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Lust, greed, wrath – Boardwalk has all the deadly sins

Nucky has a new popsy. It's not a major spoiler to reveal that Nucky Thompson (Steve Buscemi) on Boardwalk Empire (Sunday, HBO Canada, 9 p.m.) ends the first episode of the new season in bed with a sweet young thing named Billie Kent (Meg Steedle). She's a showgirl and Nucky needs some loving, so that's hardly a surprise.

When we last met Nucky, he was obliged to wipe out several traitors and enemies, including Jimmy Darmody (Michael Pitt), the handsome fella to whom Nucky was a father-figure. That's when Nucky, an Atlantic City politician on the surface, really became a gangster. His essential ruthlessness emerged and the series shifted gears. For all its sometimes ponderous storylines about the politics of Prohibition and America's sudden lurch into the 20th century, the series needed venom and that arrived in spades.

The return of Boardwalk Empire is a major event and certainly it's the main show on this weekend's TV menu. Me, I've been watching a lot of new network series, so it is bracing to indulge in a cable series so clearly aimed at adults – and unapologetic about it. A major addition to he production this season is Canadian Chris Haddock (Da Vinci's Inquest, Intelligence), who acts as a co-executive producer and has written the marvelous third episode.

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Things open on New Year's Eve in 1922. Nucky has decided to go corporate, and sell his prohibited booze mainly to the New York mob. It's a business decision. Too much time has been spent on dealing with losers and thieves. He wants major wealth and major power. His partner Margaret (Kelly Macdonald) has taken on the role of corporate wife, raising funds for a local hospital and wielding the power that money and influence bring her.

Not everybody appreciates Nucky's new tactics. In particular the psychopath Italian mobster Gyp Rosetti (Bobby Cannavale, who is astonishingly good and scary), newly arrived from Italy and irritated by the ways of American capitalism.

Much is anchored around an obscenely lavish New Year's Eve party that Nucky and Margaret throw for friends and associates. Their great wealth, obtained illegally, is on full display. This guy Gyp, not amused by the extravagances, points out that 1923 is, in the Chinese calendar, the year of the pig.

That's only one of the signals about Boardwalk Empire's direction this season. For all the colourful material about flappers, showgirls and good times with bathtub gin, the series is reflecting the recent past of the U.S., not just the 1920s. This show is all about the viciousness of corporate leaders, the barbarian heroes of the free market. We see Nucky at the top as a guy controlling access to booze, but he could just as well be heading a major bank.

On the flip side, we see Nelson Van Alden (Michael Shannon), once a senior agent in the Bureau of Prohibition and Nucky's tormentor, now at the bottom of the capitalist ladder, reduced to selling home appliances door-to-door. The good guys lost.

This is must-see TV – funny, bloody and smart. Adults only, please, and that's not just a warning about a half-naked popsy offering comfort to a capitalist warrior.

Also airing this weekend

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Over the Rainbow (Sunday, CBC, 8 p.m.) is a series I was mocking, just a little, the other day. In fairness, it can't be written off. The show, which will audition 10 young Canadian women for the role of Dorothy in a Toronto production of Andrew Lloyd Webber's The Wizard of Oz, is certain to draw viewers who root for an unknown. The judges are Arlene Phillips, Thom Allison and Louise Pitre, who know a thing or two about musical theatre. And if you stick with the series, take note that the final episode will feature a search for a dog to play Toto in the production.

Revenge (ABC, Sunday, 8 p.m.) is being repeated to prep you for the new season. ABC is helpfully rerunning the pilot episode and two other key episodes to get you up to speed. After a slow start, Revenge became last season's hottest show, thanks in large part to its perfect blend of Victorian melodrama and contemporary soap-opera antics. The tangled plot is essentially about Emily Thorne (Emily VanCamp) returning to the Hamptons, summer home of the rich, to plot revenge against those who wronged her father. Principally she aims her venom at Victoria Grayson (Madeleine Stowe), who loved and betrayed her dad. Sizzling plot twists and evil-doing abounds.

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About the Author
Television critic

John Doyle is The Globe and Mail's television critic. His column appears in the Review section Monday to Thursday and on Saturday. He has been the paper's critic since 2000. More


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