HBO has been ridiculed for passing on Mad Men, but Boardwalk Empire (Sunday, 8 p.m.) ought to shut up the haters. You want a drama that peers deep into America's soul, exploring sex, commerce, gender relations, race relations, politics, culture, crime and ethnicity while evoking a particular time and place? Boardwalk Empire, executive produced by Martin Scorsese, finds even better dramatic material in 1920s Atlantic City than Mad Men does in 1960s Manhattan.
Prohibition has begun, and gangsters fight to control everything from the mom-and-pop stores to the Senators. Nucky Thompson (Steve Buscemi) rules over Atlantic City's illegal alcohol trade, doing business with gangsters like Al Capone (Stephen Graham) and Lucky Luciano (Vincent Piazza). The huge cast of characters also includes showgirls, Ku Klux Klan members, prostitutes, beleaguered immigrants, a suffragette and the leader of the city's African American community. The production effortlessly evokes the period with music, costumes and vintage slang.
In this week's episode, Nucky throws himself an over-the-top birthday party, and the gangster turf wars culminate in a shocking act of violence. Most shocking of all, though, is the moment in which a character with a bit of integrity takes a quiet step toward corruption.
God in America
Monday, 8 pm (PBS)
I was startled by the opening minutes of God in America, an ambitious six-hour survey of religion's role in the New World. The music strikes a creepy minor key, and the narrator speaks portentously of "America's struggle from old religion to new." Dark clouds appear onscreen, accompanied by a clap of thunder.
Is the story of God in America really as scary as all this?
Hour one certainly is. God comes across as to borrow a phrase from the grade school principal's office a bad influence. Spanish missionaries arrive in the southwest in the 1500s convinced that they have the truth about God's mercy and that Native Americans must accept it or die. (Interesting view of "mercy.") There followed flogging and executions.
Then came the Puritans in the 1600s, banishing anyone whose views slightly deviated from orthodoxy. And in this case, banishment meant sending your neighbors out into the harsh wilderness to die.
Will God be this pernicious in hours two through six?
Insert thunderclap here.
Monday, 9 pm (NBC)
The blandly generic title is perfect for this blandly generic new cop show. It features the standard gorgeous blond law-enforcer (Kelli Giddish) in the standard too-tight clothes with the standard troubled past. She and her team of supermodel-grade U.S. marshals "chase" (see title) the bad guys over fences, off bridges, through the woods, etc.
These U.S. marshals always get their man. Getting an audience will likely prove more difficult.
Wednesday, 7 pm (NBC)
J.J. Abrams' new series features gorgeous husband-and-wife CIA agents (Boris Kodjoe, Gugu Mbatha-Raw) who banter and bicker while fighting smug European sadists. We've seen comic spy stories before, and Abrams doesn't do anything new with the genre. The car chases and computer-aided break-ins all come on cue, and you can bet there's a gruff supervisor and a wise-ass sidekick on hand.
The biggest problem is that Kodjoe and Mbatha-Raw don't have the chops to raise the marital comedy above the cloying level. Indeed, they make you gag with their constant flirting and smooching on the job. "You look cute," he tells her as they hack into a bank's security system.
Okay, she does look cute, but we'd notice that without the incessant reminders.
The Whole Truth
Wednesday, 9 pm (ABC)
The gimmick in this new legal drama is showing cases from both the defense and prosecution perspectives. Maura Tierney is the buttoned-down prosecutor in the district attorney's office who nobly quotes Benjamin Disraeli: "Justice is truth in action!" Rob Morrow is the shaggy defense attorney who wears red sneakers to court and pleads with the jury: "Reasonable doubt? You've got it in spades!" Would you be surprised to learn that these fierce opponents have a romantic history and possibly a romantic future?
The Whole Truth is competent but not much more than that. You feel you've seen it all before, from the mutilated female corpses to the spittle-filled legal tirades to the third-act stratagems that turn the case around.
Will an audience sign up for a lawyer show that doesn't really distinguish itself from the pack? I've got reasonable doubt in spades.