Articles by

<Ellen Killoran>

05/25/11 4:01am

Jenny Slate is perhaps best known for saying the F-word on Saturday Night Live—on her debut episode, no less. The sketch called for Jenny and castmate Kristen Wiig to use the word “freaking” anywhere in the dialogue that allowed for a modifier. At one point, Jenny said “fucking” instead. She recovered quickly, but her career on SNL couldn’t be saved. For those who missed the live airing in September 2009, or who wanted to watch it again, multiple clips of the flub quickly made the rounds on YouTube, with over two million views up so far.

Today, Slate is dominating the same medium that propagated her life-changing professional and personal embarrassment. Marcel the Shell with Shoes On is an extraordinarily likeable “meta-documentary” short starring a diminutive, self-conscious mollusk forced to adapt to human scale. The film stands tall among the defenses of YouTube-driven viral video’s artistic and cultural merit, and possesses a rare power to lift the mood of anyone who views it, despite its undercurrent of sadness. Also, it’s profanity-free.

Jenny and her director-boyfriend Dean Fleischer-Camp came up with Marcel shortly after she finished that ill-fated SNL season, at a point in her career when Jenny admits she was unsure of her footing—although she didn’t know at the time she wouldn’t be returning to the show for a second season. “I just wanted to do something that I didn’t have to explain,” she told me over the phone from Vancouver, where she was filming Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chip-wrecked. “I think we’re lucky that it’s popular, being what it is.”

Marcel grew around a voice that Jenny started using while sharing a crowded hotel room with a group of friends who had traveled together for a wedding. In an interview for the blog A Bostonian on Film, Fleischer-Camp said that at the time, “I think we both felt very small and lonely and unfulfilled and like we weren’t 
getting our due credit.”

Marcel the Shell with Shoes On—which now has over nine million views on YouTube—earned Slate and Fleischer-Camp a two-book deal with Razorbill, an imprint of Penguin Young Readers Group. The first book, Marcel the Shell with Shoes On: Things About Me, will be published on November 1st of this year.

When asked about the career-changing SNL flub, Jenny is forthright about how much it disturbed her. “I wrote that sketch. I wonder if it was something that I subconsciously did to myself. I am eternally confused by it,” she said. “I don’t like to make mistakes.”

Slate joined the cast of SNL in 2009 as a relative unknown outside of New York’s “underground” comedy scene, where she had become something of a darling. Jenny and her comedy partner (and real-life “nonsexual partner”) Gabe Liedman attracted a following with their Monday night show at Rififi, A Night with Gabe and Jenny. While Jenny appreciated the exposure the show brought them, she was eager to develop as an actress. “I wanted to explore doing more character [work],” she said. “I tried to write a show about a mall in Massachusetts, but it was horrible and I was really frustrated. I think that when I start to feel out of ideas, bored, or lonely, I start feeling like my life is soon to be over, I get really morbid and dramatic, probably just because I actually love life and I always want it to be zooming along. When it’s less than that, I can spaz out. So, I felt really lost and morbid, and that’s where the idea of having my one-lady show take place at my funeral began. I wanted it to be a funeral for myself, if I really had achieved crazy fame and wealth and become sort of adorably feral.”

02/16/11 4:00am

When Morgan O’Kane met Domino Kirke in 2007, he was living in a squat on the Lower East Side and had recently lost his best friend to a heroin overdose. A handsome and talented busker, he had caught Domino’s eye months before she worked up the courage to approach him. Not surprisingly, Morgan had noticed the head-turning beauty during her frequent trips on the L train and was eager for an introduction. “We knew right away we were meant to have a child together,” Kirke said.

Morgan and his banjo can still be spotted on the L train platforms at Bedford Avenue or Union Square, although his performance schedule was modified after he and Domino gave birth to a son, Cassius, two years ago—and his busking hours have been further reduced now that Domino is frequently on call as a birth doula. Doulas provide continuous nonmedical support to mothers who seek an alternative or a supplement to a traditional hospital birth, often working in conjunction with midwives to facilitate the ultimate DIY experience, the home birth. They have become increasingly popular among holistic-minded young mothers in post-gentrification Brooklyn neighborhoods that are coming of age.

As any veteran Williamsburg resident can attest, Park Slope no longer has a monopoly on outer-borough competitive parenting. Clementine Natural Birth and Midwifery recently moved to Williamsburg from Park Slope, and Caribou Baby—a birth education center and “babywearing” boutique—is scheduled to open later this month in Greenpoint. Educated parents breeding the second generation of Brooklyn hipsters are increasingly circumspect about their childbearing options, with mothers taking a more proactive role than a conventional hospital labor and delivery might allow. And those skittish about giving birth in their own bedrooms can still benefit from doulas (like Domino) who are willing to attend hospital births: These doulas will work with a mother to create a “birth plan” and advocate its enforcement on behalf of a woman who may be in a vulnerable state during crucial decision-making stages.

Morgan and Domino arrived to each other by way of starkly different backgrounds: He from humble beginnings in Charlottesville, Virginia; she from a more privileged childhood in London and New York. By all estimates, Domino is a product of the moneyed, art-schooled milieu depicted in the semi-autobiographical film Tiny Furniture, which sketches an angst-driven return to the symbolic womb. Writer/director and star Lena Dunham went to high school with Domino’s younger sister Jemima, whose scene-stealing turn as the protagonist’s long-lost BFF is backed by a soundtrack featuring Domino’s eponymous band. Domino is far more eager to discuss Morgan’s burgeoning musical career than her own success in that arena. “Nowadays, Morgan plays enough music for the both of us,” she said. “And I get to focus on babies.”

O’Kane left home as a teenager and became immersed in the country’s loose-knit underground community of freight train jumpers and urban squatters. He traveled throughout the U.S. in this manner from age 16 to 21, setting up temporary camp in Kansas City, Tucson and New Orleans. In Kansas City, he converted an abandoned mansion into an organized squatter colony, where he acted as something of a den father to a co-operative plagued by addiction. In 1998, a squat fire in Tucson claimed several of his friends, and by 1999, when “heroin hit New Orleans like a ton of bricks,” he was ready for a change and headed to New York.

“Choosing to stay in that world meant a slow death,” he said. But he struggled with the unfamiliar rhythms of stationary life, and went through a period of heavy drinking while working as a decorative painter and taking odd jobs. Eventually, “I decided to see what would happen if I only played music, and now I have two albums… The music has made it possible for me to travel and support the family.” In addition to his studio recordings (Nine Lives was released in 2010, and the follow-up is currently in production), Morgan contributes his distinctive Appalachian sound to independent film projects. Along with his bandmate Ezekial Healy, O’Kane composed and performed the score for Low Coal, a documentary investigating the impact of big-profit mining companies on Appalachian communities. Morgan is also featured prominently in Matt Finlin’s film Below New York, which celebrates the city’s subway musicians.

12/06/10 12:32pm

boardwalk empire

Boardwalk Empire needed to pull out all of the stops in order to salvage a perfectly meh first season. It almost succeeded—even those of us who have been largely unimpressed thus far must concede that the finale was one fine (and gorgeously lit) hour of television.

The most cinematic episode since the Scorsese-directed premiere, “A Return to Normalcy” shifts between hushed, intimate exchanges meant to tie up loose ends (rather too tightly), and grandiose, “the gang’s all here” showcases—a grateful nod to the genre that made funding for this program possible. The D’Alessio Brothers murder montage is lifted straight from the Scorsese Greatest Hits playbook: Terence Winter substitutes a tribal drumbeat for Derek and the Dominoes; and frenetic, dusk-lit serial executions for a consecution of corpses. The barber shop throat slice—fresh red blood on snow white shaving cream—is a turn all Boardwalk Empire’s own, and for that it deserves its own page.

We open on All Hallow’s Eve, when many a survival hinges on the upcoming elections. The newspaper headlines promising a Democratic win for mayor are making everyone nervous; and Margaret’s temporary living situation is threatened by the near-certainty that Warren Harding will be elected President. Her new roommate—Harding’s mistress Nan Britton—is clinging to the delusion that Harding will call for her and their bastard son to join him in Washington; but Margaret is well aware that Nan’s setup will expire for other reasons. Mrs. Schroeder’s dramatic departure—all the way down the block—is about as convincing as the runaway child who sets up camp in his own backyard. For the moment, she’s keeping busy baking Barmbrack for the holiday—a traditional Irish fortune-telling cake: “If you get the money you’ll be rich; if you get the ring of course you’ll be married; if you get the rag—well, you’ll be destitute.”

My kind of attempted murderess is the kind who’s sorry only that she didn’t succeed. When the Commodore’s long suffering maid is asked why she tried to poison her boss to death, she confesses: “Because if I used a shotgun, I’d a had to clean the mess up myself.” Nucky grants her a hasty pardon and a fistful of cash to get her the hell out of town; a demonstration of the peculiar amnesty afforded to nobodies in a micro-society whose maintenance is dependent on uninterrupted corruption. Very little is lost on the invisible. While Nucky is wise to the damage the accused could do if brought to justice; he is perplexed by her warning to watch his back.

And he’s just as bemused by Torrio’s brokering of a “talk” between Nucky and his arch death rival, World Series-fixer Arnold Rothstein. But for the love of the game, the enemy camps meet for a pleasantly cooperative discussion. Rothstein knows his back is up against a wall, and offers Nucky a blank check and a true blue truce in exchange for making his legal troubles disappear. The price is a million dollars (which, corrected for inflation, is about a gazillion trillion) and the location of the surviving D’Alessio brothers. It’s a deal. (The real Arnold Rothstein was called to testify before a Grand Jury about the “Black Sox Scandal” but he was never indicted. He died of a gunshot wound in 1928).

All season long, we’ve all been dying to know the story behind Nucky’s dead son. All Margaret had to do was ask: After discovering the grave of his son and wife during a Halloween cemetery stroll, she marches over to Nucky’s place where he tells her the whole horribly tragic story, adding that now Margaret knows “more about me than any other person on earth.” Does this mean that we can only know Nucky through her? David Chase allowed Tony Soprano to win the hearts of a loyal audience by showing us all his parts: The late riser in the ill-fitting bathrobe; the overeating couch potato; the post-traumatic stress patient. Jennifer Melfi as moral compass and reliable confidant allowed us to get inside Tony’s head while never forgetting that his version of events should not be trusted. Margaret Schroeder has too much invested in Nucky to trust her point of view of him; but Boardwalk Empire has alternated between her and Jimmy Darmody as the dominant POV characters. Next season, Jimmy will be vying for his power and Margaret—having chosen him as “the sin she can live with”—vying for his love. So far, the veil around Nucky has lent him a flat dimensionality rather than the intended air of mystery. In order for us to care anymore about who he really is, one of them is going to have to get underneath it.

The long awaited revelation, of course, helps Margaret and Nucky (and us) feel as though they’ve overcome an important obstacle on the way to true intimacy. Margaret can use this advancement to justify running back into his spindly arms—which she doesn’t do until the end of the episode, when she finds the rag (foretelling poverty) in her cake, and Nucky is back on top of the world. It’s easy to love a criminal when he’s winning.

11/29/10 12:44pm

Boardwalk Empire

Boardwalk Empire
Season 1, episode 11: “Paris Green”

In Boardwalk Empire’s penultimate season one episode, we learn—minus any fanfare—that the Commodore is Jimmy’s father. That Jillian was 13 when the affair took place (and that Nucky was essentially her pimp) flavored this disclosure with a tasty bit of scandal, but at this point, it’s difficult to care. The discovery that someone has been poisoning the Commodore is pretty juicy, but the setup—a victim we barely know; suspects (like Jillian) we have only just learned had access to the Commodore—reads more like the opening scene of murder-mystery dinner theatre than the climax of a long dramatic season. (For the record, I think (hope?) the maid did it—she tried to take away that bowl of biscuits that Jimmy blames for making him sick). Believing along with everyone else that he is inches from death, the Commodore tells his son that “the wrong man is running Atlantic City.” Now that he is resurrected, how will the Commodore act on his belief?

Nucky’s associate Harry Price announces that he has been wiped out by the original Ponzi scheme (perpetrated by Charles Ponzi, and similar in scale to the Madoff scandal), and his mistress Annabel wastes no time in severing their relationship, but not before Price reclaims the nearly $4,000 in cash she has been lifting from his wallet and hiding under the floorboards. Annabel turns to Nucky in desperation, begging in vain for him to prosecute Price and then offering her services in exchange for a handout. Margaret walks in during this exchange, evidently having been let in to Nucky’s office without protest by Eddie Kessler, who always knows what’s going on behind those doors. Margaret announces to Nucky through gritted teeth that The League of Women Voters has endorsed Bader’s mayoral nomination. When Nucky responds positively to the news, Margaret says “Then I’m glad to have been of service to you,” and leaves in a huff.

Agent Van Alden is dubious of Agent Sebso’s version of his “self-defense” killing of their key witness against Jimmy Darmody and Nucky, and makes no effort to hide his suspicion. Sebso is rattled enough to ask for help from Nucky, who advises him to “be a hero” and raid a distillery. But Sebso and Van Alden find instead a Baptist ritual taking place at Mays Landing, with no distillery in sight. In a confusing and barely rational sequence of events, Agent Sebso later announces that he will be transferring to Chicago, and blames Van Alden’s obvious distrust of him as the reason behind it. Somehow they return together to Mays Landing, where Van Alden performs a bizarre baptism-cum-exorcism on the Jewish Junior Agent, ultimately drowning him (and unwittingly doing Nucky a favor).

Nucky and Margaret finally air their dirty laundry back at Margaret’s townhouse. Nucky breaks the icy tension by offering that what Margaret thought she saw earlier “couldn’t have been more innocent.” She is far from placated, and complains that their arrangement makes her sick. Nucky lashes back at her with the bottle of Lysol she’s been using to prevent conception, and a rather childish argument ensues (Margaret says ‘fuck’!). Nucky doesn’t deny Margaret’s accusation that he was behind her husband’s death, and admits just as much to Eli as he later recounts their argument. Richard Harrow makes one of two disappointingly brief appearances to report to Nucky that Margaret and her children have gone, and Nucky doesn’t appear in the least surprised.

Angela makes the conflicted choice to leave for Paris with Mary, despite Tommy’s reluctance and requests for his father to join them. But when they arrive to the photography studio, Robert and Mary have disappeared. Angela and Tommy were gone long enough for Jimmy to find the letter Angela left for him. He doesn’t seem terribly surprised that their trip was aborted, hinting at the possibility that Jimmy was somehow behind the couple’s abrupt departure.

The episode ends with a (momentarily) quiet revelation that every character on the show is deeply, horrifically unhappy. But we’re not permitted to experience this realization on our own—the closing credits force a lyrical subtitle (“Wild Romantic Blues”) atop a pathos that would have been better received without it.

Boardwalk Empire came to us at a time when all but the most stubborn film buffs were willing and ready to believe that the small screen could compete with the big as a cultural commodity. The handful of series that boosted the artistic authority of television were those that showcased enough episodes that could stand alone as films (The Sopranos, Mad Men) or epic serials with that demanded the investment of a loyal, enraptured audience (The Wire, Deadwood). Boardwalk Empire is neither: It’s an assorted grab bag of proven aesthetic techniques, and delivers its dramatic weight in a succession of one-two punches rather than the slow burn of the shows it aims to emulate. A series that demonstrates so readily a lack of confidence in its ability to convince its viewers insults its audience and injures itself. Right now, Boardwalk Empire feels like the ghost of The Sopranos limping along on a hollow, prosthetic leg.

11/24/10 1:00am

These days, it’s easy to be skeptical when someone makes a logline-worthy career change—especially when that someone is as media savvy as the Meat Hook‘s Sara Bigelow. Thanks to the popularity of what Jezebel coined the “personal meat journey” genre of confessional, I half expected Sara to be wrapping up her memoir by the time we sat down to talk at her workplace in October. But there is little hint of a publicity stunt behind Bigelow’s decision to abandon a promising, comfortable career in culinary PR to spend her days steeped in animal entrails: She just wanted to be a butcher.

The 25-year-old Los Angeles native moved to New York three years ago after graduating from USC with a degree in Creative Writing. She took a job with the Thomas Collective, working wine and spirit accounts. Knowing she was interested in artisanal food, her boyfriend—The Onion‘s Dan Mirk—gave her a charcuterie class at the Culinary Institute of America as a gift. Although it was a beginner-level course, “I was the only one who showed up without a knife,” she admitted. But right away she felt an affinity for working with meat, and despite a lack of formal culinary training or “strong ties to the land,” she started looking for weekend apprenticeships. “At that point I wasn’t necessarily looking for a different career path; I just wanted to learn more.”

Butchering is one of those professions so irretrievably masculine (and, until recently, so unglamorous) that the presence of gender discrimination isn’t really considered offensive, if it is considered at all. While Bigelow’s initial attempts to secure an unpaid apprenticeship were frustrating, she took it in stride. To hear her tell it, those who turned her away thought they were doing her a favor: “You have a day job, a college degree, your father’s not a butcher—why do you want to do this?” she says in summary of the early rejections: About a half-dozen, starting with A&S Pork Store in Park Slope, where she was a regular customer. One shop assumed she was looking for a cashier job, and told her that they had just filled those positions (with girls). “It was difficult to get across to them that I was looking to train as a butcher, not a cashier, and when I finally made that clear, the response was something like ‘Men cut the meat and women work the register.'”

In the summer of 2009 Sara met Tom Mylan at a screening of Food, Inc. at the Bell House. At the time, Tom was at Marlow & Daughters, and had already gained celebrity as the leader of a new breed of rock star butchers—tattoo-baring, cigarette-smoking, craft beer-drinking cutters who deal in local, grass-fed, often exotic and always expensive cuts of meat. First-generation butchers like these are unlikely to have hangups about hiring newcomers without a family pedigree—Tom himself apprenticed alongside his friends at Fleischer’s in Kingston, New York, before officially taking the job of in-house butcher at Marlow & Daughters. Also, it might not have hurt that Bigelow is young and pretty. In any event, Tom was immediately receptive to having her come in once a week to observe. “The first time I went in, I just watched. The second time I went in, they handed me a knife and let me cut. It wasn’t a lot—cleaning a pork tenderloin or something—but it felt like a huge deal.”

A little over a year later, Sara works five long days a week at the Meat Hook, Mylan’s shop with partners Ben Turley and Brent Young that opened earlier this year under the BQE in Williamsburg. Sharing a massive space with the relocated Brooklyn Kitchen, the Meat Hook is ground zero for the sustainable, local food craze in Brooklyn and beyond (at least for carnivores). The wide-open butcher counter is the centerpiece of the shop, and a test kitchen upstairs hosts nightly classes in subjects ranging from homebrewing to knife skills to pickling. During a recent visit, local pseudo-celebrity Benjamin Sargent (aka Dr. Claw aka The Lobsta Pusha) was hanging around the meat counter for a little longer than seemed necessary, looking as though he was waiting to be recognized. But the butchers themselves are there to work—heads down, knives up, with occasional and momentary breaks for some good-natured roughhousing (an October 28 tweet reads: “Well, Sara punched Brent and Ben in the face a couple of times today. Was it something we said?”). Sara admitted she might have been the subject of some hazing when she first came on board, but Ben Turley denied any culpability, adding that when it came time to hire an additional staffer, “there was no question” that Sara was the right girl for the job.

Photos by Lizz Kuehl

11/22/10 1:29pm

Boardwalk Empire

Boardwalk Empire
Season 1, Episode 10, “Emerald City”

Lions and tigers and bears, oh my! A peek in to Richard Harrow’s subconscious reveals a longing for a lost love and the missing half of his face. He opens his one eye to find Margaret’s terrified daughter screaming bloody murder after discovering him sleeping without his mask. Margaret is uncomfortable with the new living situation, but when she suggests to Nucky that he might consider an alternative, he brushes her off, insisting that Harrow is there for everyone’s protection. Later, Harrow takes a cue from The Wizard of Oz and cleverly tells the children he is the Tin Woodsman. Everyone is convinced, and Harrow settles comfortably in the role of Manny. For now…

Chalky (who we haven’t seen nearly enough of) is called upon to lure members of the D’Alessio gang under one roof by telling Lanksy that he’s ready to make a deal. Nucky advises him to act as though he’s disenfranchised (which might not be too much of a stretch), and to offer the gang an unlimited supply of booze. When Chalky asks what he’s “fixin’ to do about Mr. Rothstein,” Nucky says “I’m going to make him the richest corpse in New York.” But first, they take out two of the D’Alessio brothers—the first by execution and the second by strangling. Only Lansky escapes with his life, and Nucky urges him to tell Mr. Rothstein exactly what he saw.

Little Tommy unwittingly reveals Angela’s affair to his father, and Jimmy assumes that Angela’s “kissing friend” is Robert the photographer, not his wife. Jimmy bursts into the studio, steps into Robert’s upside-down frame (nicely done) and beats him to a pulp before an audience of aghast but inert onlookers. It’s still very difficult to get a read on Angela, who plays innocent just as effectively (although differently) than the wily Margaret Schroeder—and who seems to be just as impressionable from moment to moment. Her intimate scenes with Jimmy are wholly convincing, but by the end of the episode she seems nearly settled on escaping to Paris with her lady lover.

Oh—the 19th amendment has been ratified, and women now have the right to vote. The entire season has been leading up to this event, but the news is received rather feebly. Nucky’s initial expression looks a lot like concern, with perhaps a shade of disappointment. But ever the politician, he evinces a celebratory air —even persuading Margaret to have a sip of champagne, the better to lubricate his pitch that she stump for Republican Mayoral candidate Edward Bader. While Margaret initially seems skeptical—demanding to know Bader’s qualifications outside of being one of Nucky’s pawns—she delivers an effective speech at a meeting of The League of Women Voters, despite being visibly conflicted. Still, her endorsement is spun only from facts about Bader she knows to be true: That he is a builder, and that he supports the female vote.

Agent Van Alden is steadily going off the rails, and foolishly reveals his creepy obsession with saving Margaret’s mortal soul. Devastated by her rebuff, he takes to the bottle and ends up in bed with none other than the puffy-faced and desperate Lucy Danziger. But later it looks as though his fire-and-brimstone lecture may have gotten to Margaret, as she contemplates her own image in a full-length mirror, perhaps remembering Harrow’s earlier speech about forgetting what he looks like until he faces his reflection. The faintly visible bulge from underneath her nightgown recalls her makeshift birth control measures from earlier in the season. She and Nucky have been sleeping together for five months now, using household cleaner as contraception. Then again, she has already had three pregnancies, and as Lucy previously pointed out, gravity hasn’t been kind. Will the fates be more merciful?

10/25/10 3:02pm

Zoe Kazan

  • Zoe Kazan, possibly somewhere in Brooklyn.

Bored to Death
Season 2, Episode 5

The team behind Bored to Death is certainly having fun—but, in the same way I wish it of the central characters, I wish the show would take itself a little more seriously. Maybe I’m missing the point, especially if the point is simply to send up popular NYC stereotypes—poking fun at them while demonstrating that most clichés, especially the ones well worn, possess some element of truth. This week, we have overreacting stroller derby Brooklyn moms, down-and-out Indian limo drivers, six degrees of Kevin Bacon, and the ringing death knell of print journalism.

Jonathan is hired by a beautiful Indian woman, Lakshmi Bargava, who suspects her husband of cheating: He’s been coming home late at night reeking of bacon. It turns out he’s been laid off from his job and unable to find new work, so he passes the time at a diner working on his poetry. As usual, Jonathan is more interested in identifying with the people he encounters in his detective work (another writer for a second week in a row) than he is in properly doing his job. Presuming that Lakshmi will be relieved that her husband is not having an affair, he encourages Vikram to tell his wife the truth. Not at all surprisingly, Lakshmi is far from placated and tells Vikram to take a hike.

Kevin Bacon wants to option and star in an adaptation of the “Super Ray” comic—assuming a fat suit is provided. After the recently jilted Jennifer Gladwell (Kristen Wiig) interrupts Ray and Kevin’s meeting with accusations of invented STDs (“oral Chlamydia of the mouth”) and assault, Ray accidentally clocks Bacon and tells him that he’s not Super Ray material. Kristen Wiig struggles with dialogue that is beneath her comedic ability, but at least she gets to have a drink with Kevin Bacon—just as long as they can get out of Brooklyn, because “it’s just not as cool” as he thought it would be.

The show has done a great job of demonstrating George’s bafflement when realizing that he’s not exempt from life’s more pedestrian challenges—bed bugs, drug tests, and, this week, the cancellation of his beloved column—just as he has finished penning what he believes to be his best yet. After delivering a bleak monologue to Jonathan’s class, the two of them hop in George’s orange Mercedes and interrupt Vikram’s attempt to hold up the diner. When George—who believes he is addicted to pot and probably shouldn’t be getting behind the wheel—offers Vikram a job as his driver, he readily accepts and they narrowly escape a police pursuit.

Although I don’t quite understand Zoe Kazan’s indie leading lady appeal, here she is again as hot-for-teacher student Nina, who could get Jonathan into hot water (from which he will surely emerge unscathed).

Boardwalk Empire
Season 1, Episode 6: “Family Limitations”

Margaret Schroeder is officially a kept woman: Nucky has made her an offer she can’t refuse. Although she does pantomime a perfunctory soul search for a hot minute—asking Mrs. McGarry for advice on how to respond to the indecent proposal—she’s seen dollar signs in Nucky’s eyes since the start. While Margaret and Nucky were genuinely drawn to each other from their first meeting, this new arrangement is a business transaction above all else. In exchange for providing for her family, Nucky can keep an eye on her—and as long as Margaret is dependent on him, any watchdog shenanigans (like ratting out the green beer bootleggers in last week’s episode) will have serious consequences. Nucky’s got her in his pocket along with just about everyone else in Atlantic City, and her early taste of life as a concubine is a bitter one: Nucky stands her up just before she learns that she’s essentially living in a dormitory full of Atlantic City’s well-appointed mistresses. (In case anyone was wondering what she was doing with the Lysol: That was douching as birth control).

With Margaret safely tucked away, Nucky directs his attention to punishing whomever is responsible for ripping off one of his collectors at the start of the episode. Nucky wrongly suspects Lucky Luciano, who laughs off Nucky’s ineffectual power play. Lucky’s been ignoring his assignment to take out Jimmy Darmody, preferring instead the intimate company of Jillian Darmody, who he claims is the first woman to put “lead in his pencil” in years. Arnold Rothstein, impatient with the delay, disabuses Lucky of the notion that she is Darmody’s wife, but the look on Lucky’s face is one more of bemusement than rage.

In Chicago, Jimmy and Al Capone uneasily navigate their deepening alliance, with Capone playing the insecure, unhinged yardbird to Jimmy’s slick and steady tactician. Capone earns Jimmy’s sympathy (or is it pity?) when Jimmy learns that Al’s son is deaf, and the two rattle each other about their respective tours of duty (Jimmy’s all too real, Al’s grossly exaggerated). Jimmy gets all the credit for the elaborately staged execution of Charlie Sheridan and his Irish gang, which avenges Pearl’s tragic face-slashing and positions Johnny Torrio’s crew as the unrivaled lords of Greektown.

In case there was any question that Agent Van Alden is a creepy, sexually repressed ticking time bomb, the episode’s final self-flagellation scene sealed it. For more reasons than one, we really didn’t need to see that.

10/18/10 12:29pm

Kelly MacDonald in Boardwalk Empire

Boardwalk Empire
Season 1, Episode 5
With St. Patrick’s Day around the corner, Nucky and his cohorts are preparing for the annual Celtic dinner. Green beer is on the menu, and Margaret Schroeder witnesses the barrels being unloaded behind her house. When she and a fellow Temperance League member visit Nucky’s office to report the incident, he outs her for having been at his birthday party and makes it clear that any action he takes against the bootleggers is no personal favor to her. Of course, he takes no action at all: The next morning Margaret finds the men going about their business as usual, and when Nucky refuses to see her, she heads straight to Agent Van Alden. “I’ve been lectured to a great deal today by men who speak boldly and do nothing,” she tells him, before fingering Ward Boss Neary and implicating Nucky.

In Chicago, Jimmy Darmody is working out some of his mommy issues with Pearl, his favorite disfigured prostitute. Between feeding her generous doses of opium and fantasy, he advocates on her behalf to Johnny Torrio, who wants her gone by the end of the week. And go she does: With a self-inflicted bullet to the head.

An increasingly icy Jillian Darmody has comfortably set up camp in Jimmy’s apartment, where she serves his toddler whisky and offends Angela by offering to raise their son so that the latter can live out “her youthful adventures.” It turns out Angela is managing fine: Jimmy’s suspicions about her affair with the boardwalk photographer appear to be right on.

After Agent Van Alden & Co. raid the Celtic dinner and arrest Neary, Nucky comes face to face with Margaret, who is singing a prohibition song among a chorus of protesting Temperance Leaguers. Later that night, Nucky shows up at her door: “I have no time for games, Margaret; no interest in them.” And then they get it on. But has Margaret leveled the playing field? We know that Nucky’s aim, first and foremost, is to keep himself in a position of czar-like power; and that his power comes from keeping enough people (and the right people) happy. We also know that he is genuinely taken by Margaret, who has given him a taste of just how much damage she can do him if he rebuffs her. What happens when political objectives mingle with emotional desires? Does one subsume the other? Nucky and Margaret’s nocturnal embrace temporarily satisfies both of their carnal urges as well as their necessary political alliance. But in the light of day, Nucky has much more to lose.

Bored to Death
Season 2, Episode 4
It’s becoming more and more difficult to draw a story out from underneath the heap of literary references and distorted paeans to New York that is Bored to Death. Mercifully, Ted Danson’s George—the only lead on the show who’s playing it straight—has a developing arc that affords him a generous amount of screen time. This week, his stage-two prostate cancer also gets him out of rehab after he bombs his company drug test, and it gives us one of the episode’s best line deliveries, from Big Love’s Mary Kay Place: “I’m going to speak very slowly, because you’re probably stoned right now.”

Having made the mistake of reading a vaguely unflattering Jonathan Ames interview, I’m ever more suspicious that Bored to Death is an exercise in thwarted narcissism. At the center of the show is an existential struggle that has a particularly high prevalence among urban-dwelling creative types: Would you rather be happy or interesting? Which is really a question of where you find your identity—within yourself or in the eyes of others. This week, Jonathan is occupied with sizing himself up—against his cartoonish nemesis Louis Green, and his new client, a wheelchair-bound one-time novelist who teaches creative writing at the fictional Midwood College, where Green works as an adjunct. Schwartzman’s portrayal, too often reminiscent of Max Fisher on a high school stage, only adds to the farcical tone of his scenes, which may or may not be intentional. Once again, Jonathan escapes acute danger, and he successfully reclaims the professor’s valuable copy of On the Road.

Things are looking up for Ray, whose comic alter-ego Super Ray is a huge success. Surely his peripeteia (and bedding of Jonathan’s former client) will cause some tension within the trio, which could add some much needed dimension to the show—assuming the upcoming episodes showcase more writing than typewriting.

10/11/10 1:39pm

Boardwalk Empire

Boardwalk Empire, episode 4, season 1
The fourth episode of Boardwalk Empire finds just about everyone embroiled in a turf war. Nucky Johnson fights for the state’s highway appropriation funds to be portioned to Atlantic City; Al Capone and Jimmy Darmody bully their way into Chicago’s bootlegging hotspots; a bloodthirsty Ku Klux Klan pledges to eradicate the black man—but Omar’s Chalky’s conclusive interrogation tactics prove that last week’s lynching wasn’t Klan related.

“You don’t invade a country all at once. Take it over one piece at a time. Act nice. Negotiate for a portion… Before you know it, you’re controlling his entire territory.” While a buffoonish Capone ignores Jimmy’s free advice, Margaret Schroeder appears to be versed in the delicate art of the friendly takeover. She inches her way further into Nucky’s heart (who, me?); stopping along the way for a pleasant current events chat with New Jersey Senator Walter Edge: “As you’ve learned, if you withhold from a woman something she deeply desires, then she’ll surely find a way to withhold something you desire.”

Jillian Darmody takes a more direct approach, giving Lucky Luciano a dressing down when he comes looking for Jimmy. Jillian may not know that Lucky has been hired by Arnold Rothstein to take out her son, but she does know that he’s up to no good, and is more than happy to let him believe that she is Jimmy’s wife. Surely this is the “dangerous man” Jillian’s fortune teller warned her about in last week’s episode. What’s uncertain is whether Jillian’s seduction of Lucky is meant to distract him from the matter at hand, or to feed her own desires—probably a bit of both. We know that Jillian’s maternal instincts have mingled before with her craving for male attention; and this episode more than hints that these competing impulses might come to a head. I really hope it doesn’t mean that Gretchen Mol won’t last the season, as she is now threatening to steal not only scenes but the whole show.

Bored to Death, episode 2, season 2

“The Gowanus has Gonorrhea” and George (Ted Danson) has prostate cancer. But it’s stage 2, so we think he’ll be ok—once “all or part of the prostate” is removed by his urologist-cum-love interest. Jonathan Ames’ kidnapping for ransom is a more pressing matter—after being dumped by his polyamorous girlfriend for Warren, the third party in last week’s “group cuddle,” Jonathan is snatched by the owners of the hard drive he stole from their dungeon in the season premiere—and they want $20,000 so they can build a new dungeon in Boston. George and Ray (Zach Galifianakis), fueled by copious amounts of pot, ineptly plan a raid while Jonathan and his would-be assassins exchange musings on affairs of the heart and the wisdom of Oscar Wilde.

So far, the second season of Bored to Death has been stronger than the first. Jonathan Ames is minus a book contract, Ray is down a girlfriend, and George’s free-flowing Orangina supply has been cut off by the magazine publisher’s cost-cutting efforts. The dearth of riches has made way for a much funnier script. But “The Gowanus has Gonorrhea” is excessively preoccupied with cutesy-clever sideline dialogue and none at all with a coherent narrative. Naturally, George and Ray fumble the attempt to rescue Jonathan, so they jump in the kidnapper’s Zipcar and head to New Jersey (the real Jonathan Ames’ birthplace) where Jonathan has promised his father will deliver the ransom. When the bag of cash the elder Ames supplies is $18,000 short, the good guys are spared a violent end on account of geography: “It’s New Jersey, it’s too bright. You can’t kill people here!” Touché.

09/21/10 7:00am

HBO has played its ace with Boardwalk Empire, the cable network’s not-so-subtle reminder that it invented The Critically Acclaimed Original Dramatic Series (are you listening, AMC?). With a $30-million price tag on the pilot alone (including a $10 million promotional campaign), Sunday night’s premiere episode is now the most expensive in television history. Playing up Martin Scorsese’s involvement (who directed only the pilot, but is one of the show’s Executive Producers) the series announced itself as the television event of the year by the time three episodes had been shot. But a 9pm time slot—allowing it to sidestep competition with Mad Men—hints at a crack in its expensive veneer, as do the unrelenting visual references to its pitch perfect recreation of a post-WWI Jersey shore; which is heavy handed enough to invite suspicion that we are being distracted from a weak script. So far, Boardwalk Empire is an uneasy cocktail of pageantry and trepidation; but one that promises to go down easier with each subsequent round.

Much has been made of the boardwalk replica, which was designed from a close study of period photographs (the original Atlantic City boardwalk is all but long gone) and built over three months on the bedraggled Greenpoint waterfront. While the storefronts are painstakingly accurate, three-dimensional constructions, the multi-story background buildings and the Atlantic Ocean are digital creations. The casually discerning eye can—quite literally—see where the actual set ends and the CGI begins; but it’s hard to say if this is a fault of the production design or the anachronism of a digitally enhanced era decades older than the technology used to recreate it.

We would expect a television series about the early years of American organized crime to be concerned with dark corners and hidden underbellies. While Boardwalk Empire delivers the requisite dirty dealings in smoke-filled dens, it also turns an eye towards Prohibition-era Atlantic City’s appetite for bold (and often grotesque) spectacle. Premature babies with uncertain futures are entertainment at a storefront ‘Infant Incubator Exhibit’; a beautiful young woman’s corpse is splayed indiscreetly for unwitting—but not unnerved—spectators at a funeral parlor; crowds gather at a pier to ogle a fisherman’s fresh haul, still floundering for last gasps. Champagne corks burst out in defiance at the stroke of midnight on Prohibition eve; a butler habitually enters the lead character’s boudoir, compromising dress or positions be damned. Historically accurate or not, Boardwalk Empire draws a brazen, unflappable seaside community that gorges itself on the unseemly and the macabre. What this means for the protracted bloodbath to come is not entirely clear, but is clearly significant.