Alcohol is the mood-enhancer of choice, but I confess to blasting through the first half-dozen episodes of “Boardwalk Empire’s” second season as if they were crack cocaine. Seamlessly picking up from the intrigue that closed the debut run, this period gangster drama juggles an impressive assortment of characters, expands the presence of its better supporting players and, yes, serves up dollops of gruesome violence and (mostly) gratuitous nudity. If every drama on TV could be this compelling, here’s one vote for bringing back Prohibition.
Year one ended with bootlegger/political fixer Nucky Thompson (Steve Buscemi) being closed in on by one-time allies from all sides, among them henchman Jimmy Darmody (Michael Pitt); Nucky’s brother the police chief, Elias (Shea Whigham); and the Commodore (Dabney Coleman), an aging lion who happens to be Jimmy’s long-lost pop.
Tightening that vise yields an absorbing game of cat and mouse — complicated by the feds launching legal action against Nucky over voter fraud, and the Ku Klux Klan’s violence against his supplier, Chalky White (the sensational Michael K. Williams of “The Wire”).
Granted, that spoiler-free recap doesn’t come close to accounting for all the show’s moving parts (HBO’s printed credits list a dizzying 30 characters), as former “The Sopranos” producer Terence Winter and his team have concocted a dense array of plot threads, admittedly not all of them equal.
Among the highlights are Nucky’s uneasy romance with Margaret (standout Kelly Macdonald) — the immigrant he helped turn into a widow — who proves tougher and more resourceful than one originally might have guessed; and some fine, moving material involving Richard (Jack Huston), the disfigured World War I veteran Jimmy took in last season.
A less-satisfying element centers on tormented federal agent Nelson Van Alden (Michael Shannon), whose extramarital dalliance with Nucky’s one-time g.f. (Paz de la Huerta) is unconvincing, playing mostly like an excuse to lob easy jabs at the character’s religious hypocrisy.
Given the real-life figures passing through Nucky’s revolving door — from Al Capone to members of the Harding administration — “Boardwalk” would seem to be confined in terms of who can catch a bullet without rewriting history.
The storytelling, however, is consistently bold and lusty, providing a fascinating window into a little-seen era, along with all the violence and sex viewers have come to expect from the gangster genre. (“The Sopranos” baton-pass also becomes more overt with the addition of Dominic Chianese, a.k.a. Uncle Junior, in a small recurring role.)
A few creative flourishes feel a trifle heavy-handed — starting with Shannon’s philandering fed. Unlike Nucky, though, “Boardwalk” isn’t campaigning for anything except the gratitude of a pay-cable audience (and award voters) eager to take refuge in its sordid charms.
By that measure, the show doesn’t just go down smoothly; it’s good to the last illicit, intoxicating drop.