Posted in Television

Boardwalk Empire: What Might Have Been

 

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It has to end with Repeal.

“Boardwalk Empire” is now in its fifth and final season. The mood is elegiac—the time is 1931, we’re deep in the Depression, and Nucky Thompson, political as always, seeks to co-opt a malleable U.S. Senator to push for the end of Prohibition (Fashion note: Steve Buscemi looks great in his sharply tailored, early 30’s suits). Lucky Luciano and Meyer Lansky are in open warfare with Doctor Narcisse, who refuses to pay them protection. Margaret, having siphoned money from Abe Redstone’s Arnold Rothstein’s stock account since his demise, has been handed an ultimatum from the Widow Rothstein re: the missing funds. Gillian is in the booby hatch, Chalky White is on the run, and Joseph P. Kennedy doesn’t drink.

Is this where we wanted to be?

Although I’ve enjoyed “Boardwalk Empire” for what it’s been, I have a strong sense of missed opportunity. I would love to know what the show runners originally had in mind after that first intriguing season. In addition to Prohibition, they started us off with a fair sampling of what made the nascent 1920’s tick—the winning of votes for women, Margaret Sanger, Eddie Cantor and an endless supply of great music. But their having to deal with two reportedly obstreperous/difficult/whatever actors who were dropped/fired/left of their own accord, depending upon your source of information, forced some changes. The subtraction of one, Paz de la Huerta (Lucy Danziger, Nucky’s discarded mistress and Van Alden’s baby mama), caused only a minor ripple. However, the loss of the other, namely Michael Pitt as Jimmy Darmody, has been felt ever since his character’s murder at the end of Season Two. That father/surrogate son dynamic he had with Nucky was the heartbeat of the show. Its replacement, an ever-diffuse gangster epic, has not proven to be as intriguing as the show runners had hoped. We’ve seen it before and quite honestly, it’s been done better.

The Real Atlantic City, 1920's
The Real Atlantic City, 1920’s

As a native New Jerseyan, I would have liked more of Atlantic City in the show. Historically it was one of the premiere resorts of the East Coast during the era in which “Boardwalk Empire” is set, yet we’ve really had little of this since Season One. We’ve rarely seen the fabled hotels, the ballroom on Steel Pier, a salt water taffy machine, the Diving Horse, or had a real grasp of the extent of the tourist trade. After all, Atlantic City was known as “the lungs of Philadelphia,” and was a regular stop on the try-out circuit for shows headed to Broadway. We’ve been “Boardwalk-less Empire” for quite some time, what with Atlantic City having to take a back seat to goings-on in Chicago, New York, Florida and now Cuba.

Another problem has been the depressing disposability of the female characters of this show. Given the fate of these ladies, I had the clear impression, week after week, that the show runners were charter members of the Old Boys Club. Daughter Maitland, Maybelle White, Billie Kent, Lucy Danziger, Babette and of course, Angela Darmody, met untimely ends, disappeared or otherwise suffered. Angela’s murder, in itself one of the more horrible acts on “Boardwalk Empire,” also deprived us of a potential window to the Greenwhich Village scene, something which was foreshadowed in Season One. Considering the explosion of the arts in America in the 1920’s, not following through with this storyline was a considerable loss—it would have been an intriguing counterpoint to the world of bloodshed and booze.

Nevertheless, there’s always been something to relish in “Boardwalk Empire.” Various characters stay with you: Michael Stulhbarg’s Arnold Rothstein (the one reason why I wish they hadn’t hopscotched to 1931, past his final days). Michael K. Williams’ Chalky White. Eddie Cantor (Stephen DeRosa), Esther Randolph (Julianne Nicolson). Mickey Doyle (Paul Sparks)—and his giggle. Eli Thompson (Shea Whigham) and Nelson Van Alden (Michael Shannon), truly this season’s Odd Couple. But Valentin Narcisse, played by the elegant Jeffrey Wright, is a special delight. He’s a master of the quiet bon mot. Witness his recent sit-down with Charlie Luciano and Meyer Lansky. Narcisse politely inquires how they wish to be addressed. “Charlie” “My ma called me pitseleh” (Yiddish for “little one”). Narcisse’s response? A small smile. “What friendly little names.” And the other two actors are blown right off the screen.

I’m particularly intrigued by how Margaret intends to play Nucky in order to set herself right with the Widow Rothstein and the feds, though I’m sure Eli’s kid is about to help. And the flashbacks to Nucky’s boyhood are a treat—I’m enjoying how they play at a slower tempo, befitting simpler times. And whoever cast John Ellison Conlee as the young Commodore deserves a special Emmy. Vocally he’s a perfect match for Dabney Coleman and while he’s heftier than the older version of the character, his facial expressions more than suggest the man we first met several years ago.

There are only five episodes remaining in this final season. Despite its flaws, I’ll be sad to see it go.

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Posted in Television

Layers

"Masters of Sex": Prelude
“Masters of Sex”: Prelude

We seem to be in a golden age of drama, whether cable or streamed. There may be more water cooler shows than water coolers these days, as “Breaking Bad,” “Orange is the New Black,” “House of Cards” and a number of others can easily attest. What marks each, regardless of subject, is the complexity of the writing and the astonishing ability of the actors to play the intricate levels of emotion demanded by their roles. It’s a welcome feast.

Case in point: A scene in an early episode of the recently concluded season of “Last Tango in Halifax.” You’ll recall that Caroline (Sarah Lancashire) and Kate (Nina Sosanya) have finally, sort of, gotten together, though they’re not out at work (Caroline is the headmistress of the rather tony school at which Kate teaches). On this occasion, as they walk to school assembly, Caroline flapping in her academic robe, they discuss Caroline’s suggestion that Kate sell her house, move in with her and help finance Caroline’s buy-out of her soon-to-be ex-husband’s interest. Kate’s not sure Caroline is making this offer for the right reasons until Caroline blurts out “I want to spend the rest of my life with you.”

"Last Tango in Halifax": Negotiations Await
“Last Tango in Halifax”: Negotiations Await

Talk about a game changer. From that point on, as the characters discuss property appraisals, they wear the dippiest smiles—both realize Caroline has in essence proposed. But then Kate, pressured by that chapel of students waiting on the headmistress, as well as a desire to put her own cards on the table, comes out with “I want to have a baby.” In the stress of the moment Caroline bursts out laughing—at the incongruous setting of the discussion, at her own audacity in moving things along with Kate, at Kate’s desire to have a first child at the age of 42. Fortunately Sarah Lancashire has the talent to make us see all of this in an instant, which is why this scene is one of my “Tango” favorites.

The second season of “Masters of Sex,” though at the darker end of the spectrum, plays at the same level. It began with a bang (no pun intended), when Virginia Johnson (Lizzy Caplan) was forced to fend off a series of passes from the leering doctors who thought hers was the orgasmic body in William Masters’ lecture film. While there have been other fireworks along the way, the best scenes this season have been those exploring the relationship between her and Bill (Michael Sheen). In Season 1 we saw them become subjects in their own study, as they practically swore an oath they were only doing it for the good of science. But despite their best efforts, things became complicated.

Their scenes together are a fascinating study of emotional layers, both as they accrete and as they’re peeled away. We see their hotel room trysts and watch as they fantasize for each other, revealing more about their lives than they’re otherwise capable of doing. A romantic relationship it’s not–at one point Ginny prevents Bill from kissing her, reminding him “That’s not what we do”—but they’re certainly obsessed with each other, both sexually and in terms of who has the power in their relationship. Bill is a physician, so his credentials outshine Ginny’s, the college dropout. Ah, but she’s divorced and free to embark on any relationship she wants, despite his protests, while he’s in a marriage that clearly isn’t fulfilling for him. At this point his need is greater, and she’s not as available as he would want.

All of this is beautifully played by Michael Sheen and Lizzy Caplan. The nuances they bring to their roles are astonishing—I especially enjoy her self-conscious “educated” accent. In a recent episode they repaired to their usual hotel suite and the methods of their sexuality study easily morphed into foreplay (She ordered him to strip and, stopwatch in hand, monitored his physical responses as he masturbated). Every moment was charged with about six different emotions, and these actors made it feel as if we were eavesdropping, as well we were.

Michael Sheen is a fascinating Bill Masters—I still can’t believe he wasn’t nominated for an Emmy. Masters’ confrontation with the black newspaper editor who intends to publish a profile detailing his troubled employment history is a showcase of great acting. To stop publication, Masters threatens to reveal that his study can confirm every conceivable stereotype of African-American sexuality (false). He blusters, he pounds the table, yet Sheen simultaneously makes us sense his uneasiness and self-disgust. He has the talent to distinguish this scene from the one we saw last season when Masters blackmailed Provost Barton in order to have his study reinstated at the hospital. During that conversation Sheen made us see Masters’ confidence, since Barton had something to hide; in contrast, despite the noise he makes to the newspaper editor, Masters is mentally cowering. It’s quite a performance.

We’ve seen the same level of complexity in other relationships on the show, especially Ginny’s friendship with Dr. Lillian DePaul (Julianne Nicholson), her one-time boss who’s now dying of ovarian cancer. Lillian is fighting the good fight, undergoing debilitating radiation treatments to combat the metastases in her brain, but she’s reached a point where she just wants some peace. Yet Ginny refuses to conceive of someone’s wanting to stop; giving up is not in her lexicon. In the “Blackbird” episode, Lillian finally had her own way and in doing so, taught Ginny how to let go. On a different note, Betty, a former prostitute and early subject of Masters’ study, sees her marriage end when her lesbian relationship comes to light. But she’s a survivor, above all, and goes on to become a real estate broker, a CPA and evidently the manager of Bill Masters’ practice. The fact that he’s now taking orders from her is a delightful twist.

If you’re not watching “Masters of Sex,” you should. It’s some of the best TV around.