Thursday, 3 November 2011

Boardwalk Empire season 2 episode 6 “The Age of Reason” review

This week’s episode of Boardwalk Empire, “The Age of Reason”, puts us viewers at about halfway through the season. It felt very much like a mid-point episode. The main conflict of the season is the political coup against Nucky and Jimmy solidified his existing alliances and made an important new one in this episode. I think that the deal Jimmy makes with Luciano and Lansky gives the season a lot of momentum going forward and it has me excited to see what will happen.

It was interesting contrast to see Jimmy endearing himself to a new mentor in Whitlock, a new partner in Horvitz and then forging his new alliance with other ascendant criminals from New York. Nucky meanwhile continues to drive away his allies and old enemies harass him. He is impolite with Daugherty throughout their phone conversations and his barely concealed anger at Daugherty’s half-hearted assistance is driving them apart even before Senator Edge surfaces to upset their plans. His conversation with Remus is another reminder that there are many of Nucky’s associates who dislike him. The episode marks out its thematic territory early on with the opening on Van Alden reading the bible and the second season beginning with young Teddy transfixed by the cross. Faith and confession are tying much of the content together. Teddy’s first communion and the priest’s lessons about Catholic beliefs and traditions are the surface level of this theme. A limited confession is volunteered by Margaret, putting her attraction to Sleater into words but not mentioning Nucky’s criminal enterprise and her part in it. Van Alden wrestles with confessions in his personal and professional lives and ultimately offers a partial one to his wife and none to Supervisor Elliot. Horvitz tortures a confession out of Kaufman before Jimmy kills him. Catholic imagery is present in the scenes in Van Alden and Lucy’s apartment; Lucy cradling her new baby is posed like a Madonna portrait. In a way Nucky’s plan to get his charges transferred to federal court is an empty confession – admitting some more wrong doing to escape any consequences – and its chances of success are diminished in this episode.

There were a few scripting and directorial sleight of hand moments that kept me off guard in the episode. Van Alden weights in the hospital shortly after Lucy’s water breaks. When a nurse carries a newborn down the corridor I wondered if it was the baby but he is still unaware and waiting to see Clarkson. Clarkson’s delirious mutterings made me wonder if Van Alden’s would be too late when he did decide to talk to Elliot about his corruption but they turned out to be nothing to do with Van Alden.

I thought there were some great cuts in this episode. For example we go from Lucy’s water breaking to Eddie popping to cork on champagne. Nucky shuts his extra gift in the Bible history and we open the next scene with Whitlock reading the quotation.

I’m really enjoying seeing William Forsythe playing Manny Horvitz. He is familiar to me from other organised crime greats like Once Upon A Time in America and Gotti. He is injecting a lot of humour into the role and still managing to back it up with the necessary menace. Getting him was another fantastic bit of casting for the show. Consistency in getting guest actors back remains excellent and this week sees the return of Geoff Pierson as Edge. He’s carving a niche as a venal politician on cable between Boardwalk and his ongoing role as the police commander on Dexter. Co-star Julian Rozzell also returns as Harlan.

Some of the pacing issues continue. The show has an expansive ensemble and it is difficult to give them all something meaningful to do each week. Last week it felt odd that we didn’t see Van Alden dealing with the fallout from the explosion but we get plenty of that here. It was also strange that Horvitz did not appear even if he did get a throw away mention but that was also expanded on in this episode. This week it felt odd that we didn’t see Eli after his murdering O’Neill last week; or indeed that O’Neill’s death wasn’t mentioned by any other characters. If this story were being told in a written format such things would be a page turner element – looking forward to the next chapter with the character. On television it does keep my attention but makes the pacing feel askance. This is a minor issue and one that will probably be far less noticeable if I was watching the season on DVD where the gaps between episodes seem to matter far less.

The starring cast are well served by the shifting focus. Michael Pitt and Steve Buscemi are continually excellent in the two main roles. Kelly McDonald does great work with more screen time in this episode. She has good chemistry with Charlie Cox and their interplay is great to watch. She is brilliant at showing Margaret's intelligence and I enjoyed her carefully worded confession a lot. Michael Shannon has a lot to play in this episode; Van Alden continues to scare me whenever he is on screen, simmering with suppressed rage. Playing a hypocritical, devoutly religious, deeply confused character is something lesser actors would surely struggle with. Paz De La Huerta is also asked to do more than ever before in this episode. The childbirth scene was a little bit old hat but I thought she conveyed Lucy's conviction to deliver the baby herself very well in the scene where she brushes her hair in front of the mirror.

Along with his undoubted input to the on theme imagery, clever misdirections and subtle scene transitions in the episode I want to praise returning director Jeremy Podeswa a little more. He did a great job with the night shootout and standoff. The image of the two sides standing off in the road lit by the headlights is one of my favourites from the season. Two other favourite shots from the episode; the smoke drifting to the ceiling after the picture is taken at the end and the opening camera move of Nucky's big meeting where our viewpoint starts through the window over the door to the sitting room and then drifts down into the room giving us a good view of the multitude of major players Nucky has assembled. I am pleased to see Podeswa will be helming a third episode for the show later this season. Overall, another fantastic episode, I remain enthralled and excited to see what is next.

Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Prime Suspect US - early episodes round-up

I've been watching the US remake of Prime Suspect today and had a few thoughts on it. I should say that I am a relative latecomer to the original Prime Suspect having watched most of it on the Virgin On Demand service in January this year. I suppose that puts me in the position of having seen it fairly recently which might detract from viewing the remake. I did enjoy the UK Helen Mirren original but already find this remake to be a fairly different animal.

I think the producers of the US version have, quite appropriately, used the central idea of a talented but mildly abrasive female detective trying to progress her career in a male dominated environment and transplanted it into an American procedural. This process has . The television event model of producing 2-4 hours of material to air over 2-4 days that so many British series rely on allows for individual cases to receive longer running time. The American series appears to be following the solve it in 45 minutes model that American networks are enamoured with. I believe this means that the casework and the examination of the criminal characters will struggle to achieve the depth of the original. That said the American model produces more television in a shorter space of time so the characters that form the backbone of the show - the cops and those from Timoney's personal life - do have plenty of time for development.

I was disappointed to learn that (like CSI New York) this is another New York set crime series that has chosen to film entirely on the West Coast of America. Not only does this dampen the authenticity but it means the show will not have access to the fantastic pool of East Coast based character actors that can enliven a crime drama and lift it above the cluttered field of competition.

I do have a little cache of faith in executive producer Peter Berg who did such a fantastic job of the Friday Night Lights (FNL) series - an example of a successful television series adapted from existing material. I've been pleased to recognise a few names in the credits from the team Berg assembled for FNL including  writer Liz Heldens and producer Nan Bernstein Freed.

The series has a good ensemble cast of believable New Yorkers. Bello is doing fine work as Timoney and her interrogation skills, intuition and intelligence are clear to see and contrast well with her fraut relationships with her colleagues. The extreme sexism of the rest of her squad seemed over the top in the pilot episode. Times have changed since the original series but this element was not updated and thus seemed outdated. The following two episodes (which is as far as I have got today) featured a greater range of responses from her colleagues that seemed more believable. Brian F. O'Byrne (who I recognise from his fine work on the excellent Brotherhood) has the most conflict with Timoney as the two are in competition for lead detective roles. He is believable as a sexist and as a successful homicide detective and I think he has a difficult role - not many cop shows feature such difficult working relationships between their investigators. Its a pleasure to see Kirk Acevedo (from Oz and Fringe) in another series regular role although I wonder if this one will be anything new as he as a veteran of mens men roles. He does have some comedic interplay with fellow star Tim Griffin - the two make believable squad mates reminiscent of the cops from David Simon's Homicide book. It is also good to see Peter Gerety as Timoney's father, he is a fine actor and I hope the producers make good use of him. I note that he is also playing the cop's dad role on Homeland this year - hope he doesn't get confused!

The investigations seemed believable and it was nice to see that the writers took time to give us insight into Timoney's thought processes and how it sometimes differs from her squadmates. It certainly beats the plot driven machinations of other recent crime series (I'm thinking of you, Blue Bloods).

I understand the series has garnered some critical praise (although I've only read Alan Sepinwall's mildly positive review) but has struggled in the ratings. I'm enjoying it enough so far that I want it to stay on the air for the 13 NBC have ordered. I think that is a possibility if it maintains it's current ratings given the lack of successes NBC has had in this season.