead in his own series. He ties together the worlds of Capone, Arnold Rothstein (Michael Stuhlbarg), Chalky and the rest, but at times works better as a conduit for their stories than as someone carrying his own. At this stage, I can’t tell if the structure of the early episodes is the “Boardwalk” creative team acknowledging that, or simply them playing a longer game with their main character.
At one point in the premiere, Rothstein tells Nucky that “All of man's troubles come from his inability to sit quietly in a room by himself," and there are signs that Nucky suffers from this very inability. After winning the war with New York, he’s in a position where the business should be able to run itself comfortably, but he keeps getting entangled in other people’s problems, and keeps trying to expand when he doesn’t really need to.
Nucky usually reveals little of himself to others, but during the trip to Tampa, he opens up to a friendly bartender (played by Patricia Arquette) about the ways that Prohibition has changed his life for the worse.
“Til then,” he says, “I was a simple, run of the mill crook. A corrupt city official. And I was happy. Plenty of money, plenty of friends, plenty of everything. And then suddenly, plenty wasn’t enough.”
With its huge cast (the new season also adds Ron Livingston as a businessman who romances Gretchen Mol’s Gillian) and sprawling world, “Boardwalk Empire” could suffer from that desire for more than plenty. Inevitably, though, it reveals itself as a show with a firm grasp on all these disparate people and places, and a clear sense of how to fit them all together.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
NOTE: Because of the novelistic approach I discuss above — and because of the Sunday drama scheduling apocalypse that will be running for much of the fall — I may take a similar approach to covering this new season that I did to the previous season of "Tremé": weekly posts to start discussion, but nothing overly long most weeks. My feelings may change as we work through the season, but at this stage, I think each "Boardwalk" is more interestingly analyzed as a whole than in parts.