Posted in Television

Boardwalk Empire: The Finale

BE Eldorado

So in the end he had nowhere to go. Boxed in on the boardwalk by Joe Harper, aka Tommy Darmody, and two I.R.S. agents, Nucky Thompson is murdered by the grandson of the girl he betrayed so long ago.

“Boardwalk Empire” ended its five-year run on Sunday. While the denouement was just, it left a few questions behind.

On the one hand, having Nucky dispatched by Tommy Darmody was an exciting twist, though long-time viewers of the show undoubtedly got it when Tommy referred to “Mee-maw” in his final confrontation with the family enemy. However, in the clear light of day, there appeared to be a serious case of SORAS (Soap Opera Rapid Aging Syndrome) going on. If my math is correct, Tommy couldn’t have been more than 14 at the time this episode is taking place. We’re still in 1931—the last season of “Boardwalk Empire” was set entirely in 1924, and Mickey Doyle recently mentioned that he had run the former Onyx Club “for the last seven years.” As for Tommy’s birthdate, this seems to have been firmly established back in Season 2 when his father ran off to war in 1917, leaving the pregnant Angela behind.

When the big reveal came, I first thought “Here’s Tommy being his father’s son.” Well, yes and no. Jimmy was something of a scholar at Princeton; I tend to think his life’s path would have been very different had he not gone to war, which of course was precipitated by Gillian’s seducing him. Tommy was removed from his grandmother’s influence at an early age; his appearance as Nucky’s killer begs the question of how he came to know the entirety of the Darmody Family history. Since Richard Harrow held no grudge against Nucky, he wouldn’t have identified Nucky as Jimmy’s killer, and Julia, Tommy’s adoptive mother, wouldn’t have known about this in any event. But Terrence Winter, the brains behind “Boardwalk Empire,” no doubt thought the excitement of the final twist would be sufficient to wallpaper over any inconsistencies. For most viewers, I’d say he was right.

Nevertheless, there was much to enjoy in this final episode. The autumnal strains of Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 threading through the soundtrack. The performance of actor Marc Pickering as young Nucky, having to cope not only with a mouthful of prosthetic teeth and accurately mirroring Steve Buscemi’s every gesture and facial expression, but also speaking with the older actor’s accent (Pickering is English). Nucky’s seeing the future in the form of television (a neat joke), only he’s not in it. Watching Margaret in action as a stockbroker making a different type of killing than her husband, though I sincerely doubt Joseph Kennedy would have needed coaching on how to get ahead by selling short (He would soon become the first chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission). Her lovely, regret-filled scene with Nucky, and his equally poignant farewell to Eli. The one bit I didn’t like was Charlie Luciano’s convening that first meeting of the heads of the crime families, taken wholesale from “The Godfather.” There’s homage and there’s rip-off. This scene was strictly the latter.

From the start of this final episode, Nucky knew his end was approaching. He had methodically shed himself of possessions and money, and said farewell to both his loved ones and the person over whom he felt the most guilt, Gillian Darmody. That Nucky had procured Gillian for the Commodore was old news—we learned this in Season 1. But we never knew the extent of his betrayal, that he’d manipulate and sacrifice this 13 year-old girl, an orphan whom he had pledged to help. And to a man who though admittedly powerful, so thoroughly despised him. Depressingly, just as his own father did.

A sad ending to an ultimately sad life. RIP “Boardwalk Empire,” and Nucky, Chalky, Narcisse, Mickey, Van Alden, Richard, Gyp, Angela, Jimmy and the dozens of others that met their ends over the years. I’m going to miss this show.

Posted in Television

Boardwalk Empire: What Might Have Been



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.

Posted in Books, Brain Bits, Movie Reviews, Television

Brain Bits for a December Storm

After all the predictions, the first season’s snow has finally started. The weatherman says this afternoon’s effort won’t stick—the bigger show will be tonight when it turns to sleet and then rain. All in time for tomorrow morning’s commute. Winter in the tri-state area; you’ve gotta love it.


Courtesy of a free weekend of Epix, I finally caught the film “Flight,” starring Denzel Washington who, truth be told, was blown off the screen by a shrewdly underplaying Don Cheadle. While the accident and the events leading up to it made for great suspense and the amusement factor was enormous, given that the co-pilot was played by Brian Geraghty, late (and how) of “Boardwalk Empire,” this movie was a mess.

What really got to me was the threat throughout the film that Whip, the alcoholic pilot, would go to jail for manslaughter when we knew the cause of the crash was mechanical malfunction. Yes, he reported to work drunk, and yes, he snuck several mini-bottles of vodka into his orange juice in flight, but he was not guilty of manslaughter—this crime does not occur unless the behavior in question causes the victim’s death. What Whip was guilty of was operating a common carrier under the influence of both alcohol and a controlled substance, which under federal law would buy him up to 15 years in the pen. Hopefully that’s why we see him in jail at the end of the film, although the filmmakers evidently didn’t think it important enough to tell us why he was there.

Getting it right:
The movie court room gold standard: “Anatomy of a Murder”

In its legal inaccuracies “Flight” scores high on my attorney irritation scale. It’s only a notch below “The Verdict” with Paul Newman, which almost drove me out of the theater screaming when I first saw it. If you’ll recall, the testimony of Lindsey Crouse, as the nurse hounded from her profession, is stricken from the record because the medical records she claims were altered are ruled as “best evidence” of the patient’s physical state. While there is indeed a “best evidence” rule, it has nothing to do with the fact that the veracity of every document sought to be admitted is subject to challenge.

This, along with so many other film boo-boos, is explained in fascinating detail in Paul Bergman and Michael Asimow’s “Reel Justice: The Courtroom Goes to the Movies,” a book which belongs on every film buff’s shelf. Some of their rankings may surprise you, some may not (the classic “Anatomy of a Murder” is awarded a well-deserved four gavels, the authors’ highest grade; the Al Pacino film “…And Justice for All,” tanks with only one).

I confess I have a soft spot for films that get both the drama and the law right. My favorites? In addition to the aforementioned “Anatomy of a Murder,” I think “Breaker Morant” may be my Number 1 court room drama. The performances couldn’t be better, and Jack Thompson, as an estate attorney pressed into service as defense counsel for the three soldiers accused of war crimes, is every lawyer who’s ever found himself in over his head. And an old made-for-TV movie, “The Law,” starring a pre-“Taxi” Judd Hirsch, had a tremendous cast as well as some accurate criminal procedure, not to mention a creepy, Charles Manson-like celebrity murder. Great stuff.



Two weeks after the season finale of “Boardwalk Empire,” I’m still mulling over where we go from here. It’s unusual to see a series rebound the way this one did after the Gyp Rosetti madness, but it did so in style, leaving us wanting a great deal more for next year.

It’s a shame Warren Knox was dispatched by Eli Thompson in what had to be the most brutal bare handed fight in TV history. He was a wonderful villain—that bland baby face hid a truly sadistic side. I bet he tortured kittens in his spare time. I assume we’ll still have Narcisse around next season if only to be under the thumb of J. Edgar Hoover and perhaps be a revenge target for Chalky.

Speaking of Chalky, our last view of him was as a man totally bereft. His favorite child has been murdered, the rest of his family is gone, the Onyx Club is lost and he’s got a price on his head. Presumably he has Daughter, but is this enough?

What of the other characters? Nucky and Sally in Cuba might be fun, but where does he stand with Narcisse and his other (fr)enemies? I suspect we haven’t seen the last of Gillian, prison or not, and the thought of Eli and Van Alden both working for Al Capone should be a trip (have you ever seen such a look of mutual disgust exchanged as when Van Alden picked up the on-the-lam Eli at the train station?).

But what I find most intriguing is the prospect of Margaret and Rothstein working the stock market. Will she become his mistress? Don’t be too sure that ritzy apartment is truly rent-free, Margaret, no matter how many tips you pass. If they do become a twosome, I’d be curious as to Rothstein’s behavior, especially after his chiding Nucky about so openly chasing after Billie. In any event, it wouldn’t surprise me if “Boardwalk Empire” jumps ahead to events leading up to Rothstein’s murder in 1928 and the over-heating of the stock market prior to the Crash.

Speculation is fun, but it’s a long way until “Boardwalk Empire”‘s return. Let’s hope it’s a good one. And bring back Eddie Cantor, please!

Posted in Television

Farewell Richard Harrow

richard and julia dancing

If ever there was a death foretold, it was Richard Harrow’s. The most charismatic character on “Boardwalk Empire” met his end last Sunday, an event foreshadowed from the start of this season, but in reality intimated from his very beginning.

Our first view of him—that grotesquely masked World War I veteran with the destroyed face—was startling. His appearance, complemented by that gravelly voice, made you snap to attention when he spoke. And his first darkly comic exchange with Jimmy Darmody at the Veterans Hospital was singular indeed: “I put a bullet in [the German sniper’s] face…one inch below his eye.” “Well….fuck him,” was in sharp contrast to Richard’s vulnerability. We saw a well-read, articulate man, but one no longer believing the myths he grew up with. A character who by the end of the first episode in which he appeared put his sniper skills to Jimmy’s use by shooting a rival thug to death by—yes— putting a bullet through his face one inch below his eye. Make no mistake about it: whatever Richard Harrow became on this show (via Jack Huston’s artistry), he could be one cold blooded killer. Go back to Season 1 and watch what he did to the D’Alessio brothers, joining Jimmy in his worst excesses.

Harrow-scrapbookBut we always knew there was a great deal more to the man than that coldly efficient enforcer, not to mention our own fascination with the mask. While we never had a flashback to Richard’s life before the war, we learned about him through his interactions with others. His posing for Angela Darmody and her kindness to him was a reawakening, though he despaired of achieving his dream. In one of the most poignant scenes in “Boardwalk Empire” we saw Richard examining his scrapbook of cut-out ads depicting the type of happy family he longed for (as well as a photograph of him as a dashing soldier, impossibly handsome before his disfigurement, juxtaposed with Angela’s sketch of him with his mask off, in which she saw another form of beauty entirely). When he went off to the Pinelands to kill himself, only to realize that he still had a life, we welcomed his return to the living.

However, the dark side remained. His blasting away Manny Horvitz on New Year’s Eve to avenge Angela’s murder closed one door, but his subservience to Gillian Darmody in order to keep watch over Tommy came at some cost. It must have been hell listening to her disparage Angela while pretending to be Tommy’s mother, and I still wonder if he had the slightest inkling of Gillian and Jimmy’s past. Most likely not, otherwise he would have killed her before he even got to Gyp Rosetti’s men.

But then there was Julia Sagorsky (beautifully played by Wrenn Schmidt). A woman who, like Angela, was able to see behind the mask. It was wonderful to watch him falling in love, and their dance at the American Legion Hall was pure pleasure (the final dip was icing on the cake). She pushed past his hesitancy (“Let’s give them something to remember” as she grabbed him for their first kiss before that surprised group of veterans), and ultimately proposed to him. His reaction—a blend of astonishment, love and shyness—was delightful. She knew what he had done to free Tommy from Gillian’s grasp but still wanted him. Julia was his match, but you had to sense there would never be a happy life ahead for them.

Richard was a changed man after that blood bath at the Artemis Club. The beginning of Season 4 saw him bereft of his willingness to kill, as he not only reneged on a contract hit; he needed sister Emma’s intervention when the man he stiffed came after him. Despite his desire to square accounts in Atlantic City and secure a future with Julia and Tommy, I dreaded what would come next for him. I knew immediately that his approach to Nucky for the information that would send Gillian to jail would come with a quid pro quo that would doom him.

And so it did. The Richard Harrow we came to know could not have lived with himself after his accidental killing of Maybelle White. Not only because he held Chalky in high regard, but because he ended the life of another man’s innocent child, something beyond his endurance. Richard had already made his amends and completed what he had set out to do: ensuring that Jimmy would finally rest in peace, Gillian would pay the price, Tommy would have the upbringing his mother would have wanted and Julia would have a husband who loved her. So it was fitting that he died at dawn, mask off, facing the sunrise and dreaming of a reunion with Julia at his true home, far away from Atlantic City.

Richard Harrow deserved no less.

Posted in Opera, Television

Brain Bits for a Busy October

Duty Hurts
Duty Hurts

Halloween is just around the corner, the days are getting shorter—and colder—and much is percolating on the tube and in the opera house. I was going to lead off by chewing over Nico Muhly’s “Two Boys” which premiered at the Met on Monday, but Showtime’s “Homeland” has absolutely pushed itself to the head of the line.

We’ve just been paid back tenfold for the long wait for Season Three to take flight. In the immortal words of Ira Gershwin, “How long has this been going on?” Was the whole “Carrie’s off her meds, Saul rats her out to Congress” progression part of this? Or was it her call to her father, promising to do whatever Saul wanted, that led to setting up the con? In either case, the reveal was like a big tasty meal. I fell for it almost, but not quite, hook, line and sinker—I found it hard to believe Carrie would sell out. During her conversation with the law firm emissary, I had a strong feeling she’d play the other side for all she could get, then use that cultivated relationship to get back in Saul’s good graces. The show runners did a masterful job with their reveal—the sound of gasps across the country last week had to have registered on the Richter scale.

Sunday night’s TV logjam has eased somewhat now that “Last Tango in Halifax” has (regrettably) ended its first season on PBS. I especially enjoyed Gillian’s scenes in the season-ender—she’s been somewhat of “the other daughter” in comparison to the more complicated Caroline—but her love and affection for her father had never been more apparent. And she scored mightily in what was perhaps the funniest scene in the series: her morning-after with John. She’s got her head under the hood of her Land Rover, fixing that “pigging clutch,” when he comes strolling out, all lovey-dovey. She’s all “I had an itch last night. I scratched it. Tea’s on the stove” and John is dumbstruck that she isn’t all a-swoon. Not to mention that Paul’s sitting right there with his nose in an auto repair book, trying not to laugh like hell. A great job by Nicola Walker as Gillian.

“Boardwalk Empire” continues its impressive comeback. I especially enjoyed the surprise meeting between Arnold Rothstein and Margaret (mutual blackmail is a marvelous thing), and I’m looking forward to when Gaston Means sells out young Mr. Knox, which he most assuredly will when the time with Nucky is ripe. I’m delighted to see “Boardwalk Empire” expand its horizons into Wall Street (so important in the 1920’s, both historically and culturally), as well as maintaining its excellent continuity by bringing back some key supporting characters like Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon (James Cromwell) and U.S. Attorney Esther Randolph (Julianne Nicholson), no matter how briefly. It’s been an exceptionally rich and absorbing season.

Speaking of Julianne Nicholson, I honestly didn’t recognize her when she showed up as the stern Dr. Lillian Paul on “Masters of Sex,” a show that finally clicked in its third episode, “Standard Deviation.” This was an hour when the men were front and center, featuring tremendous performances by Beau Bridges and especially Michael Sheen. After we witnessed their early mentor/student relationship develop and grow, we were forced to watch it crumble as Masters, with his professional back to the wall, blackmails the man who did so much for him into funding his study on sexuality. When Masters arrives home, exhausted and full of self-disgust at what he’s just done, even his wife’s announcement that she’s pregnant is not enough to produce a smile. “Masters of Sex” will hopefully continue to impress.


Alice Coote and Paul Appleby: “Two Boys”

Having attended the Metropolitan Opera premiere of Nico Muhly’s “Two Boys” on Monday night, I can appreciate the mixed reviews the work has received.

Based a true story, the opera, set in 2001, focuses on the how and why 16-year-old Brian stabbed a 13-year-old boy he met on the internet (Plotwise this should be taking place a decade earlier, when the internet was still a new frontier). As you can imagine, the production features every technological bell and whistle around, what with projections of chat room dialogue and a terrific light show representing the ethereal nature of cyberspace. But the wow factor wears off sooner than you’d think. Opera demands character as well as story, and this is where “Two Boys” is somewhat lacking.

Muhly is well-known for his choral writing; his talent in this regard is on ample display here. He produces a textured wall of sound to represent the millions of dialogues on the internet, the faces of the chorus illuminated by their open lap tops. But, as Detective Inspector Strawson (Alice Coote) notes, this universe is almost without soul, lacking the richness of human contact. In fact it isn’t until Strawson returns home, after her first interview with Brian, and muses about this very topic, drink in hand, that “Two Boys” does what opera does best: it illuminates thought and emotion. There are only two other points at which the work came alive for me—Brian’s raw encounter with Peter, the internet figure who challenges him to masturbate in front of a webcam, and the summing-up at the opera’s conclusion, again voiced by Strawson. Unfortunately, “Two Boys” shows a great deal of surface but too little else.

Alice Coote was excellent in what can only be described as the Jane Tennison role; regardless of the opera’s title, she was awarded the last bow and rightly so. Paul Appleby is a very talented Mozart tenor, but his appearance as Brian demonstrates why trouser roles exist. In build and posture there’s no hiding he’s a grown man; matters became creepy when he played scenes with the impressive boy soprano Andrew Pulver, as his victim, Jake, with whom his character has (off-stage) sex. Keith Miller, as the malevolent Peter, was riveting both vocally and dramatically—I would love to hear him sing Claggart.

“Two Boys” is Nico Muhly’s first opera. At the ripe old age of 32, he should go on to produce a significant body of work. I look forward to what he says next.

Posted in Television

Embarassment of Riches

Forget about football and Sunday afternoon TV (as a New York Giants fan I plan to have season-long amnesia). The best stuff on the tube these days starts at 8:00 pm with (drum roll, please): “Last Tango in Halifax,” followed by the “Boardwalk Empire” and “Homeland” collision at 9:00, and rounding out the evening at 10, “Masters of Sex” (I was tempted to say “bringing up the rear,” but more about that later). The last time I watched so much back-to-back TV was in the hey day of “All in the Family,” “The Bob Newhart Show” and Mary Tyler Moore, when staying in on Saturday nights was a must.

be season 4Of the three cable premium shows, “Boardwalk Empire” has surprised me the most this season. It’s come roaring back from the Bobby Cannavale craziness of last year, and each character arc seems more absorbing than the next. I especially like Nucky’s Florida venture, which gets us out of the darkness of liquor warehouses and gambling rooms and into a world of sunlight and straw boaters. Patricia Arquette as Sally is a welcome addition and the palm trees are lovely. Some characters are in flux—Rothstein is starting his downward slide (if “Boardwalk Empire” sticks to its timetable, he should be gunned down the season after next), Richard has lost the stomach to kill and Van Alden has been co-opted by the Capone gang, not entirely to his pleasure. Chalky White and Valentin Narcisse (wonderfully played by Jeffrey Wright) have already butted heads once, and I certainly don’t expect their next encounter to be a pleasant one. And there’s a truly worthy villain in the form of Special Agent Warren Knox of what will soon be known as the FBI. His ostensibly mild-mannered yet sadistic interrogation of Eddie Kessler, ultimately resulting in the latter’s suicide, will hopefully come back to haunt him.

However, two other plot lines are shaping up to be the best “Boardwalk Empire” has featured since Jimmy Darmody’s death. Gillian is now a junkie, and whether she knows it or not, is being played by Roy Phillips. But the who, why and how have yet to be revealed. Is he law enforcement, a private detective or yet another gangster? Is he investigating the disappearance of that Jimmy look-alike Gillian snuffed last season? What is his game? Of equal interest is Nucky’s bailing out his nephew Willie in the wake of his actions at college. I hope Nucky doesn’t look to this kid as a replacement for Jimmy who, while he had his weaknesses, was never weak like Willie (Jimmy would never have acquiesced to throwing a comrade under the bus the way Willie caved to laying the blame for the spiked liquor on his roommate). If, as Nucky says, blood is all, I suspect he’s going to wish for a transfusion before long. And if I were Mickey Doyle, I’d leave town now—Nucky will no doubt reciprocate for Mickey’s gift of booze to the kid to begin with.

It’s great to have the “Boardwalk Empire” pot percolating again. On the other hand, “Homeland” seems to be a bit slow off the blocks.  I’m not happy with the return of Crazy Carrie, even if her tipping point was reached when Saul offered her up as a sacrificial lamb. The first two episodes of the season suffered by Brody’s absence, though Peter Quinn’s additional screen time was tremendous. However, I’m so tired of Dana Brody I wish she’d be hit by a bus—why the show runners are so intrigued by her is absolutely beyond me (I like Morena Baccarin, but as far as I’m concerned the entire Brody family is over). I’m looking forward to better in the future.

It’s All For Science

The jury is still out for me on “Masters of Sex.” When I first saw the previews on Showtime, I thought it would be a two-hour film; instead it’s a multi-episode series. Can a TV show really be built around all that viewing of screwing? There are some good things to be had: the wittiest opening titles I’ve ever seen; “Mad Men”-era decor and clothes; Beau Bridges as the predictably stuffy hospital chair; and Lizzy Caplan as Virginia Johnson, former nightclub singer, college drop-out and swinger. On the other hand, much of what’s aired so far was covered in “Kinsey,” the 2004 bio-pic starring Liam Neeson and Laura Linney (Oddly enough, unless I missed it, the name “Kinsey” has yet to be uttered on “Masters of Sex”). The tone is inconsistent—when naughty things are going on, the show is fun; otherwise, it tends to be leaden. And Michael Sheen, as William Masters, really needs to complain to Michael Sheen, a producer on the show—some of the angles used to film him really make him look like Pinocchio.

Tonight sees the season-ender of “Last Tango in Halifax” on PBS. I’m going to miss it terribly until its return. Last week was a pleasure from start to finish—among his other talents, Derek Jacobi is one terrific dancer. And for the first time in five episodes, Gillian actually laughed when she caught Alan and Celia jitterbugging. Among other things, Judith when sober, surprisingly has her head on straight, though when drunk remains a disaster; William is one great kid; Caroline and Kate have turned up the burners; and if you look up “loose cannon” in the dictionary, you’re sure to find John’s picture (By the way, was I the only viewer who yelled “Gillian, for the love of God, don’t!” when she drunkenly inched her hand up John’s thigh? Robbie, newly human, is by far the better bet). I’m already looking forward to next year.

Posted in Brain Bits, Television

Brain Bits in Gray Winter

We’ve had a really mild winter so far, but the party’s over. The Deep Freeze arrived last night, with wind chills below zero—the coldest it’s been in two years. Time to cook some stew, bundle up and consider some tube.

Is it just me, or is Downton Abbey the new Southfork? Don’t these kids ever want to move out for good?Matthew-Crawley-downton-abbey-15932584-570-364

I was really looking forward to Matthew and Mary’s buying and settling into an estate of their own—at least that was the game plan in the season opener. Now Matthew’s an investor in Downton Abbey, courtesy of Reggie Swire, and he’s appalled by how slipshod the place is run. At least he’s got something to work on now after being so disappointingly domesticated. I so miss the dashing Matthew in uniform, the romance of his on-again off-again relationship with Mary.

Despite all that, I’m still enjoying the show, even if Sunday’s episode wasn’t a barn burner. It was great to see Lady Edith pull herself together, buck her father and get her views into print. On the other hand, I’m beyond bored with the Bates-in-prison storyline. It amazes me that this fills up so much airtime, since the downstairs crowd is getting very interesting, especially with the new arrivals (“I’ve always been Jimmy!”). Sybil and Tom don’t do all that much for me, but the New Daisy, who stands up for herself, and Isobel Crawley, who’s so gung-ho to rehabilitate ladies of the evening, more than compensate. We need a fly in the ointment, though, to keep things off-balance—another Sir Richard, perhaps, or an all-out war between Thomas and O’Brien, or a Pamuk-like disaster. Don’t want things to get too complacent.


I miss “Homeland.” Not just the acting, which is uniformly superb, or the tension, or Brody’s will-he-or-won’t he. It’s the level of intelligence in the writing that makes so many other shows pale by comparison. The mosaic nature of “Homeland” is what sets it apart—and what makes the show so difficult to blog about until the season is over, when the entirety is known, at least to that stopping point. Storytelling at its finest.


Richard and Julia

I haven’t given up on “Boardwalk Empire,” but I am disappointed. It’s turned into exactly what I feared, namely a Jazz Age “Gangster of the Week” bloodbath. As last season went on it became more and more apparent just how big a mistake it was to kill off Jimmy Darmody (not to mention Angela), and attempt to replace him with a psychopath like Gyp Rossetti.

The show runners should have realized that Jimmy and Nucky shared an emotional connection that would endure, no matter how vengeful Jimmy appeared to be. Without him, it’s just a game of Gangster Chess—with guns. The only characters I really care about at this point are Richard Harrow, Julia and young Tommy Darmody. Yes, I’m still interested in Eli Thompson and Chalky White, and I’m curious as to how Gillian survived her own heroin injection (has she been a junkie all along, now possessing the tolerance to survive a shot designed to kill Gyp?). But “Boardwalk Empire” is almost a jukebox—put in a quarter and press the button for the bootlegger of your choice.

I hope the Powers That Be can turn this around and make me care more. Otherwise I may be gone, too.


I was a latecomer to “Game of Thrones,” but I finally caught up last spring. Needless to say, I’m really looking forward to the Season Three premiere, which HBO endlessly reminds us will happen on—drumroll—3.31.13. I bought the first three books in the series, but so far I’ve only dipped into the first two volumes a la Cliff’s Notes—just to fill in a few blanks. It’s tough to resist the temptation to skip ahead and read “A Storm of Swords” before Season Three begins, but I’m hanging on. Barely.

Posted in Brain Bits, Movie Reviews, Music, Television

Brain Bits in Autumn

The rule of thumb in film has always been “show, don’t tell.” So when “Lincoln,” directed by Steven Spielberg, shows, it’s riveting. The heated debates on the floor of the House of Representatives over the proposed 13th Amendment to abolish slavery, the calculated arm-twisting to obtain those precious votes, first by a trio of hired guns, then by Lincoln himself—marvelous entertainment. But when we get to the telling—and telling and telling—when Lincoln spins yet another yarn or delivers one more parable, your urge to imitate Secretary Stanton’s disgust by leaving the room may be overwhelming. By the end of the film, when Lincoln sits at the bargaining table for peace talks with the Confederate commissioners, you may be uttering a heartfelt “Yes” when one of these Southern gentlemen warns “Spare us your pieties, sir.”

On the plus side, you couldn’t ask for a better cast. Daniel Day-Lewis is surrounded by some of the best lincoln-daniel-day-lewis_810character actors in the business: David Strathairn, Bruce McGill, Hal Holbrook in a marvelous turn as Blair, Lee Pace (the dandy, Rep. Fernando Wood) , Michael Stulbarg, Jackie Earle Haley as Confederate VP Alexander Stephens, John Hawke, James Spader, Jared Harris (the last two almost unrecognizable), Tommy Lee Jones as Thaddeus Stevens, Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Robert Lincoln. Sally Field delivers a terrific Mary Todd Lincoln, but her inclusion is emblematic of a major flaw in this film—at times it feels like it’s made of mismatched parts. When the subject is war, slavery, politics or reconstruction, the film just sings.  When it’s about Tad (who gets far too much screen time) or other matters, you long to get back to another round of Congressmen insulting each other on the House floor or to finally sit down with those Confederate peace commissioners whom Lincoln has so strategically delayed. Lincoln did indeed suffer numerous personal tragedies throughout his life, and his relationship with Mary was a difficult one, but those stories have been portrayed many times. “Lincoln” shows us perhaps the best and shrewdest politician in our nation’s history (FDR is a close second) at work, and had Spielberg and Tony Kushner, who wrote the script, focused exclusively on that aspect of his life, I think they would have had a better movie.

The last view Spielberg gives us of the living Lincoln may be trite, but it’s still stunning. As his faithful valet watches him depart the White House for Ford’s Theater, we see Lincoln walking into the deepening blue of an April twilight. Absolutely breathtaking, and shown without a word.


boardwalk-empire-nucky-chalky“Boardwalk Empire” ends its third season tomorrow night, and I’m dreading the outcome.

The show runners long ago made their point—and remade it to the point of exhaustion—that Gyp Rosetti is a lunatic. I’m surprised they didn’t emblazon an “N for Nut” on his Anthony Wayne hat to top off his antics. But he’s had his uses. I don’t think I was alone in smirking when he pitched his tent (“Heigh ho!”) in Gillian’s Artemis Club in last Sunday’s episode, “Two Imposters.” I loved how Gretchen Mol played Gillian’s barely concealed disgust at the invasion of Jimmy’s her elegant mansion. So much for harp-accompanied poetry, particularly when the boys are humping your young ladies in your well-appointed living room.

Any episode in which Chalky White gets quality screen time makes me happy, so I was gratified to see Michael K. Williams strut his stuff in the stand-off with Gyp. How long Chalky and Nucky will remain BFFs is anybody’s guess, but I suspect the present alliance will be enough, along with the cadre from Chicago, to take care of business.

My biggest concern is Richard Harrow. The promo for the season finale does not seem encouraging—it looks like he attempts to shoot his way out of the Artemis Club, thus the reason for the marshalling of weapons we saw last week. And he appears to aim at a woman whom I hope is Gillian. This season of “Boardwalk Empire” has demonstrated, if nothing else, that the show runners made a huge mistake in killing off Jimmy and Angela Darmody, who lent an emotional cast to the show that’s been sorely missed. Let’s hope they don’t compound the error by eliminating Richard. May he live to kidnap Tommy, marry Julia and grow rich working for Nucky.


If I had to name my favorite classical music works, Gustav Mahler’s “Das Lied von der Erde” would surely make the short list. Late autumn is the perfect time of year to listen to this, and there’s no better depiction of the season than “Der Einsame im Herbst (The Lonely One in Autumn),” the second song in the cycle. The mezzo-soprano is Lorraine Hunt Lieberson. Enjoy.

Posted in Brain Bits, Movie Reviews, Observations, Television

Post-Storm Brain Bits

What’s left of the Keansburg Carousel

It’s been quite a week for those of us in New Jersey, especially people like myself who live anywhere near a body of water. As of today, seven days after the effects of Hurricane Sandy could be felt at the Jersey Shore, thousands are still without electricity, many are left homeless, gas is being rationed and transportation (therefore the ability to work), will be hampered for weeks to come.

I’m a native New Jerseyan, and with the exception of time spent out-of-state at college and law school, I’ve lived here all my life. I have no doubt the Jersey Shore towns will rebuild. Tourism is one of our biggest industries, but more than that, for people who grew up here the Shore is in our DNA. When you were a kid, your parents took you to Asbury Park or Seaside to go on the rides. When you were a teenager, you headed to the beach after the prom. If you fish or sail, that is the place to be. And if you just want to escape the summer heat for a swim, a walk on the boardwalk or a lobster dinner, you always go, as we locals say, “down the Shore.” You don’t give that up easily.


Despite all the havoc wrought by Sandy, it’s comforting to know that some things just don’t change. Although I was without electricity for four days, I did have a portable radio which enabled me to hear the audio from our local ABC-TV station. At some point I realized this was actually being carried on ESPN radio; as a public service they were streaming news coverage for 48 hours. Nevertheless, ESPN definitely stayed on the beat. In the midst of reams of stories of flooding in the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel, the loss of every boardwalk from Long Branch to Cape May, the crippling of the entire New York metropolitan area, it was somehow comforting to hear an ESPN reporter scream on the air: “JETS!!! You STINK!!!!!” Proof positive that life does indeed go on.


Absorbing something as big as the destruction left by Hurricane Sandy tends to leave the brain in a muddle. I have a slew of random thoughts circling around in my head, so in no particular order:

–Maybe the rush to e-books isn’t such a hot idea. I was about 100 pages into Stephen King’s “11/22/63” on my Kindle app when the power went out. With the ability to recharge my Droid Razr limited to plugging into the car battery, continuing on was dicey. So there’s something to be said for good old-fashioned bound paper, even if you can really tone your upper arms by schlepping King’s novels around.

–Hot showers are lovely, but nothing refreshes like clean hair.

–A gas-powered burner is worth its weight in gold. God bless my neighbor for having one, because nothing warms you up like hot tea or soup.

–I had no idea I cook so many meals with garlic. After I emptied the now-defrosted food containers into the garbage can, my entire house smelled like a pizzeria.

–Two cats on the bed is better than a space heater. And purring is the best tranquilizer ever invented.


Making up for lost TV time after the power returned, I saw two extraordinary performances in one day. It had been a long time since I had seen “Judgment at Nuremberg,” but I was absolutely riveted by Judy Garland. In the midst of so much “acting”—with a capital “A”—by everyone else (especially Maximilian Schell), her portrayal of a victim of the Nazi Nuremberg Laws was one for the ages. And later that night, at long last, I finally saw “The Help.” All I can say is Viola Davis was robbed.

Oh, Gillian!

Before the lights went out, I was impressed by both the good and the bad of “Sunday Best,” the latest episode of “Boardwalk Empire.” The cross-cutting between Easter dinners chez Eli and Julia was illuminating: the differences in the Nucky/Margaret and Eli/June marriages, the growing relationship between Richard and Julia, the rapprochement (however tentative) between Nucky and Eli. The gulf between Nucky and Margaret, despite their charm for each other, was beautifully drawn. On the other hand, there was more than a bit of shark-jumping in what went on at Gillian’s ( I know she needs a dead Jimmy lookalike, but how is she going to get this corpse past Richard?) And Joe Masseria has become a knock-off of Fanucci in “The Godfather, Part II”—all he needs is the white fedora. His scenes are eating up the landscape, and Gyp Rossetti has likewise become a cartoon. It’s amazing that so much nuance and so much hot air could coexist in the same episode.

And then there’s “Homeland,” which continues to amaze week after week. By my count, Claire Danes has already copped enough Emmys to keep her in statuary for the next five years. Definitely television at its best.

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.