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TV Picks: 'Boardwalk,' 'Halifax,' "Holler,' 'Brains on Trial'

September 05, 2013|By Robert Lloyd, Times Television Critic
  • Kelly Macdonald as Margaret Thompson and Steve Buscemi as Nucky Thompson in a scene from last season's "Boardwalk Empire," whose fourth season begins Sunday.
Kelly Macdonald as Margaret Thompson and Steve Buscemi as Nucky Thompson… (Macall B. Polay / HBO )

"Boardwalk Empire" (HBO, Sundays). I have not kept up scrupulously with "Boardwalk Empire," from the sheer demand of trying to keep up with everything on television -- which is now not merely television, but anything you can see on a screen (not counting "the movies," but including, soon, your wristwatch). There are time-management choices even the non-professional viewer must make. But unlike some shows I do not keep up with, because they have nothing to say to me, or because what they have to say to me is disagreeable, or so poorly expressed as to be disagreeable, I am always happy to check back in with this series, now entering its fourth season, to bask in the luxuriousness of its assured tone, quietly evocative period work, impeccable acting and the richer-than-usual emotional life of its characters. For all that it's a complicated drama, with shifting allegiances and players who come and (often violently) go, one never feels flummoxed by having missed an episode or three or five; the power relationships are always clear and the business on screen usually intriguing enough to make any confusion moot.

Created by "Sopranos" vet Terence Winter, with Martin Scorsese as a pilot-directing, tone-setting executive producer, this story of Prohibition-era Atlantic City, the land that was Vegas before Las Vegas was Vegas, is of a piece with Scorsese's true-crime theatrical films, though also more down-to-earth and (the luxury of so many hours) relaxed. There is a certain psychological leisure, too, that comes with knowing (or expecting, anyway) that Nucky's fate, though certainly not the only or even most compelling concern here, is linked to that of a real-life model, Enoch Johnson, who survived into the late 1960s and at a respectably ripe old age. If nothing else, "Boardwalk Empire" puts Steve Buscemi, and Kelly Macdonald on television for a dozen weeks each year. Buscemi seemed an odd choice for Nucky at first, as he must often seem, but there is no arguing with him now. As political-boss-crime-lords go, he is more thoughtful and better-mannered than most, mostly. The series is also about class and race, two subjects most American television likes to avoid, either under the impression (mistaken) that we we have moved past all that now, or (possibly not mistaken) that it's nothing viewers want to hear about. (It resembles "Justified" in this respect.) Points too for its theme music, "Straight Up and Down" by the Brian Jonestown Massacre, an unexpected (no matter how many times I see it) bit of post-Velvets guitar spray (glittering, dangerous) that sets a chronologically anachronistic yet somehow emotionally appropriate tone.

INTERACTIVE: Fall 2013 TV preview

"Last Tango in Halifax" (PBS, Sundays). Sally Wainwright ("The Amazing Mrs. Pritchard") wrote this lovely series (based on her mother's actual experience) about two Yorkshire families brought together when widowed elder members Derek Jacobi and Ann Reid reconnect, after 60 years, on Facebook, and begin a belated romance. (A sudden move and an undelivered letter set them on divergent paths.) It's schematic in a satisfying way: She's posh, sophisticated, bold and of the city; he's a quiet countryman, with a heart condition. Though the series is not immune from that condition in which old people having a full life (or just using a computer) look cute, or even slightly childish, or age-inappropriate, to younger eyes, that is also part of the point here. Wainwright respects her characters' experience and intelligence. They have survived their issues. Less can be said of their children, also presented in a kind of symmetrical opposition: Jacobi and Reid each has a grown daughter; hers (Sarah Lancashire) has two sons, heads a school, and is separated from her husband, a "writer"; his (Nicola Walker) has one son, works in a pharmacy (and on their farm) and is widowed and lonely. (Jacobi's scenes with Walker are as beautifully rendered as those with Reid.) Not all get on equally well. Yorkshire looks humbly gorgeous, with its moors and high-tension lines, its canals and cobblestones, setting off the human comedy-drama. A second series has been commissioned.

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