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Is There a More Egregious Waste of Ensemble Talent on Television?

By Dustin Rowles | TV Reviews | November 5, 2012 | Comments ()


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In our continuing efforts to cover "Boardwalk Emipre," I want to talk about something. Not last night's HOLY SH*T moment -- the latest in a series of HOLY SH*T moments that have salvaged quite a few of otherwise creaky episodes -- nor about last week's incredibly twisted storyline. I want to talk about Nelson Van Alden.

Nelson Van Alden is a character played by Michael Shannon, one of the most gifted character actors in Hollywood. You may recognize him from a series of mostly low-budget films in which he typically plays a psycho of some sort, most notably Take Shelter, a film that should've merited him his second Oscar nomination (he was nominated for best supporting actor in 2009 for his role in Revolutionary Road). He's also set to play the villain, General Zod, in Zack Snyder's Man of Steel next year, and my guess is that the creative minds behind "Boardwalk Empire" want to keep Shannon on the show long enough to exploit the inevitable surge of popularity he will receive once that movie is out.

However, in the meantime, Shannon's character, Van Alden, is treading water on "Boardwalk Empire," appearing mostly, it seems, to remind us that he's still on the show. He's been mostly detached from the show's major story lines since the first season, adrift in season two dealing with a pregnancy subplot seemingly only created to give Paz de la Huerta something to do before the show runners sent her and her crazy packing.

It hasn't improved in the third season, either. Van Alden -- after killing a federal agent -- is a fugitive on the lam, which only serves to keep him more disconnected from the rest of "Boardwalk Empire." He lives in Cicero, Illinois and poses as George Mueller, an door-to-door iron salesman whose closest proximity to the action of "Boardwalk Empire" came last night when he served as muscle for a guy who is selling alcohol to Al Capone, himself an increasingly distant character. Shannon was allowed one explosive scene, however, in which he scalded a man's face with a hot iron.

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Shannon is not the only wasted actor in "Boardwalk Empire," however. Michael K. Williams, who was underused in season one, had a decently substantive story line in season two, but has barely been heard from in season three. He is another instance where "Boardwalk Empire" wastes not only the talent of the actors involved, but the colorful characters they inhabit. Williams' Chalky White was initially one of the biggest draws to the series, and he's been relegated to a tiny storyline involving his a young man courting his daughter, a storyline that's seemingly been all but abandoned this season.

Likewise, three-time Golden Globe nominee Kelly MacDonald has been pushed into an insufferable plotline this season, again mostly away from the main action. She's working to get birth control introduced into a health clinic, which is the last thing you'd expect a character in a show about Prohibition gangsters to be doing. Jack Huston's Richard Harrow, so brilliantly used in season two that he became a fan favorite, has also been pushed to the background, save for an Easter episode centered on his fledgling love life and a brilliant exchange between Harrow and Nucky Thompson about the death of Jimmy earlier this season. Charlie Cox, who plays Owen, and who was a brilliant find last season, has also been given scant screen time in season three.

Indeed, it seems that most of the characters we got so invested in last season have been pushed adrift into the show's orbit, awaiting for Nucky Thompson's major storyline to absorb them back into the fold. Seven episodes into the third season and that seems less and less likely, as Nucky is more concerned with Gyp Rosetti (Bobby Cannavale), another amazing actor who seems to be moving the plot along mostly off screen, save for a few explosive scenes scattered throughout season three.

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Many thought that, brave though it was to kill off Jimmy Darmody at the end of last season, "Boardwalk Empire" would never be able to regain its footing. So far, however, it seems that the absence of Michael Pitt is not what's killing "Boardwalk Empire"; there's plenty of talent to fill the vacuum. What's really missing is the way Jimmy connected so many of the best characters to Nucky Thompson. It is still a solid drama, and thanks to Steve Buscemi and the political machinations of Nucky, one that I continue to look forward to each week. Unfortunately, until the showrunners find a way to bring all the best characters back into the same interweaving storylines, massive amounts of talent may remain sorely underutilized.




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Comments Are Welcome, Bigots and Trolls Are Not


  • This sums up my distaste with the show this season. The episodes get backlogged in my DVR because I miss the characters and feel the wasted talent emanate off the screen whenever they are able to show up

  • stryker1121

    The only thing I'd say is that there's too many characters, which means the story feels diffuse sometimes and actors like Shannon get pushed to the b/g. That said, the last 2 eps have been GREAT and I love Van Alden's subplot, as he'll certainly be involved more w/ Capone. Margaret's subplot is fine, too. I like the character's feistyness (and gorgeousness) and the sex-ed stuff certainly ties in with some of the women's movement stuff going on at the time. What I'm saying, Dustin, is that your opinion is wrong!

  • Masterpiece

    This show is great. Absolutely nothing wrong with what they have done. If I were to have one critique it would be that there are to many amazing characters.

    NEW YORK SPIN OFF SHOW PLEASE!!!

  • John G.

    "and a brilliant exchange between Harrow and Nucky Thompson about the death of Jimmy earlier this season."

    Gah, that scene was terrible. It didn't make any sense at all. It was just a way to force those two into a scene so Nucky and Harrow could talk about who they killed and why. It was so totally artificial and there were a thousand ways they could have pulled off a meeting between these two besides one just walking into the others house for a ridiculously artificial reason. That's really weak writing. How could you call it "brilliant"?

  • I loved Van Alden's little satisfied smile at the end. Creeeepy.

  • Mrcreosote

    I prefer to think of B.E. as a smorgasboard of Character Actor Goodness. That's Norwegian, right? I don't hate the Nucky stuff because the historical tie ins are interesting-the Margaret stuff is deadly however. She is the stickest of stick in the muds.
    Also Steven Root doesn't get a shout out here?

  • Groundloop

    That last screen cap? That....that does not look safe.

  • Mrcreosote

    As it turned out it wasn't. But not for the reason you think.

  • Lotney

    I remember when Steve Buscemi shot Michael Pitt in the face... happy times.

  • DarthCorleone

    I acknowledge that these characters you mention are disconnected and aren't on screen as much, but I sure am still enjoying all of them. Even if there's less of them, their stories all seem true to their characters, and I appreciate that.

    In particular Van Alden is great, and I'm enjoying his story. That iron scene last night was the best "take this job and shove it" scene I've ever seen in movies or television. I'm going to enjoy seeing him get entangled in the world of crime. I wouldn't be surprised if we see him as one of Capone's cronies by the end of the season.

    Richard Harrow is awesome. Every scene of his carries emotional resonance. We don't need to unnaturally cram him in; that Easter episode was one of the best of the entire series in my opinion.

    The one you actor you mention that I would like to see used more is Michael K. Williams. I enjoyed that limited insight into Chalky White's family life, but they need to give Chalky White more to do.

  • You cannot contain the Shannon. Whatever the Boardwalk creator's intention, here's a word of warning: cage him at your peril. The Shannon will NOT be constrained!

  • BrassCupcake

    No one puts Shannon in the corner.

  • Wednesday

    I think was too much of the Billy storyline. It's a little hard to buy that Nucky would finally have met his match only to lose her, especially in yet another "Nucky cheats death" scene.

    Michael Shannon has been terrific, along with the actress playing his clever little wife. Love the way she's developed since last season. He's been on a slow burn, trying to maintain his new persona, but he just can 't manage it.

    Still, this has been a strong season. There's enough moments in every episode to keep you coming back for more.

  • Blake

    The total waste of Michael K. Williams is one of the reasons the show lost me (and the whole killing Jimmy thing didn't help). Nucky is honestly, next to Margaret, the least interesting part of Boardwalk Empire.

  • THIS. I've been saying for weeks that all of these characters are getting the shaft to service Nucky, who bores most of us to tears.

  • Lotney

    Dead Jimmy was the only reason I decided to keep watching. Michael Pitt kept transforming every scene into a Dawson's Creek moment in my head. What a terrible actor.

  • lowercase_ryan

    Dunn Purnsley played by Erik LaRay Harvey needs to be included in this conversation.

    Other notable talents without much to do on the show: Stephen Root and Julianne Nicholson. James Cromwell was a cool guest star last night. There are so many wasted characters and I hate to be reminded of it. At the same time I have no idea why the story is working for me this season.

  • John W

    That scene was awesome! Tell me Shannon wasn't channeling Boris Karloff as Frankenstein in that scene.

    My only disappointment is he didn't take out a load bearing beam and bring the whole building in on those folks cowering in the office.

  • Gavin Smith

    I thought the same thing. His stiff legged walk-about rage was very reminiscent of Karloff as Frankenstein.

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