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TV IS THE NEW CINEMA: 'Boardwalk Empire' Season Premiere, Nussbaum TV Game, Johnson Directs 'Breaking Bad'

Thompson on Hollywood By David Chute | Thompson on Hollywood September 10, 2013 at 4:32PM

The season premiere of "Boardwalk Empire" was as lush and well-acted -- and as weirdly uncompelling -- as ever. Perhaps we've watched too many period gangster dramas, at this point, to be easily enthralled by a show that takes a staunchly traditionalist approach to the genre.
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Richard Harrow (Jack Huston) takes care of business
HBO Richard Harrow (Jack Huston) takes care of business

The season premiere of "Boardwalk Empire" was as lush and well-acted -- and as weirdly uncompelling -- as ever. Perhaps we've watched too many period gangster dramas, at this point, to be easily enthralled by a show that takes a staunchly traditionalist approach to the genre.

However, as we noted a couple of weeks ago in writing fondly about A&E's contemporary Western "Longmire," which hasn't been the subject of brow-furrowing essays but often makes us happy, the comfortable familiarity of genre stories is hardly a drawback for the people who nestle into them. A shot of a '30s roadster idling in the snow, a sit-down peace conference at which a large bag of money and all the legends are present (Rothstein, Luciano, Lansky, Capone), even just the tapping of an unfiltered smoke on the cover of a gleaming cigarette case -- it doesn't take much more than this to ignite a warm glow in the breast of an aficionado.

Mostly a house-cleaning episode, punctuated with a series of grimly efficient Richard Harrow rub outs, clearing up some old business, but the best scenes open up new possibilities.

In the absence of Michael Shannon's Nelson Van Alden, Warren Knox (Brian Geraghty) emerged in just a couple of scenes as a blandly smooth-faced sociopath, second cousin under the skin to Jesse Plemons' conscientious Todd on "Breaking Bad."

And Michael Kenneth Williams' Chalky White, partnered with Nucky in the AC's new hotspot, The Onyx Club, pays a heavy price for a strange act of managerial perversity. He has made a factotum (the episode's magic word) out of the posturing blowhard (Erik LaRay Harvey’s Dunn Purnsley) whose spirit he seemingly crushed, without raising his, voice, in a terrific jailhouse sequence in season two. ("Purnsley be done.") The ticking time bomb finally explodes in a scene in which a berserk Purnsley shreds with a broken bottle the neck of a rep from the Cotten Club, a pet project of the New York mob. We end up feeling that Chalky, who rarely puts a foot wrong, may have revealed a tragic flaw in the pleasure he takes in subjugating a fallen foe.

New Yorker critic Emily Nussbaum has given us the perfect set-up for a non-alcoholic TV-watching game, tweeting as follows on September 5: "There is a scene in the season finale of 'Newsroom' that was the worst scene in all of 'Newsroom,' which is its own special achievement." Didn't ID the scene in advance, of course, because that would be unethical. So now, in addition to wondering who at ACN will be left standing, or shacked up, or broken up, after the Genoa dust settles, we will also have the fun of trying to spot the scene that is Nussbaum's worst-ever. No prizes.

This article is related to: TV, TV Reviews, TV News, Breaking Bad, Boardwalk Empire, HBO, HBO , Television, TV IS THE NEW CINEMA, Rian Johnson


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Thompson on Hollywood

Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.