The List

Boardwalk Empire's season premiere: 4 talking points

The glitzy HBO mob drama returns for a third season with a newly violent protagonist — but the problematic show still isn't completely clicking

Boardwalk Empire, HBO’s spiritual successor to critically-adored The Sopranos, has never quite earned the buzz of its mob-drama predecessor — but Empire attempted to shift into high gear with last night's premiere of its third season. Season two's explosive finale saw gangster protagonist Nucky Thompson (Steve Buscemi) eliminate the traitorous Jimmy Darmody (Michael Pitt), the series' second lead. Did season three's kick-off episode, which picks up the plot 18 months later, keep the momentum alive? Can the series really continue without one of its main characters? And has Boardwalk Empire finally fulfilled its early promise? Here, critics react:

Unfortunately, Boardwalk Empire still isn't must-see TV:"This is a make-or-break season for Boardwalk Empire," says Cory Barker at TV.com, and, judging by the premiere, it's still not living up to its potential. As always, Empire is "well-acted and beautiful to look at," but, over the past two years, the series hasn't shown it can "pull strands together to make a satisfying whole." It's "the best-looking, most impressive, well-acted series to add up to so much less than the sum of its parts," agrees Willa Paskin at Salon. If the series truly wants to be must-see TV, it must do more than chronicle "the doings of charming murderers" and explore "ham-handed" metaphors.

Michael Pitt is sorely missed:The death of Pitt's Jimmy Darmody made Boardwalk Empire's season 2 finale "one of the most jolting season-ending episodes in recent memory" — but not necessarily in a good way, says Allen Barra at The Daily Beast. Empire fans immediately went online to express their disbelief and outrage, and "many swore they would never watch the show again." It's easy to see why. As Darmody, Pitt had "a Cagney-like volatility that kept you guessing," and the third-season premiere suffers without his wild-card presence. The loss has left "a gaping hole in the story," and the show hasn't found a way to fill it yet.

Still, Bobby Cannavale's new, ruthless villain shows promise:Darmody has been replaced by "a compelling new character," says Troy Patterson at Slate: Gyp Rosetti, a New York bootlegger played by Bobby Cannavale. The character's gruesome debut, which saw him murder a stranger with a tire iron over a perceived slight, "introduces a necessary hothead to a narrative in which the killers tend to look cold-blooded or simply bloodless." If Boardwalk Empire fulfills the character's promise, Rosetti could eventually be placed "in the same league" as iconic mafioso crazies like James Caan's Sonny Corleone (The Godfather) or Joe Pesci's Tommy DeVito (Goodfellas).

Boardwalk Empire's real problem might be Steve Buscemi:Buscemi "is and always has been a fine actor," says Andy Greenwald at Grantland, but his Empire role doesn't play to his strengths. In his best parts, Buscemi shows an "abrasive, off-kilter energy," but Empire's insistence on "binding him up in the stiff formal wear of a leading man" keeps his innate, oddball charisma from shining through. And the problem is exacerbated by the character's new shift from being "half a gangster" to a cold-blooded killer, which has made him "somehow less interesting" than he was before.

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