How many interesting characters can one show lose and still remain interesting? It is the unique problem facing many shows in the new golden age of television where deaths of main characters have been increasingly relied upon to shock audiences. This is becoming a growing concern with HBO’s prohibition-era drama “Boardwalk Empire,” which returned for its fourth season last night.
After the complications of last season were dispatched early in the premiere, “Boardwalk” settled in for a soft reset of the series. The episode bounced around from character to character establishing the news status quo for each of them. Main character Nucky Thompson (Steve Buscemi) has spent the last three seasons dispatching all of those that wanted to knock him from his throne and the episode catches with him hoping for a quiet life of collecting money.
As usual for “Boardwalk,” the first episode was extremely light on plot and more a collection of vignettes hinting at future stories. Al Capone (Stephen Graham) is looking to make a name for himself and step out of his boss’ shadow. Chalky White (Michael Kenneth Williams) has moved onto the boardwalk with his new nightclub. It is unclear what it is Richard Harrow (Jack Huston) is up to when we start this season. But what is not unclear is the body count Harrow is leaving, providing much of the violence and menace of the episode.
Gretchen Mol is back as Gillian Darmody, trying to get custody of her grandson back and creates one of the more problematic aspects of the new season. Gillian is a character that mostly worked in relation to her son, Jimmy, who is no longer on the show. Jimmy is just one of a number of interesting characters that have been dispatched over the run of the show.
While “Boardwalk Empire” has done well creating the drama of the first three seasons, it has lost many good actors. Michael Pitt, William Foresythe and Bobby Cannavale have all come and gone with this season is adding in new characters played by Ron Livingston and Jeffery Wright. While these characters may prove interesting on their own, there are usually diminishing returns when constantly adding new characters to a show.
What “Boardwalk” has going for it is that the show has been able to pull together all the threads each season into a strong finale. That and the fact that the show still looks amazing. The direction, sets, and acting all continue to be top-notch. Though they do not appear in the premiere, Michael Shannon and Kelly Macdonald are two of the shows best actors and continue to be part of the cast. The premiere was directed by show producer Tim Van Patten who has been a stalwart of HBO, directing “Game Of Thrones,” “The Wire” and “The Sopranos” in the past.
What the show still has to convince viewers of is whether or not the show is anything more than a tale of violence and nudity. Do the characters that have gone still have an impact on the current story. Are the characters that remain moving towards a life after prohibition, or are they simply waiting to be whacked and replaced by future pawns.
“Boardwalk Empire” airs Sunday nights at 9 p.m.