'Boardwalk Empire' review: The tedium of shock

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Image Credit: HBO

Boardwalk Empire, with its handsomely burnished fixtures and darkly lit rooms, has always traded on the fiction-based-on-research that its dandy-fied bootleggers are capable of wanton acts of violence to keep the employees and customers in line. But Sunday night’s season-three premiere upped the ante in this area by introducing Bobby Cannavale as Gyp Rosetti, and I don’t care how much proof the producers muster that a guy like Gyp could be/would be/was this psychotic, I’m not buying the character — and this aspect of the series — as being much more than an example of a cable show using its freedom to portray some of its acts of violence as quick dramatic shorthand for daring, or seriousness of intent.

Cannavale is a wonderful actor; for only the most recent proof, just look at his stint on Nurse Jackie. But here, his talents are being used to portray a gangster would have Joe Pesci’s Goodfellas hot-headed character Tommy DeVito rolling his eyes in dismay. When you open your new season with a scene in which an utterly innocent man is cruelly punished by Gyp for — what, for making this intellectually insecure thug feel mildly embarrassed about his own ignorance of 3-in-1 oil? — you’re sending out the message: Ooooh, watch out for this guy, anything can happen! “Anything” being the kind of abrupt eruption that has devolved into a cliche since, at the least, Goodfellas had Tommy maim Michael Imperioli’s Spider. (Later in the episode, he delivered a good line — a description of Nucky/Buscemi as a “breadstick in a bow tie” — with exhilarating vigor.)

It was immediately followed by a scene of the Steve Buscemi’s Nucky Thompson intimidating one of his employees-by-extension, having him killed off to send the audience a message: Watch out for The Great Breadstick, anything can happen! Pattern noted. Also noted: Nucky’s knucklehead logic. He blames Mickey Doyle, the so-called “imbecile” who oversees a piece of the booze action, so you think Nuck’s going to punish him instead of the thief, but then he has the thief killed anyway. Even in the Nucky-verse, whose punishment would have taught a better, more reverberating lesson to those with future dealings with Nucky? Certainly not the indigent survivors of the thief…

Similarly, the transformation of Kelly Macdonald’s Margaret from shy, self-doubting working-class girl to primly confident businesswoman and charity benefactor has also been a tad difficult to accept in the blithe speed of this evolution. Then too, scenes in St. Theresa’s Hospital this week — Margaret’s sangfroid shaken by witnessing the collapse of a woman suffering a miscarriage; the handsome but surly Dr. Mason whom she’s bound to become involved with on some level or another — felt like exposition that needed to be hauled into place here in the premiere, to set up actions for more interesting developments later on.

And the episode’s framing device — the media interest in aviatrix Claire Duncan that attracted Margaret’s attention, drawn to the notion of a high-flying free woman (“Can you imagine, soaring through the sky like a bird?”) — only served to drag down Boardwalk Empire to the thudding ground of damp symbolism.

However, while the killing of William Forsythe’s Manny Horwitz was in keeping with the hour’s surprise-violence, it felt more earned: Manny had earned being snuffed in a post-Jimmy Darmody gesture (and, if you use Nucky’s gangster standard of values, overreached for power); plus it’s always exciting when Jack Huston’s Richard Harrow uses a gun, isn’t it?

The subplot that was most satisfying of all was Michael Shannon’s Van Alden peddling electric irons door-to-door, mostly because who can get enough of Shannon? His crushed face, as though not God but Dick Tracy’s Chester Gould had created his features, always fills me with expectations of tension that are, more often than not, fully earned. This night, Van Alden was pulled a one-man Glengarry Glen Ross, and Shannon made the entire enterprise a small tragic play within the screenplay. And his G-man-trained fast-thinking in the flower shop scene was a little moment of exceptional performance and staging as well. Shannon proves the exception to the rule in Boardwalk Empire: The simple one, that less is a whole lot more.

What did you think of the premiere?

Twitter: @kentucker

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