Empire strikes back
BOARDWALK EMPIRE (SKY ATLANTIC, SATURDAY) FRY'S PLANET WORD (BBC2, SUNDAY)
It's not often you find yourself wanting to praise something owned by Rupert Murdoch. A great, big clap on the back is in order for Sky Atlantic, however, for having the cojones to show Boardwalk Empire in a primetime Saturday night slot.
Were it to go out on a week night, when the drama competition is considerably stiffer, it might go comparatively unnoticed. But the fact that it's showing over the weekend, when the schedules are dominated by the sweeping, sluicing slop, snot and schmaltz of The X Factor live shows, simply magnifies its brilliance.
There was some carping last time that Boardwalk Empire, which could tell Barack Obama a thing or two about being weighed down by impossibly high expectations, was too "slow", even from UK TV critics -- the same ones going into ridiculous raptures over posh period soap Downton Abbey -- who seem to have developed a serious attention deficit disorder.
Well, anyone who stuck with Boardwalk Empire's painstaking scene-setting was richly rewarded by the end of its 12-week run, and there can be no accusations of slowness about the first episode of the second series. It was an absolute thumper from start to finish.
It opened with an outstanding scene: an all-machine-guns-blazing attack by the Ku Klux Klan on the booze warehouse of Nucky Thompson's (Steve Buscemi) African-American counterpart Chalky White (Michael Kenneth Williams, who's as fantastic here as he was as Omar in The Wire).
Nucky's resentful protege Jimmy (Michael Pitt) was one of the men under the white masks and gunned down a woman. Chalky retaliated by putting a bullet through the neck of one of the retreating Klan, leading to an explosion of tension in Atlantic City, with Nucky, who's playing both sides of the race card, caught in the middle.
In an absolutely brilliant scene that captures in a nutshell both the essence of Nucky and the reasons why you can't imagine anyone but Buscemi in the role, we see him passionately promising a church full of black people that "these hooded cowards" will be brought to justice. A few seamlessly edited seconds later, he's before a white crowd, condemning "the uppity negro".
Boardwalk Empire has given its rich gallery of supporting characters, including Michael Shannon's terrifying, puritanical/ hypocritical federal agent Nelson Van Alden, time to breathe and develop.
Yet it's still Buscemi's Nucky -- arrogant, charming, funny, vulnerable, duplicitous, calculating and dangerous -- that dominates it. It's deeply satisfying to see this marvellous character actor finally getting his lead role due, especially in such a superb showcase.
HBO series, such as Boardwalk Empire and The Sopranos, have made us used to hearing the F-word flying around like bullets, yet there was still something slightly surreal about seeing the erudite Stephen Fry, in Fry's Planet Word, with his hand stuck in a fish tank full of ice cubes, chanting "f**k" over and over.
This third episode looked at why we swear. Fry found that when he tried chanting "functional", he couldn't stand the discomfort for more than half a minute or so; when he replaced "functional" with "f**k", he lasted more than two minutes.
When booming actor Brian Blessed, a serial swearer, apparently, as well as a serial shouter, tried replacing a chant of "wooden" with his favourite swear word, "bollocks", it had the completely opposite effect.
I don't mind admitting that, at the best of times, I have a tongue on me like a docker's armpit, but I don't know if I'd care to try the tank experiment. I'd be afraid at what I might find out.
It was tremendous fun watching Fry do it, though.
Boardwalk Empire HHHHH
Fry's Planet Word HHHII