TV Review: Amazing Ensemble Drives Success of ‘Boardwalk Empire’

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Average: 5 (2 votes)

CHICAGOHBO’s “Boardwalk Empire” found a narrative urgency and a deep sense of poetic melancholy in 2012’s season three, the best of the program’s run to date. The arrival of Gyp Rossetti (Bobby Cannavale) brought with it a sense of menace that had been severely lacking while the dual narratives of the doomed lovers of Nucky (Steve Buscemi) and Margaret (Kelly Macdonald) tied a lot of the season together thematically. It was a fantastic book in televised form.

HollywoodChicago.com Television Rating: 4.0/5.0
Television Rating: 4.0/5.0

The fourth season shows glimpses of that narrative maturity but returns to a more episodic structure than ever before. Over the first four episodes, plot threads begin their fascinating progression but feel more parallel than interwoven. Al Capone (Stephen Graham), Chalky White (Michael K. Williams), Richard Harrow (Jack Huston), Van Alden (Michael Shannon), Gillian (Gretchen Mol), Nucky (Buscemi) – they all get interesting arcs but feel almost completely on their own. It leads a critic who loves this show to want to hold off judgment on this season overall until I see how more separate plot arcs than ever find their way to at least a common thematic end. I have faith that they will.

Boardwalk Empire
Boardwalk Empire
Photo credit: HBO

If I’m not as instantly entranced by the storytelling of this season as I was last year, I am more than ever simply stunned by the talent of the ensemble. By dividing the narrative as much as they do this year, the actors almost feel invigorated, like they’re each being given as much time in the spotlight as Buscemi. More than ever, “Boardwalk Empire” feels like a true ensemble with the three Michaels (Stuhlbarg, Shannon, and Williams), newcomer & master actor Jeffrey Wright, Graham, and especially Huston doing incredible work in their individual scenes. The period detail has long been one of the show’s most advertised traits and it’s flawless but it’s the performances within this perfectly-rendered world that has made the show one of TV’s best.

Boardwalk Empire
Boardwalk Empire
Photo credit: HBO

Where do we stand in February of 1924? The drama that ended last season is not forgotten and Nucky is really laying low, which is part of the reason for the increased screen time for other characters. He’s generally alone as Margaret is absent to start the season. Nucky finds flirtation with boardwalk locals as he always does but there’s a deeper well of melancholy in his presence than usual, which leads to a season premiere that feels more like an overture than any before. The season doesn’t really take off until episode two when Shannon and Wright make their first appearances. Nucky’s heart’s not in anything. A trip to Florida in episode three may prove to be the spark that gets Nucky back in the crime game.

Meanwhile, Al Capone is expanding his grip on Chicago, working with his brothers (Domenick Lombardozzi & Morgan Spector) to take over more of the city’s crime racket; Van Alden is getting deeper into illegal activities, collecting vigs for O’Banion while delivering flowers; Gillian is still looking for some sense of normalcy and may find it with an unusual new beau (Ron Livingston); Nucky’s nephew Willie (Ben Rosenfield) could get drawn into the family business in unexpected ways; and Chalky butts heads with a fascinating new Harlem power broker named Valentine Narcisse (Jeffrey Wright) after Chalky’s man Dunn Purnsley (Erik LaRay Harvey) gets into some serious trouble.

Boardwalk Empire
Boardwalk Empire
Photo credit: HBO

And that’s really just a hint of the action here. I haven’t even mentioned the always-welcome increase of screen time for Michael Stuhlbarg or the most captivating arc of the new season, the journey of Richard Harrow, who feels like a tragic hero lost in the snow after losing his chance at love last year. Jack Huston is arguably the most underrated actor on television. Everything he does as Richard Harrow connects in ways that other actors wouldn’t have considered. He can be both vulnerable and menacing in the same line delivery. It’s a stunning performance when considered over the arc of the entire series. Arguably the program’s best.

Without Cannavale and Macdonald taking up large chunks of the narrative, the writers of “Boardwalk Empire” are free to roam this year and it leads to some fascinating places…yet they don’t yet come together in as satisfying a way as they did for me last year, to start. That’s not to say they won’t. Watching the first four episodes, I feel like I’ve read the first four chapters of a book. I’m not yet sure how the action in chapter three will relate to chapter eight. But I can’t wait to turn the next page.

“Boardwalk Empire” stars Steve Buscemi, Michael Shannon, Michael K. Williams, Michael Stuhlbarg, Jack Huston, Shea Wigham, Ben Rosenfeld, Ron Livingston, Gretchen Mol, Stephen Graham, Erik LaRay Harvey, and Jeffrey Wright. It returns to HBO on Sunday, September 8, 2013 at 9pm CST.

HollywoodChicago.com content director Brian Tallerico

By BRIAN TALLERICO
Content Director
HollywoodChicago.com
brian@hollywoodchicago.com

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