Boardwalk Empire: Season 1 [Blu-ray]
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Television shows don't get much more grand than Boardwalk Empire, a mammoth creation by the likes of Martin Scorsese and Terence Winter that plants the seeds of organized crime at the dawn of Prohibition on the shores of Atlantic City. The massive shore set boardwalk, the pinstriped suits and flapper dresses, and the constant barrage of jazz music all bring the 20s to life in this outstanding corruption time capsule. It's sprawling cast of true-life characters blend into the fictionalized retelling effortlessly with incredible detail payed to historical accuracy in every aspect of the show. HBO has a long history of quality premium TV productions, but few match the production values that are packed into the exquisite Boardwalk Empire.
An unlikely character to be the powerful face of organized crime, Steve Buscemi stars as Nucky Thompson, the Atlantic City treasurer who uses his unique political position to control the now illegal alcohol distribution market. Shea Whigham plays Nucky's brother Eli, the city's power starved sheriff and Nucky's resentful enforcer. As a highly organized group, the brothers and fellow politicians control the import and local production of alcohol, which they not only distribute in town, but schlep to neighboring big cities like New York and Chicago. Jimmy Darmody (Michael Pitt) grew up under Nucky's wing, but after returning home from the first World War, he wants a bigger cut, ultimately severing his kinship with Nuck, and forcing all invested parties upon Nucky's doorstep after a botched delivery turns bloody. These men include a young band of mobsters in Arnold Rothstein (Michael Stuhlbarg) and hot head Lucky Luciano (Vincent Piazza), as well as Prohibition Agent Nelson Van Alden (Michael Shannon) and his cohort Agent Sebso (Erik Weiner).
While Nucky is managing his wily underground alcohol business and collecting cash from nearly the entire city for political asylum, he remains a popular officeholder, alternating between the smiling, sympathetic handshaker, and the indulgent, deep pocketed profligate between each interaction. Buscemi portrays a man who is instantly likable – a big hearted stick figure with a tragic upbringing and sad looks, but who's smooth talking intellect and selfish instincts have bought him the throne of Atlantic City. Memories of his deceased wife and child still linger in his mind, but he has no trouble finding a willing woman. His gold digging, smokin' hot girlfriend, Lucy Danziger (Paz de la Huerta), looks great on his arm, and even better in bed, but every utterance from her mouth reveals a brain the size of a pea. When he meets the abused, struggling immigrant Margaret Schroeder (Kelly Macdonald), Nucky is instantly smitten by her educated and opinionated wit. With each passing episode, it becomes harder for him to keep his personal life separated from his public and underground personas.
Thanks to the freedom that HBO allows, Boardwalk Empire pulls no punches. There is plenty of graphic brutality sprinkled throughout the first season, exuberant amounts of nudity lining nearly every episode, and a lexicon you should expect from a bunch of low down gangsters. Winter's storyline explores many different themes and topics with each episode. From the ideas of what having power means, to the attempt to understand the readjustment that comes following the social reemergence of war vets, to the grotesque state of race relations at that time, hard questions are asked in occasionally subtle and sometimes not so subtle ways. Each avenue is explored through devoted portrayals from a cast who's adept interaction is filled with immense intensity, jaunty humor, and assured confidence in their characters.
HBO has thrown a lot of weight behind its large scale endeavor, and the Blu-ray box set of season one is hard evidence of this. Visually, there isn't anything to complain about. Massive time capsule set pieces fill every frame with extreme detail and clarity. Much of the show is generally dim in its lighting, but blacks always look natural. The colorful and extravagant costumes especially benefit from the extra resolution. The DTS-HD 5.1 track sports a lively mix that truly shines with a wide variety of live music, gun shots, and spoken word that always sounds organic. The five disc set packs all 12 episodes, each with an enhanced viewing mode that triggers picture in picture commentary bits and factoid blurbs that appear throughout each episode. On to of that, six episodes have full commentary tracks from cast and crew members. There is a character dossier that grows and develops with each passing disc so you can investigate the histories of each character. And if that weren't enough, there are four substantial featurettes that span a variety of topics. “Making Boardwalk Empire” is kind of an origin story for the show that features the writers and directors that had a hand in its creation. “Creating The Boardwalk” shows the work that went into crafting the 300 ft boardwalk set piece that was built just outside New York City. It features various historical shops, hotels, rides and of course, the ever present ocean, though in digital form. A 30 minute doc titled “Atlantic City: The Original Sin City” gives a history of the faded city on the sea. Lastly, there is a piece called the “Speakeasy Tour” in which cast members visit famous speakeasies in New York and Chicago that were in operation during Prohibition. The Blu-ray set comes packaged in a gorgeous glossy fold out digi-pack that comes housed in a hardy cardboard dust sleeve.
Historical crime dramas are rarely done as thoroughly or as entertainingly as Boardwalk Empire. With its sprawling cast of characters that range from glowingly charismatic to enigmatically odd, there are plenty to root for, cheer against, or raise both eyebrows to. Winter has written an enthralling story with season one, and I for one can not wait for season two to be released to find out the consequences of the first. If the series itself wasn't easy enough to recommend, this Blu-ray set kicks off 2012 with a bang. Do yourself a favor, go buy it.
--Jordan M. Smith
Release Date: January 10, 2012