The Emmys almost always get some things wrong, but the omission of HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire” from this year’s Best Drama nominees — while “Downton Abbey” did get a nod — is particularly egregious. (And I can’t even talk about the snubbing of “Rectify.”) “Boardwalk” is one of the better dramas around, a slow-burning, expertly plotted, beautifully shot, novel-like look at 1920s America and the political and social repercussions of Prohibition. Its fourth season return Sunday kicks off a packed fall lineup and, while perhaps not as routinely thrilling, “Boardwalk” can fill the void the departing “Breaking Bad” will leave as an equally moving, intelligent look at how far some people will go to not only survive, but thrive.
This season jumps to 1924, and lead man Nucky Thompson (Steve Buscemi) is still in the bootlegging game but is out of politics — even out of Atlantic City and the Ritz. He’s moved up the coast to Ocean Grove, N.J., and the Albatross Hotel, a gutsy relocation in that it moves him closer to New York City. But he outmaneuvered Arnold Rothstein (Michael Stuhlbarg) and Joe Masseria (James Ciccone), not to mention the dearly departed psychopath Gyp Rosetti (Bobby Cannavale), last season, and now he’s taking it easy. (Over on Uproxx, Dustin provides details on the man Nucky is based on.) Early reviews of the season from critics such as Alan Sepinwall describe Nucky as not playing as central a role to the series as in seasons past, or at least not having a clear enough role in the grander storyline. “Boardwalk” likes to take its time with plots, so perhaps Nucky’s ultimate purpose this year will take a while to discern. The good news is that some of the series’ fantastic supporting characters are getting more time to shine, notably Chalky White (Michael Kenneth Williams).
Nucky made good on his word to give Chalky the Boardwalk location where Babette’s night club previously stood, and now Chalky’s own hot spot — The Onyx Club — is the one catering to the elite. An establishment for white clientele featuring black staff and black performers will undoubtedly provide interesting stories and commentary on the Jazz Age. (Or creator Terence Winter could take a page from Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby and feature his black actors dancing in the back of a car to Jay-Z’s “Izzo (H.O.V.A.)”. I’m sure that’s accurate for the time.)
Other familiar faces getting more screen time:
Al Capone (Stephen Graham) is coming into his own as a formidable player out of Cicero, and ex-Treasury agent Nelson Van Alden (Michael Shannon) only gets more mixed up in his organization.
Richard Harrow (Jack Huston), who capped off Season Three with a spectacular massacre at Gillian’s Artemis Club, is exploring his past. (I don’t know more than that, and I don’t want to.) Harrow is one of the more fascinating characters in an impressive ensemble, so more screen time for him is great news.
Others we’re curious about:
Gillian Darmody (Gretchen Mol) is a survivor — that lethal-sized dose of heroin administered by Gyp last year couldn’t even take her out — but what is she up to now that she’s on her own?
Even more secretive is what Margaret Thompson (Kelly Macdonald) is doing now that she has left Nucky and moved to New York with her kids. Reports are that we don’t see much of her the first half of the season, but I’d like a bit more resolution for the character. Or maybe some flashbacks featuring the late Owen Sleater (Charlie Cox). Oh, Owen.
Jeffrey Wright as Dr. Valentin Narcisse, a fixer and booking agent out of Harlem
Patricia Arquette as Sally Wheet, a speakeasy owner in Tampa, Fla., where Nucky has expanded his bootlegging operations
Ron Livingston as Roy Phillips, a Midwestern businessman romantically involved with Gillian
What a great way to kick off the fall TV season.
“Boardwalk Empire” airs at 9/8C Sundays on HBO.
Sarah Carlson is a TV Critic for Pajiba. She lives in San Antonio. You can find her on Twitter.