For all of its gaudy-looking ambition, the first season of Boardwalk Empire felt very much like a first draft of a television series rather than a fully realized vision. Like the awkwardly emerging early-20th-century Atlantic City the show represents, not every element of the HBO drama seemed built to last. The season was packed with original characters and perfectly arranged set pieces, but also with characters that felt more like ideas than human beings and long distracting diversions into undercooked plotlines. The good news about the show's second season is that some of the best characters have been given expanded roles. The bad news is that most of the show's peskily weak elements have descended further into caricature, and too much time is being devoted to some of last season's most disappointing tangents.
Blame Boardwalk Empire's uneven composition on its central characters, Nucky Thompson (Steve Buscemi) and Agent Nelson Van Alden (Michael Shannon). Viewers are likely to grow impatient of them in the new season's first episode, as the two are given free reign over the proceedings. I may be alone here (the Golden Globes certainly disagree), but the great Buscemi still feels terribly miscast as the largely inscrutable, thinly characterized Nucky. For all his weasly charm, the man is an unconvincing power broker, in addition to a super-unconvincing chick magnet, and the screenwriting-by-numbers backstory that emerged midway through the first season to flesh out his character only further made the character seem like an afterthought.
The new season begins with Nucky under attack from the assembled forces of his brother, Eli (Shea Whigham), his surrogate son, Jimmy (Michael Pitt, a graduate of the same Tough-Guy Method Acting School that counts Ryan Gosling as one of its alums), and his surrogate father, the Commodore (national treasure Dabney Coleman). Thankfully, Buscemi is better at being bullied than he is at bullying (his character's hilarious and tragic back and forth with Christopher on The Sopranos notwithstanding), and so far the growing fury he and his partner Margaret (Kelly MacDonald) have been able to muster against their opponents promises a newer and more compelling take on the Nuckster.
Things are looking less rosy, however, for Nucky's foil, Agent Nelson, who's dealing with the effects of a dalliance with Nucky's ex-girlfriend, Jessica Rabbit incarnate Lucy (Paz de la Huerta). This caricature of a hypocritical fire-and-brimstone IRS agent gives the unnervingly skilled Shannon so little to work with that the character occasionally ends up recalling Orson Welles's turn as Unicron in the Transformers cartoon movie. (De la Huerta, however, is eerily good in her scenes with Shannon.)
But Boardwalk Empire is still chock-full of great character work. The many compelling antagonists and allies shuffling through Nucky's office are a constant reminder that this show would be 10 times more interesting if it were reorganized around practically anyone other than Nucky. First and foremost, Pitt has grown into a fantastically emotive actor, and his murderous, PTSD-afflicted Jimmy threatens, episode by episode, to steal the show, in addition to Atlantic City, out from under Nucky. Additionally, veteran character actor Shea Whigham's blistering monologue near the end of last season proved to be a real revelation, and his character's anger and ambivalence this season have, again, added a surprising pocket of depth to the show. Unsurprisingly, Michael K. Williams (star of a thousand Omar Little fan mash-ups on YouTube) is still sensational as the fiercely honorable Chalky White, and it seems he's being given more room to breathe this season. Finally, Jack Huston as the haunting Richard Harrow is carving out, despite his minimal screen time, one of the saddest, scariest, and most fascinating television characters in recent memory. Like a cross between Charlie Chaplin and a Universal movie monster, the nearly silent Harrow deserves much more to do on this show, and Huston ought to receive attention for the quietly astounding work he's doing with what he's been given. And this is not to mention the terrific turns of MacDonald, de la Huerta, Aleksa Palladino, and the dastardly cool Michael Stuhlbarg.
There are moments in Boardwalk Empire's second season where the writers are self-aware of their lumpy distribution of talent and interest. The second episode, for instance, takes a page—like Mad Men's perfectly executed “Suitcase” episode—from The Sopranos's “Pine Barrens” playbook, isolating a few of its characters from the action and piecing the narrative together in quiet vignettes. The episode is a strong one, especially in the sequences that focus on Chalky White's tense night in jail or on Margaret's preparations for a strange dinner party. But the episode is the exception rather than the rule this season. Torn always between spectacle and introspection, Boardwalk Empire is still a show without a compelling organizing principle. It has the advantage of a veritable galaxy of stars at its disposal, but all that sparkle too often comes together as a gaudy mess.