June 13, 2011

Why aren't Steve Buscemi and HBO a perfect fit?

It was going to be the greatest season of television ever.

Forget about Richie Aprile. Step aside, Ralphie Cifaretto. Steve Buscemi was joining the cast of The Sopranos as Tony Blundetto, Tony Soprano's cousin, and he was primed to become the most revered guest star in the show's storied history.

Only he wasn't. And when compared to the first four seasons, which were maybe the best in all of televised drama, Season 5 of The Sopranos comes up more than a little short.

It's not all Buscemi's fault; perhaps the show was destined to decline anyway. Or maybe David Chase was in the process of segueing from "intrigue and action" to "dream sequences where Tony is a traveling salesman," and Buscemi got caught up in the crossfire. But his understated performance as a tortured ex-mobster was nowhere near as memorable, or as well-performed, as Joe Pantoliano's Ralphie or David Proval's Richie.

To me, at least, it felt like a wasted opportunity.

And then there was Boardwalk Empire. Created by Sopranos writer/producer Terence Winter, the show was supposed to be HBO's next big mob-oriented gem. The pilot was directed by Martin Scorsese. Accomplished actors like Michael Shannon and Michael Stuhlbarg were cast in supporting roles. And there was Buscemi, at the center of the stage, as criminal kingpin "Nucky" Thompson.

Boardwalk Empire was indeed a hit, racking up awards and breaking ratings records in its Scorsese-helmed debut. But, despite a Golden Globe win (which barely means anything anyway), how much of that was thanks to Buscemi? His casting seemed to be a calculated step away from the "big burly boss" type that was perfected by James Gandolfini, but Buscemi's straight-laced roles have always been more "quirky everyman" than "cunning evil mobster." Nucky is supposed to outsmart his opponents, but I never really bought that he was so very clever or crafty. He just seemed like a guy in the right place at the right time.

I'd rather have seen a creepy Buscemi, or a sinister Buscemi, someone with hate in his heart and an axe to grind. Instead, we got a glorified straight man who's been thoroughly outclassed by his fellow actors, including Shannon's unhinged Agent Nelson Van Alden and, by leaps and bounds, Michael Pitt's calculated young cohort Jimmy Darmody.

It didn't help matters that Boardwalk Empire hasn't been a particularly understated program thus far; when a character purchases a dress with "blood money," you can practically guarantee that the episode will end with actual blood being spilled all over it. It's been more than a little on the nose, and I think its unquestionably brought the show down.

In a way, Game of Thrones has been what I wanted Boardwalk Empire to be: a complicated, dense show that becomes required viewing. You feel for the characters on Game of Thrones; they make you want to watch. With Boardwalk Empire, sometimes it felt like I was watching out of obligation. It had been billed as "important television," so it was important television. But when all was said and done, I found that I didn't particularly give a crap. It definitely did not live up to the standards set by Sopranos and Deadwood, that's for sure.

Again, this isn't all Steve Buscemi's fault. He's is a terrific actor who has lent his talents to such varied and acclaimed movies as Fargo, Big Fish, Ghost World, Armageddon, The Big Lebowski and Airheads. You could make that the case that he's one of the most intriguing, or at least accomplished, modern character actors out there.

But when handed the ball, when it seems like he's finally found a meaty television role that will show off his range, it falls flat. Maybe HBO just doesn't know how to use him. Or maybe he's purposely trying to avoid the slimy, squirrely roles that made him famous, like the one he played in Fargo. Either way, I'm no longer all that excited for Buscemi on TV.

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