As its second season begins, David Chute finds that he admires Boardwalk Empire but does not love it.
We took it as a sign during Boardwalk Empire’s first season that the show’s fabulously expensive exterior and interior sets never felt lived in. Compare Boardwalk’s boardwalk, a beautiful sweep of CG-enhanced Hollywood carpentry, with Deadwood’s Deadwood, an assortment of tents and swaybacked outhouses, awash in mud and dust and struggling humanity. Even the Harlan County, Kentucky, of Justified, cobbled together from various locations in Southern California, conveys a more organic sense of place. The characters are convinced that they were born and raised and rooted there, and so do we.
As its second season begins, Boardwalk remains a show that we admire more than we love, by which we are impressed but not seduced. Someone said (I wish I could remember who), that BE plays less like a classic gangster drama than the latest variation on vampire chic, with saturnine Steve Buscemi as the gliding Nosferatu of racketeers. Would that it were that much fun. With every detail of decor and performance carefully molded and sanded and buffed to a high gloss, the primary appeal of Boardwalk Empire will be to connoisseurs of meticulousness.
Thankfully, the show’s passionate devotion to detail extends to the sensitivity with which even the smallest roles have been cast — the background hookers in Johnny Torio’s Chicago cathouse, for example, who could have stepped out a period Weegee-style photograph. Actress Emily Meade as Pearl, Jimmy’s ill-fated dreamer fling, caught our attention last year, and the ongoing vibrations of Aleksa Palladino as Jimmy’s soulful wife Angela, cast adrift by both her fence-straddling sexuality and her dreams of Parisian creative splendor, come across even when all she’s doing is serving ham and eggs to Jimmy and new housemate Richard “Tin Woodman” Harrow. And Enid Graham, as hard-case prohibition agent Van Alden’s wife Rose, manages in just a few short scenes to suggest the contours of an inner life within a shell of jittery repression.
The pieces, in other words, the individual contributions, tend to be first rate. What’s missing is a sense of the whole sweep of the program as a living entity. Boardwalk Empire is an ungainly simulacrum of a fabulous TV show, heavy on its feet, lumbering through the underbrush. What’s missing is the jolt of galvanic energy that would fuse the parts and bring the creature to life. An odd thing to be short on, energy, in a Martin Scorsese project.
I don’t know what they have to be so self-conscious about, given the richness of the historical material. If they stick to the chronology and make it all the way from the establishment of prohibition in 1920 to repeal in 1933, the show will pass along the way one of the true landmarks of mob history in the U.S., the 1929 summit meeting of mobsters from across the country, organized by Lucky Luciano and hosted by Nucky Johnson/Thompson in Atlantic City, the event that created the first true nationwide crime syndicate. But at this rate, and as this pace, I’m not sure I’ll make it that far.