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A Second Walk Along HBO’s ‘Boardwalk Empire’

Boardwalk_lowry 

Like most critics (see the gaudy scores on Metacritic.com), my initial appraisal of HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire” was overwhelmingly positive (and, if I must say so myself, pretty well written).

That was based on the first six episodes. Since then, I’ve heard from some readers who weren’t quite as blown away by the show as I was, and I’ve had the chance to watch episodes 7-11, which HBO was kind enough to send out in advance. So that seemed like an excuse for taking a second trip to ‘Boardwalk.”

Overall, the series remains enormously entertaining, playing like a huge, sprawling soap in a period (the Prohibition-era 1920s) we seldom see on television. Moreover, the later episodes expand upon the program’s web of historical figures to incorporate politicians of that day, including those connected to the wildly corrupt administration of Warren G. Harding.

Gambling_pic_lowry For all that, I’d have to concede that watching the next five episodes wasn’t quite as intoxicating as the first six, perhaps because some of the freshness associated with the setting has worn off a bit through additional exposure. The number of moving parts also inevitably means certain plot strands that look promising one week aren’t pursued vigorously the next, as the writers wade into other storylines. (This was a common occurrence on “The Sopranos” as well.)

A small note here, too, about TV critics: Unlike most viewers, we had the benefit of watching the first six installments together (HBO is very shrewd about making multiple episodes available), which allowed us to absorb the early arc of the series in one big gulp — an option that isn’t available to most viewers. Being able to pop in episode three immediately after watching the second — instead of waiting a week — subtly alters (and no doubt improves) the viewing experience.

Boardwalklady_lowry Finally, I found a few of the new hours slower than I would like — though that didn’t stop me from plowing through them in one rather gluttonous weekend.

“Boardwalk’s” overall merits, in other words, far outweigh any nitpicking, beginning with the splendid cast. I’ve especially enjoyed the relationship between Steve Buscemi’s character and that of the immigrant widow played by Kelly Macdonald. By contrast, as much as I admire Michael Shannon as an actor, his role — the intrepid, highly devout FBI agent battling illegal booze — has become something of a bore. At the very least, the idea of the tortured, frustrated religious crusader is a fairly tired construct.

The show has also settled into a more conventional visual style than the pilot, which was directed by Martin Scorsese (one of the exec producers) and seemed determined to put his imprint on the project. On another front, some people have actually complained to me that the sex and nudity at times feel gratuitous, which I can see, but don’t agree with — and that’s not just because I get HBO Zone and a half-dozen versions of Cinemax.

Of course, HBO has every reason to lap up the initial critical adulation toward the program, and I suspect the rewards will go well beyond glowing reviews and solid ratings. The Golden Globe awards, in particular, have exhibited a fondness in the past for both period pieces and projects featuring international talent such as Macdonald, and those honors — scheduled for January — are uniquely situated to get a jump on recognizing new series that premiere in the fall.

As for those insisting HBO’s big bet is overrated, a bit of blowback was inevitable given all the conspicuous praise, though it started a bit earlier than anticipated. Yet having seen everything now but the first-season finale, “Boardwalk” — despite its flaws — largely lives up to the hype. And if I didn’t consume the next five hours quite as greedily as the first six, compared to most of what’s on TV, it still a pretty sumptuous feast.

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