Posted in Television

Boardwalk Empire: Altogether Now

“You’d Be Surprised,” Sunday’s aptly titled episode of “Boardwalk Empire,” certainly proved to be true. We sure saw more of Gyp Rossetti than we ever expected, and other characters revealed more about themselves, though in far more demure fashion. This show is turning darker by the week—the unexpected is now the norm. And all of it makes for riveting viewing.

Although everything on the BE menu this Sunday was a winner, I have to begin with Eddie Cantor, memorably played by Stephen DeRosa. What a trooper. Here he is, leaned on by Nucky to breathe life into a dog of a show—a vanity project—and he sucks it up, lights up those banjo eyes, and goes out to entertain his public (though you have to ask yourself, if this show has an Irving Berlin score, how bad can it really be?). The best performances, however, were  those turned in by Messrs. White and Pursley, whose minimalist approach could certainly teach a stage director or two.

And speaking of pros, I relished James Cromwell’s surprise appearance as Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon. What a superb actor he is—how economically he conveyed the man’s distaste for enforcing a law he personally disagrees with, as well as the disgust he feels for Attorney General Daughtery and the futility of the Volsted Act. No wonder Jess Smith is sweating—between senatorial oversight and the scheming Gaston Means, he’s got a lot to worry about. 

In other news, it’s evident that Nucky is going to suffer greatly over Billie, who has bad end written all over her. There’s so much Charles Foster Kane and Susan Alexander going on here. At best she’s a cute little flapper—a saucy ingenue, not a leading lady. Yet here’s Nucky bankrolling a show for her, something that even she doesn’t want him to do. There’s a dark side to her: the young lady seems awfully fond of the sauce even by Jazz Age standards, and there’s a lot she’s not telling Nucky. And after the failed attempt on Gyp Rosetti, she’s a great candidate for the crosshairs. I sense tragedy looming.

I’m of two minds about Margaret. The do-gooder side of her drove me up the wall last season and into the current one, but now that she has an antagonist in the censorial nun monitoring her classes (hard to believe it’s Rebecca Luker under that wimple), I’m beginning to like her again. Where her mess of a marriage will lead is anyone’s guess, but my money is on Dr. Mason. The introduction of his fiancée was so gratuitous I felt the anvil hitting my head on the way down. 

On the business side of things, I have to say Rothstein is an incredible shrewdy. He has a palpable distaste for Nucky, yet he knows Nucky is still a better bet than Gyp Rosetti. Gyp may own Tabor Heights, its police force and gas station (not to mention the diner and every waitress in the place), and block any liquor armada at will, but Rothstein knows how crazy this man really is. He’s all-seeing. Given his prudishness about Nucky’s relationship with Billie, you can imagine how Rothstein feels about Gyp’s little autoerotic asphyxiation routine (and you can bet the ranch that Rothstein has made it his business to know). The execution scene, with teen-age Bugsy Siegel posing as a newsboy, was wonderfully operatic in scope, ending with that menacing Gyp glower as his men lay dead around him. Bravo.

But the biggest shock of the night came when Van Alden learned that his meek little Swedish wife swings a mean rolling pin (but what a gallant husband he is—“Avert your eyes”—as he delivers the coup de grace). Agent Coughlin, that poor Prohi, who evidently had no idea whatsoever that Van Alden was a rogue agent, lost his life just by standing up for his rights as a consumer. That’ll learn ya. Now he’s going to end up as fertilizer in Dion O’Bannion’s garden. Given Dion’s smile at Van Alden’s request for help, I suspect the latter won’t be peddling irons much longer.

I think this one may have just turned the season around.

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Posted in Brain Bits, Television

Brain Bits for the Ides of October

It’s a gorgeous October Sunday here in the Garden State—SUV’s loaded with kids have headed straight to haunted houses, hay rides and other Halloween attractions. Smarter folk, like yours truly, took note of the prevailing family friendly agenda and headed straight for the nearest mall. I spent so much time at Famous Footwear trying on boots that I was fortunate not to be charged rent. Mission accomplished: I found the most stylish, comfortable pair around, wearable with skirt or pants. My day is made.

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I started a new project in Manhattan last week, and on my very first day tangled with the Beast known as New Jersey Transit. NJT runs several of its lines (including mine) at the sufferance of Amtrak, which owns the rails and maintains the equipment. On this particular night, however, failure went into overdrive. A signal was out near Newark Airport, and the delays mounted. I boarded the 7:22 p.m. which sat….and sat….and sat at the Penn Station platform. No information whatsoever was forthcoming. The conductor got on the loudspeaker every 20 minutes to announce that the Amtrak dispatcher wasn’t saying when we’d leave, and NJT dispatch had no information as to whether the PATH train (the other rail system between New Jersey and New York) was cross-honoring tickets. Ironically, if you had enough bars on your smartphone and could access the NJT website, you would have learned the answer to that question, pronto.

We finally left Penn Station shortly after 9:00, to be halted several times by Amtrak dispatch as it juggled its trains as well as those of NJ Transit. But the capper of the night came at Rahway station, as the conductors, who had just seen passengers off, started yelling to each other: “What the f–k? Did you just see all the signals go out?” Yes, fans, they did. No signals, no go, and we sat at that platform for another 45 minutes. The poor woman across the aisle from me, who had taken the 5:00 a.m. train into Manhattan that morning, had only one more stop to go—she could have walked home in the time it took for us to get going again. And when I finally got to my station, I learned I had to drive an extra 10 miles out of my way because the N.J. Department of Transportation had a night crew out to resurface the nearby highway, and all side streets were blocked off. I finally walked through my front door at midnight, a mere four and a half hours after I boarded the train in Manhattan.

Just another day in the life. Some time I’ll tell you what it was like to be in an office elevator when the East Coast power grid went down. Or starting a project on the day that Manhattan experienced its first earthquake in decades. Stay tuned.

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It’s that time of year, when all the new TV shows have arrived, old favorites have returned, and your DVR is your best friend. Last Sunday saw the season premiere of “Upstairs, Downstairs,” opposite “Boardwalk Empire,” and the new season of “Downton Abbey” will follow on December 2nd in the same time slot. And that’s in addition to the baseball post-season and the NFL, which has emerged from its Sunday cage to appear in prime time nearly every night of the week. I’m sure I’ll be commenting on all of these eventually. Fall always brings great TV and a sense that you’re being pulled in six directions simultaneously.

Until “Blue Bell Boy,” the most recent “Boardwalk Empire” episode, it was fairly easy to write about the direction of the show. Now the path seems less clear, which is a compliment, not criticism. We’re still in “gangster of the week” mode, but getting glimmerings of an overriding arc to this season. The Torrio/O’Bannion feud has begun in earnest, Luciano and Lansky are looking to keep Joe Masseria’s piece of their heroin trade to a minimum, and Nucky was even more dyspeptic than usual (that Sal Hepatica Bugsy Siegel was cutting heroin with might have helped). We also saw Owen Sleator learn a lesson, Eli play detective, Margaret schooled in euphemism, and Mickey Doyle fall for the old double cross. The lighter moments were especially welcome—I particularly enjoyed Nucky’s paying off Agent Sawicki with “Go buy yourself a personality,” and even more, Gyp Rosetti’s line to the diner waitress: “One of these days I’ll take you in the back…and teach you how to make sauce” (Bobby Cannavale’s facial expressions alone made for a one-act play). And then we had Rowland Smith, teen-age heister, responding to Owen’s fists to the gut to force his name: “Lon Chaney [whomp]. Norma Talmadge [whomp] Baby Peggy [whomp].” It was sad to see this engaging wiseguy go, but as we learned in the first episode this season, Nucky has no use for anyone he can’t trust. As Eli, and now Owen, have learned.

But most of all this episode reminded us that no matter how much enjoyment we derive from watching gangsters at work, there are still innocents who suffer. The most persistent image of “Blue Boy Bell” remains the face of Al Capone’s little son, baffled by his father’s wanting him to learn how to defend himself. At first the boy is confused by Al’s belligerent attitude, raising his hands over his head when he misunderstands his father’s command to “put ’em up.” When his eyes filled with tears and his face crumpled at the sight of his daddy’s anger and frustration, I cried along with Al as he took his son in his arms to comfort him (the aptly-named triplet brothers, Alex, Ben and Caleb Eckstein, an incredibly talented trifecta indeed, share the role of Sonny). The collateral damage is piling up in BE-land—in Season One, it was Pearl, Jimmy’s favorite Chicago prostitute. Last season it was Angela Darmody. And now there are two little boys—Sonny Capone and Tommy Darmody—with futures to be shaped by their fathers’ warped world, a world that Chalky White so emphatically wants his daughter to leave.

All of this makes “Homeland” a great diversion. I watched the most recent episode on my Droid Razr as I took the train home (during a far smoother trip than the one described above). The other passengers must have thought I was having a seizure—I was only watching the gang attempting to escape from Beirut, with Carrie bailing to search Abu Nazir’s quarters while armed locals stormed the building. Just your standard soothing fare. And when Carrie finally arrived home, plopped herself down on the sofa and smiled that rueful, enigmatic smile, we had a perfect ending to the episode. But it’s really just a pause—if you’re a dedicated “Homeland” viewer, you’ll find yourself nagged by questions that just pop into your head at the strangest times. Yesterday when I was driving home from the supermarket, it occurred to me that maybe the napsack Carrie found was a plant. Maybe the video Brody made was a false confession. But on the other hand……..

This is exactly why I love this show.

Posted in Television

Man in the Mask; Woman in the Hijab

It’s no accident that two of the most charismatic characters on television are also among the most damaged. One hides the full extent of his wounds behind a tin mask; the other, seemingly a healthy young woman, is one whose psyche has been splintered and (hopefully) mended. Enter “Boardwalk Empire”‘s Richard Harrow and “Homeland”‘s Carrie Mathison, brilliantly played by Jack Huston and Claire Danes.

Richard Harrow brought last Sunday’s rather mediocre episode to life when he kidnapped Mickey Doyle at gunpoint, barged into Nucky Thompson’s office and forced him to reveal that his boast about killing Manny Horvitz was a lie. The dialogue that ensued after Mickey quaked out of the room was “Boardwalk Empire” at its best, simultaneously laconic and revelatory. Despite the number of people Richard has killed (63 by his own admission), he remains a man of honor. His insistence in claiming ownership of Manny Horvitz’s murder was not simply pride of authorship—he wanted it known why that man had to die. And when Nucky expressed surprise at the rationale behind the act, namely vengeance for the murder of Angela Darmody, we saw the true face of the man once more. Implicitly acknowledging that Nucky killed Jimmy, but also understanding the code of war, Richard somberly notes “Jimmy was a soldier. He fought. He lost.” When he assures Nucky that neither he nor his family will have anything to fear from him, you believe it. The capper, when Nucky, still haunted by Jimmy’s murder, asks whether he ever thinks about the people he killed, Richard’s terse response (“You know the answer to that yourself”) sealed one of the most riveting scenes aired to date on “Boardwalk Empire.”

There’s a delicious irony in the fact that Richard Harrow, destroyed in so many ways by the war and earning his living as an enforcer, has become, after Angela’s demise, the unselfish heart of the show. This makes for an interesting contrast with “Homeland,” which had its season premier on Sunday. It was absolutely absorbing from start to finish—watching Brody (speaking of damage) get squeezed by Abu Nazir’s envoy; trying to figure out who Nazir’s mole in the CIA is; seeing Jessica’s trust in her husband erode when he confirms that he is indeed a Muslim, perhaps causing her to realize that Carrie may not have been totally around the bend in her accusations.

But it was Carrie’s re-emergence from the shadow of her illness that made this an episode to relish. Damaged by years of living with bi-polar disorder, and more recently by the electro-convulsive therapy she elected to undergo, Carrie is a bit fragile when we first see her tending her garden. It’s heartening to see her rip into Estes for appealing to her patriotism when he asks her to undertake a mission; it’s frustrating to see her struggle to retain the details of her cover, knowing that her therapy has made hash of her short-term memory. But when she arrives in Beirut and is tailed on her way to meet Saul Berenson, her mentor, the fireworks really start. What a great sequence—she ignores Saul’s directive, slips into the market for a quick change of hijab, knees her pursuer in the groin, kicks his gun under a table and swiftly exits, a big fat grin of triumph on her face (hence the episode’s title, “The Smile”). And you realize that giving the guy the slip was only gravy–Carrie knows she’s made it back, and so, to our delight, do we.

Bravissimi!