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Jason Wallis ‘Boardwalk Empire’ rivals production value of film

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Jason Wallis

Posted: Friday, November 12, 2010 1:33 pm

It seems that I am prone to minor setbacks. These past few days, for example, I’ve been knocked flat on my butt by a flu that’s been going around, rendering me unfit to go out in public — much less sit in a movie theater for two hours, half-blind from NyQuil abuse, as all manner of improbably colored fluids are expelled from my every orifice. (Although I’ve been seeing most of my movies in Stockton these days, and such a spectacle is kinda par for the course down there.)

At any rate, silver lining time: For starters, we’ll still get to tackle “Due Date” (the film originally slated for discussion this week) next time, which means I’ll get to dodge both “Unstoppable” and “Skyline” before things pick up with “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1” and Dwayne Johnson’s hard-R actioner “Faster” in the following weeks. Not an ideal plan, perhaps, but desperate times, desperate measures and all that.

In addition, my disgusting state affords us the opportunity to talk about something we don’t usually get to delve into, despite its close kinship with cinema. I’m referring, of course, to TV, the “idiot box” that continues to monopolize a majority of my free time even though I enthusiastically recognize its inherent inferiority to film. This inferiority is especially striking with regard to the formal elements of motion pictures: editing, sets, costumes, sound, shot composition and pretty much anything else that fits under the umbrella of mise-en-scene. The way the industry operates, with insanely tight shooting schedules, such artistic concerns  — which should be paramount in any visually based medium — are simply not given much consideration.

That said, TV does have its unique charms. In fact, it’s times like these  — when I’m feeling absolutely miserable and can’t sleep, and in fact can’t muster the energy to do anything but sit here in a drug-induced stupor  — that I find myself rediscovering these charms. For instance, I’ve just spent the better part of the past couple days catching up with two cable shows that, halfway through the current season, serve as a refreshing reminder of just how absorbing, epic and, at times, genuinely cinematic, great television can be.

The first is Showtime’s “Dexter,” in its fifth season. Last year’s cliffhanger saw our serial-killer hero Dexter Morgan (Michael C. Hall, possibly the most talented and naturally appealing TV star currently wor  king) having his life turned upside-down as his wife was murdered by a rival serial killer (John Lithgow, in an Emmy- and Golden Globe-winning performance). Now, how do you top a villain like Lithgow’s instantly iconic Trinity Killer? The producers’ answer: You don’t.

Seven episodes in, the fifth season of “Dexter” represents some creative behi nd-the-scenes thinking. Whereas the debut season had the Ice Truck Killer, the second had hot-headed cop Doakes and unhinged love interest Lila, the third featured District Attorney Miguel Prado (the best “Dexter” character ever, played by Jimmy Smits) and the fourth gave us Trinity, this year things have moved away from the “central adversary” formula.

After a few awkward episodes in which far too much time was devoted to watching Dexter feel guilty about his wife’s murder, the show has settled into a provocative story arc involving a victimized woman (Julia Styles) who comes into Dexter’s life by chance but soon establishes herself as his protégé as the two go after the men who raped and tortured her. Things have gotten a tad implausible at times, but occasional plot hiccup aside, “Dexter” continues to stand as one of the most engrossing (my last Christmas was spent on a first viewing of all 12 hours of season four), entertaining, well-acted and uniquely moral series on television.

Our next show is in its freshman year, but has already cemented its status as my favorite show of the season. What else could I be talking about but “Boardwalk Empire,” HBO’s gangland saga executive produced by Martin Scorsese. Remember what I said about TV series  — even on cable  — being incapable of rivaling movies in terms of production values? Here’s the exception that proves the rule.

As a portrait of Prohibition-era Atlantic City, “Boardwalk Empire” is as polished and detailed a production as you’re likely to find showing in theaters. Every facet of the series  — from set and costume design to lighting to composition  — is absolutely top-notch, and the directors brought on board have done a fine job of maintaining the tone set by Scorsese when he helmed the debut episode.

The cast is roundly amazing, and includes award-worthy work from Steve Buscemi as local politician and crime boss Enoch “Nucky” Thompson (a fictionalized version of the real “Nucky” Johnson); the luminous Kelly Macdonald as his would-be savior; and Michael Shannon as the severely disturbed FBI agent out to nab him. It’s easy to get emotionally invested in characters this well-drawn, so when the show’s inevitable, graphically violent “holy crap!” moments occur, they’re all the more effective. This is great TV: visceral, compulsively watchable, and as unpredictable as historically based fiction can get.

I must admit that I don’t watch a lot of TV by most people’s standards, and much of what I do watch is cable news, cooking shows/food porn, and TV poker. I’m quite discriminating when it comes to my narrative shows  — but I get my share in, and I aim to write more (and more in-depth) about TV in the future, peppered throughout this column and, primarily, on Battle Royale. Until then, happy watching.

Jason Wallis is a News-Sentinel copy editor. He can be reached at jasonwallis@comcast.net.

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