Boardwalk Empire episode 3 review: Broadway Limited

Boardwalk Empire takes its foot off the gas a little in its latest episode. But there's a familiar face from The Wire to enjoy...

3. Broadway Limited

Last week, I praised Boardwalk Empire for taking a little bit of time out to let us get to know the characters, as opposed to heaps of action and spectacle provided by the Scorsese-directed pilot. I clearly am a difficult person to please, however, because after Broadway Limited I was hankering for a bit more incident and excitement to accompany the storylines, which are otherwise chugging along nicely.

At times the pace of this episode was too stately. There’s nothing wrong with a drama unfolding at a steady pace, as Mad Men and The Sopranos have demonstrated in recent years. However, at the moment Boardwalk Empire is lacking a character with the magnetic screen presence provided by a Don Draper or a Tony Soprano.

This isn’t an affront to Steve Buscemi’s performance as Nucky Thompson, far from it. He’s still one of the best things about the show. He just hasn’t had much to get his teeth into so far, particularly in this episode, where his input is limited to shooting daggers at his ditzy lover, who is somewhat paradoxically both dull and permanently naked, and solemnly making business deals with Chalky White, an up and coming bootlegger who appears to be a much cannier operator than his careless predecessor.

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I alluded in an earlier review to HBO trading off its past successes a little bit with Boardwalk Empire, by returning to a premise that has served them very well in the past (gangsters) and employing a lot of Sopranos/Deadwood/Wire alumni in the cast and crew. This tradition continues with the casting of Michael K Williams as Chalky White, an actor familiar to most people who’ll be reading this as Omar from The Wire.

The smoking’s still there. The voice is very similar, if not the same. The scar’s still there (somewhat inevitably, seeing as it’s a real scar that Williams got in a bar fight as a teenager). While the character of Chalky lacks the more playful qualities of The Greatest Character Ever, you can’t help but think of Omar whenever he’s on screen and, dare I say it, yearn for a bit of his charisma to infuse some of the slower stretches of this episode.

There is some fun stuff in Broadway Limited, though. Last week Agent Van Alden stole the show with his bizarre ribbon sniffing, and this week he dials the crazy all the way up to eleven when he kidnaps a terminally ill witness, dumps him in the lap of a terrified dentist, fills him with cocaine, then tortures him to death before agitatedly quoting the Book of Revelation in front of a posse of bemused and terrified subordinates. “Isn’t he Jewish?” one of them deadpans, in a great scene that is easily the highlight of the episode.

We’re also treated to an equally hilarious vignette where he ‘enjoys’ a meal with his wife, looking about as comfortable as a pair of sandpaper Speedos.

I really like and buy into the character of a completely bugnuts FBI man. A quick examination of the real-life tendencies of, arguably, the most FBI man of all, J Edgar Hoover, demonstrates that he’s not as much of a cartoon as first appraisals might suggest. I just wonder how they’re going to top his antics next week. Perhaps if he was shown applying make-up and doing the ‘Buffalo Bill’ in front of a mirror. And if there’s anything that would make that particular scene any more disturbing, it would be by replacing Goodbye Horses with Danny Boy. You’re welcome, Scorsese.

The other characters are struggling to muster much interest at all. Michael Pitt is proving pretty uncharismatic in his role as Jimmy (I spent most of his time on screen desperately trying to figure out exactly how old he is supposed to be), and it’s something of a relief to see him out of the picture for a few episodes. Arnold Rothstein, one of the most interesting characters set up in the first couple of episodes, has screen time that lasts barely more than a minute here.

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And poor old Kelly Macdonald is stuck treading water in a thankless role that appears to be some weird hybrid of her character in No Country For Old Men and Ted from Ted and Ralph (“Oi wouldn’t know anything about that, sire”). She’s so meek it’s starting to become actively annoying. Stephen Graham doesn’t even manage to make an appearance at all this week.

The producers also seem to be channeling Troy McClure in that they think that what we’re all waiting for is copious amounts of hardcore nudity. Don’t get me wrong, that is what I’m tuning in for (this is HBO, after all), but not at the expense of tension, excitement, incident and drama.

That’s the problem with Boardwalk Empire right now. The twists and turns just don’t have the dramatic oomph that they should do. When Rothstein orders a hit on Jimmy, it should be a big climactic moment, but it’s hard to summon up anything other than ‘meh’.

I’m being harsh on the show, undoubtedly, but only in the way that Brazilian football fans are harsh on their team when they do anything other than win the World Cup.

Broadway Limited is fairly diverting bit of telly, but given the talent involved, that alone isn’t enough. Here’s hoping that in the coming weeks they start building to something truly spectacular.

Failing that, more nudity.

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Read our review of episode 2, The Ivory Tower, here.

Follow Paul Martinovic on twitter: @paulmartinovic.