Gratuitous: Boardwalk Empire & The Thick of It

‘So completely has a whole year passed,’ wrote Coleridge, ‘with scarcely the fruits of a month.’ He might not have felt so bad had television been invented because as surely as the year ticks by new runs of our favourite TV shows punctuate it like little coffin nails in time. Thus Boardwalk Empire (HBO; Sky Atlantic) returns to our screens and it’s a new year with new problems for Nucky Thompson (Steve Buscemi) and his bootlegging empire. Not only is he still pained by Margaret (Kelly Macdonald) signing over a highly profitable stretch of land to a children’s hospital but we can tell from the off that new business acquaintance Gyp Rosetti is going to be a psychopathic thorn in his side. One can only guess how much Jimmy’s execution is going plague Nucky’s psyche in the coming weeks; certainly it will, for Nucky is portrayed as an introspective character, but for the meantime it was nice to see all the gangsters and thugs playing fairly nice at his Sardanapalian New Year’s Eve party. When your business involves rubbing people out, you just have to get on with it.

Typically the first episode began and ended with a bang – or, to be precise, a bludgeoning and a shot. There were entire episodes of The Sopranos without a shred of violence in them, only Tony’s brooding potential to explode at any minute, and they were all the better for it. An episode of Boardwalk Empire without a shooting, a cleaver to the head, a beating, etc., does not come to mind. The problem isn’t the violence itself but that the writers/producers don’t seem to have enough confidence in the series to think it can get by without it.

Consider the character of Al Capone, brilliantly portrayed by Liverpool’s own Stephen Graham, who has that terrifying Soprano-esque instability. Very often some of the finest scenes are those where we know he could very easily take, say, a spoon to the eye sockets of the person sitting opposite him, but doesn’t. However, one supposes that the violence is needed for historical accuracy – the only semi-decent thing Capone ever did in his life was provide clean milk for Chicago schools. To some, this made him a hero, but as one Chicagoan who had met Capone as a boy recalled in a documentary ‘he was a bum’.

From physical violence to verbal assault: The Thick of It (BBC Two) has had our Saturday nights ringing with profanity for the past few weeks, jumping back and forth between the ‘Coalition’ and the ‘Opposition’. The former camp, despite the lack of Malcolm Tucker (Peter Capaldi), has been rather the more entertaining. Minister Peter Mannion (Roger Allam) and his Ken Clarke-like refusal to join the modern world are juxtaposed perfectly with PR-guru Stewart Pearson (Vincent Franklin) and his all too believable pseudo-management/motivational bullshit. The sight of them together bumbling about trying to get phone signals on a playground slide was the right kind of funny. The wrong kind of funny was several grown adults struggling to get into a revolving door. When this happens in real life it’s more annoying than amusing, and just a bit too obvious for what one supposes is our premier British comedy.

One could say the same about real life politics: more annoying than funny (but perhaps only just so). It has already been proposed that politicians may now be imitating The Thick of It rather than the other way round but it does seem to be that our incredulity at what goes on in that comedy is rather tame compared to the jaw-strappingly ridiculous daily antics in contemporary politics. But this is no place for a bully pulpit. The next episode will be their version of the Leveson Inquiry and  let’s hope they’ve saved the best till last because how enjoyable it will be to see practically the entire cast of characters squirm through a grilling if the writing’s at its best.

With so many stalwart US television series coming to an end recently it’s time to throw off the grief and move on with our lives. Where better to start than with new NBC comedy Go On? A light entertainment starring Matthew Perry as sportscaster Ryan King and his attempts to move on, or, yes, go on, from the death of wife with the aid of a support group of quirky nuts. The name should surely be ‘move on’ or ‘moving on’ – or even, if things go as we might expect with the therapist (who is, of course, on the good side of looking), ‘get it on’, though that’s a minor qualm. It is funny but NBC can hardly expect it to take on a fan base like its other quirk-filled comedies 30 Rock (to end after a final fourteen episodes this year) or Community (season 4 postponed). It’s also funny precisely because it is that latter show with a larger group of people, no ‘meta’ and a slightly less narcissistic central character; but the influence of Community on any comedy show can only be a good thing and this one really does get gradually better over the first few episodes. And, lest we forget, Matthew Perry is a god of mirth-making.

Surprise recommendation of the week: You might not expect an original British drama produced by Comedy Central to be worthwhile, but after ‘catching up’ with the first season and the beginning of the second, it can confidently be asserted that Threesome is the funniest programme currently on our screens. A sassy girlfriend, a hapless boyfriend, a gay lothario best friend, and their baby. When this is combined with a delightfully whimsical script, what more needs to be said? Get to your ‘on demand’ services and find out.

(Originally written for, October 2012.)