Blu-ray Review: BOARDWALK EMPIRE - Season 1

High quality TV drama which weds Hollywood production values to a rich, intelligent story.

rating: 5

Once upon a time television was where people who used to be in the movies went to die. I'm not qualified to pinpoint the exact moment where that all changed, but it definitely has. Arguably American cable channel HBO has trumped the movies, wedding the slick production values and top talent of Hollywood with a format that allows for vastly extended running times. This has enabled complex and incredibly dense dramas (like The Wire, Deadwood and now Michael Mann's Luck) to flourish, telling stories that just wouldn't fit comfortably into two hours - aimed at a mature audience driven from the multiplex. Martin Scorsese - director of the pilot episode of the phenomenal Boardwalk Empire - has likened this elongated form to the novel, effectively positioning movies as short stories by comparison. The first season of Boardwalk Empire is as eye-catching and exciting a marriage of top TV and movie talent as you could hope for. Created by Terence Winter, a senior writer on The Sopranos and executive produced by Mark Wahlberg and the aforementioned Mr. Scorsese, the show's cast includes Steve Buscemi, Kelly Macdonald, Michael Shannon, Michael Stuhlbarg, Michael Kenneth Williams (below), Stephen Graham, Michael Pitt and Gretchen Mol (with many more familiar faces from film and television besides). And, with clever use of digital effects, it's a story told on a big canvas - spanning 1920s Atlantic City, New York and Chicago. Though an ensemble, the show is focussed around Buscemi, who delivers what could be a career defining performance as Enoch "Nucky" Thompson, the corrupt treasurer of booming beach holiday resort Atlantic City, loosely based on a real life figure: Enoch Johnson. Like Johnson, Nucky is the real power in the city - and much of the surrounding state of New Jersey - with nobody doing much of anything without his say-so. He tightly controls the political machine, telling the locals how to vote and ensuring his friends are elected. He controls the local law enforcement, with his brother Eli (Shea Whigham) acting as sheriff. And, this being the era of prohibition, he's also ideally placed to see that illegally imported alcohol makes its way into his allies establishments, further increasing his power and reach. But as played by Buscemi there is an underlying innocence, sensitivity and even decency to Nucky that makes for a complicated and fascinating character. As with AMC's Mad Men (the product of another Sopranos writer), there is a rich sense of the period which is reflected via glimpses of popular culture, new stories and attitudes of the day. Contemporary popular songs are prevalent on the soundtrack, whilst movies and books of the era are often referenced. We see the way people dressed, danced and even the type of stand-up comedy they enjoyed. Barely an episode passes without a popular entrainer coming to town (like Eddie Cantor, uncannily impersonated by Stephen DeRosa), with Atlantic City presented as very much the Vegas of the early 20th century. Meanwhile watershed political events, like the enactment of prohibition and the presidential election of 1920, provide major plot points. This mix is complicated further by the violence and turf warfare that comes with Nucky's job: his access to liquor and political connections being sought after by a young Al Capone (Graham), stirring up trouble in Chicago, and Jewish Mafia boss Arnold Rothstein (Stuhlbarg), emerging in New York. Then there's the fact that an increasingly bizarre and unhinged federal prohibition detective, Nelson played by Shannon, is relentlessly pursuing the prosecution of Thompson and his extended, dysfunctional family - which includes Pitt's ambitious, WWI scarred gangster wannabe Jimmy Darmody, his obsessive floozy (Paz de la Huerta) and Macdonald's intermittently pious Irish immigrant mother-of-two Margaret. The show's main strength is that none of the characters take the course you would probably expect, with their motivations and sense of morality constantly uncertain. For instance, agent Nelson begins the series as the potential hero - the straight-laced avatar of God on Earth - but, before the end of the twelfth episode you'll see a much more complex and frightening character revealed. As with The Sopranos, character development and familial/political intrigue dominate even if there are many short and intense scenes of violence. This being HBO, the sex and bloodshed is all right up there on the screen. And that the quality of the filmmaking doesn't drop off after the Scorsese-directed pilot should say a lot about how high calibre the production values are. There is occasionally some ropey green screen work in the name of increasing the scale of events beyond what would be possible using sets alone (they understandably haven't built 8 miles of Boardwalk for the series) but you can't fault the show's ambition. This is the side of CGI nobody ever talks about when they dismiss the craft: it enables a show like this to use, for instance, a massive Republican convention centre as the backdrop of a single scene without prohibitive expense. The plot of season one of Boardwalk Empire could be boiled down to this: a corrupt public official wants to exploit political connections to ensure his town gets a new road, so he can export whiskey more effectively and increase tourism to his holiday town. What that dry explanation doesn't tell you is that this is one of the smartest, sharpest, most insightful shows on television - even bearing in mind the recent crop of similarly high class offerings boasting equally prestigious Hollywood players. It's got heartbreaking tragedy, jarring violence, political intrigue, large numbers of sexy naked people, a firm grasp of social history and even moments of comedy (mostly involving Nucky's butler played by Anthony Laciura). What's not to like?


Both the Blu-ray and DVD versions of the series are packed with compelling extra features. The only Blu-ray exclusive - as far as I can tell - is the "Enchanced Viewing" mode. This accompanies each episode with text pop-ups, bearing trivia and historical background information, as well as short video interview segments with cast and crew. Six of the episodes (half of the season) also feature audio commentary options, most of which involve series creator Terence Winter. These are mostly quite dry, with the usual backslapping ("oh he was great in that scene, wasn't he?") sort of stuff, though Michael Shannon's accompaniment to episode eleven is suitably entertaining (with talk that his acting style is "urine based"). A "Character Dossier" is also included (and accessible on every disc). This is basically a family tree featuring every major and minor character in the series, offering a clear look at who relates to who and how. Once selected, each character has a short biography and also a gallery of stills from the show. I can't imagine spending much time on this personally, but it's certainly a nice touch. The documentaries included are clearly promotional material for the show, presumably shown on television around the time of its premiere, but they are still worth a watch. The best is a half hour look at the history of the period called "Atlantic City: The Original Sin City", which features historians describing how the city was founded, drawing parallels between Buscemi's fictionalised protagonist and his real life equivalent. There's an entertaining (if slightly awkward) 25 minute piece in which cast members are shown around bars in Chicago and New York that were once speakeasies during prohibition, hearing anecdotes about each establishment's history from bar managers whilst the actors involved (Stulbarg, Vincent Piazza and Greg Antonacci) pretend to be disproportionately entertained. A five minute "Creating the Boardwalk" feature gives insight into how digital effects have been deployed alongside the building of sets to recreate the titular boardwalk, whilst a conventional "Making Boardwalk Empire" talks to cast and crew - including Marty - about the creation of the show.

Boardwalk Empire Season 1 is out on Blu-ray and DVD today.

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A regular film and video games contributor for What Culture, Robert also writes reviews and features for The Daily Telegraph, and The Big Picture Magazine as well as his own Beames on Film blog. He also has essays and reviews in a number of upcoming books by Intellect.