In the comments section of the AV Club, particularly when discussing Mad Men, there’s an overused turn of phrase: “on the nose.” It’s used when the symbolism in a given episode is a little too obvious.* Mad Men has earned reams of critical acclaim for the way its dialogue, cinematography and performances are all arranged to hint at a theme without hammering it in. In a given episode, the characters talk about, focus on and move toward everything but what they truly want. It forces the watcher to engage. That’s what makes Mad Men, at the moment, the best thing on television.
HBO’s Boardwalk Empire is on the nose.
It started in the pilot, with Atlantic City treasurer Enoch Thompson (Steve Buscemi) crowing with his ward bosses over how corrupt he was. He didn’t quite rub his hands and cackle, but that may have been an acting choice. Buscemi delivers his lines with a stiff formality. I can’t tell whether it’s part of the character – Thompson, at the height of his power, tiring of his facade – or Buscemi’s fatigue with the material. In any case, Buscemi is the least satisfying part of the show for me. He hardly revels in his power the way we want our gangsters to: Michael Corleone ordering the death of his enemies, Joe Pesci threatening to bash someone’s head in. He’s history’s most neurotic capo.
It continued in the second episode, where we learned that Margaret Nicholson (Kelly MacDonald) was the world’s most precocious Irish housewife. Smart enough to quote George Sand from memory but not smart enough to avoid marrying an abusive Kraut, the writers have made her the Voice of the Socially Conscious Woman. Which is a role the show needs, to be sure, but not quite as blunt. We don’t need a character in 1920 judging 1920 with the voice of 2010. That’s the sort of shit I expect from a Heinlein novel. She’s Boardwalk Empire‘s stab at Peggy Olsen, but Peggy at least has boldness if not perfect foresight. MacDonald’s too retiring to cheer for. It doesn’t help that she has the worst Irish accent since Back to the Future III.
And it continued in the fourth episode, with the further exploration of Chalky White (Michael K. Williams). Being one of those legendarily rabid Wire fans, I made a conscious effort not to put too much weight on Williams’s shoulders. “He’s a different character in this show,” I said. “He’s not Time Travelin’ Omar.” But the speech he gave before interrogating the Klansman reeked of cheap melodrama. Other writers on Overthinking It (Fenzel in particular) have decried the recent need to give every protagonist a backstory, and this episode really hammered home why.**
Williams’s speech ground the pace of the interrogation scene to a halt. It had built to a beautiful thrum of suspense, with the Sheriff hooding the prisoner and walking off. Next scene, Williams enters. We saw how torn up he was over his man getting killed. We know this is an HBO show about gangsters, so we’re expecting some violence. And we get … a speech. A long one, too. Because we wouldn’t believe that a black man in 1920 would be murderously mad at the Klan unless he had some personal involvement with them, like his papa getting lynched.
The scene’s almost saved when Williams quietly unfolds the leather parcel he brought in: a vast array of metal tools. “These my daddy’s tools,” he says.
And then the Klansman asks, “W-what are you going to do with them?”
Oh, for fuck’s sake. You’ve been handcuffed to a chair for twenty-four hours by Atlantic City’s corrupt sheriff. You’re still wearing your Grand Cyclops costume. A scarred black man has just been telling you about the time his father got lynched. And he’s fondling a pair of bolt cutters with a gleam in his eye. The fuck you think is going to happen?
Perhaps I’m being too harsh. I might have had high expectations going in, since I’d seen all of the above actors in exceptional pieces of art before (Reservoir Dogs; No Country for Old Men; The Wire, etc). Oddly enough, it’s the characters I had no real expectations of who’ve impressed me the most.
I love Michael Shannon’s unpredictable Prohibition agent. I can still make myself laugh recalling him struggling for breath as he hoists a dying witness into a dentist’s chair. “You got something to boost his system? Give him some pep?” I love Shea Wigham’s understated brutality as Enoch Thompson’s thuggish brother. I’m liking Paz de la Huerta more than I thought I might. She comes off as a vapid sexpot, but it’s a three-dimensional vapid sexpot; she’s not shallow for lack of characterization, if that makes any sense. I like Gretchen Mol, who not only showed some fire in the fourth episode but seemed to mean it, too. And I love the quietly suffering Eddie.
So of course I’ll continue watching it. It’s an HBO series, so it’s allowed to build slow. As a show about the games of power played with an ensemble cast of excellent actors, it’s better than 90% of what’s on TV today. I’m scraping the burned bits off my filet mignon here. It’s good TV; it’s better than I deserve.
But will someone tell the writers to shut up and let the actors do their job? There was a fantastic bit in the fourth episode where Buscemi’s character is getting dressed for the day. “Get my shoes,” he tells Eddie. “Which ones?” Eddie asks. Buscemi stares at his valet in frustrated disbelief and points at the suit he’s wearing. Eddie nods and hustles toward the closet. That wordless exchange said more about their characters than a paragraph of text could – and it was funny, too. More of that, please; less of the other thing.
* Formally, “on the nose” means “I’m worried all my friends got it too, and I won’t need to explain it to them.”
**In a good story, we discover a character through their actions and their words. In a mediocre story, we discover a character through exposition – what they or other people say about them. And backstory is exposition. “You didn’t hear about how his parents were killed in 9/11, by the terrorist he let escape when he was serving in Operation Desert Storm, which he only enlisted in to make his daddy proud?” If you want to show me a conflicted character, then tell the actor to act conflicted. Or, even better, script a conflict! Don’t talk at me.