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Boardwalk Empire: The Complete First Season (2010)

HBO Home Entertainment
DVD Released: 1/10/2011

All Ratings out of

Review by Mike Long, Posted on 1/2/2012


If you're like me, when you go to your favorite restaurant, you get the same thing every time. But, if the restaurant is good, you may try something different because you trust them. Something similar happened with Boardwalk Empire. At first glance, it didn't look like something which I would enjoy. But, HBO has impressed me in the past with shows like True Blood, Sex & the City, and The Life & Times of Tim, so I thought that I would give Boardwalk Empire a try. Should I trust a pay-cable channel to deliver a satisfying show in a genre that I normally don't like.

Boardwalk Empire opens in January, 1920, the day that Prohibition went into effect. The story takes place in Atlantic City. There, we meet Enoch "Nucky" Thompson (Steve Buscemi), the City Treasurer. However, this seemingly benign position belies Nucky's real power, as he rules the city with an iron fist through his criminal connections. He has no plans to slow down with the illegalization of alcohol -- Nucky immediately makes arrangements to have booze brought into city. Nucky's brother, Eli (Shea Whigham), is the sheriff and he helps Nucky with his operations. Nucky lives in the high-life in Ritz-Carlton Hotel, where he's waited on by his assistant Kessler (Anthony Laciura) and his driver, Jimmy Darmody (Michael Pitt). A poor, abused wife, Margaret Schroeder (Kelly Macdonald), who heard Nucky speak at a pro-prohibition rally, approaches Nucky asking for a job for her husband. Nucky is immediately taken with this woman and goes out of his way to do favors for you. Meanwhile, a delivery of alcohol to one of Nucky's rivals/business associates is hijacked by Jimmy and Al Capone (Stephen Graham) (yes, that Al Capone), both of whom are trying to make a name for themselves. This is just the beginning of Nucky's problems, as he struggles to maintain control over his realm, while fights with his feelings for Margaret.

Boardwalk Empire is a show that exists in two worlds. On the one hand, we have the gangster show. As noted above, the show features real world mobsters like Al Capone and Lucky Luciano (Vincent Piazza), mixed in with the fictional characters. With these characters and the other colorful people who inhabit the world of Boardwalk Empire, we watch Nucky bribe and murder his way out of any situation. Rival gangs slaughter one another while the "hooch" rolls into town. Nucky passes money around town while always making sure that he was taken care of. The movie revels in the freedoms allowed by HBO, as it isn't afraid to truly show someone's brains being blown out. These scenes are very well done, but they feel as if they could have come out of any gangster TV show or movie. This isn't a knock on the quality of the show, but rather the uniqueness of it. I haven't seen that many prohibition-era movies, and even I knew that some of the visuals here were hackneyed and stereotypical.

The more appealing aspects of the show come from the characters and the relationships, some of which is influenced by the casting. Nucky Thompson is an interesting character. He is clearly in charge of Atlantic City and most respect his authority. However, he rarely raises his voice, hits anyone, or does any direct threatening. He allows his underlings to do all of the dirty work for him. He's technically a heavy, but he moves more like a politician, allowing his money and words to take care of business. Steve Buscemi also brings a lot to the role. Given his stature and the roles in which we've seen him in the past, we don't see him as a villain -- so when he acts out, it's shocking. Nucky's relationship to Margaret becomes the most interesting part of the show. He's clearly attracted to her, but we aren't sure how he defines their relationship, as he keeps a live-in girlfriend. As the season progresses, the emotional walls around Nucky begin to come down and we learn more about him. The show also spends a lot of time with Jimmy. At first, it seems odd that we Jimmy would be a central character, especially when he leaves Atlantic City. But, his stature grows and he becomes a pivotal player. At times, Boardwalk Empire spreads itself to thin, as the array of characters is staggering, but when its focused, it's intriguing stuff.

HBO rarely does things half-way and it's clear that a lot of work goes into Boardwalk Empire, as the sets and visual effects convince us that the actors are in the Atlantic City of 1920. The cast is very good, and the acting is rarely called into question. Again, the story goes far afield at times, but when the show is able to maintain focus, it's definitely worthwhile. Unlike True Blood, I didn't feel compelled to plow through the season, but I did enjoy it. As noted above, the gangster stuff can feel unoriginal, but the emotional content rescues the show and I'm looking forward to Season Two.

Boardwalk Empire: The Complete First Season makes one wonder how anyone can take someone named "Nucky" seriously on DVD courtesy of HBO Home Entertainment. The five disc set contains all 12 episodes of the show's first season. The show has been letterboxed at 1.78:1 and the transfer is enhanced for 16 x 9 TVs. The image is sharp and clear, showing only traces of grain and no defects from the source material. The show has a slightly dark look, but the image is never overly dark and the colors look realistic, with the reds standing out at times. There is some mild artifacting to the image and some shots look soft, but otherwise, we get a nice amount of detail. The DVD contains a Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track which provides clear dialogue and sound effects. The stereo effects are well done, as we often get sounds coming from the right or left of the screen. These effects are detailed and show good separation. The surround effects really come to life during party scenes or gunfights. Again, we get nicely distinct sounds here. Some gunshots or punches offer notable subwoofer action.

The Boardwalk Empire: The Complete First Season contains extras spread across the set. Disc 1 offers an AUDIO COMMENTARY on the episode "Boardwalk Empire" from Creator/Writer/Executive Producer Terence Winter. Disc 2 contains a COMMENTARY on "Anastasia" from Creator/Writer/Executive Producer Terence Winter, Steve Buscemi, and Michael Kenneth Williams. Disc 3 houses COMMENTARIES on "Family Limitation" (Director/Writer/Executive Producer Tim Van Patten and Writer/Supervising Producer Howard Korder) and "Hold Me in Paradise" (Creator/Writer/Executive Producer Terence Winter and Director Brian Kirk). Disc 4 contains "Atlantic City: The Original Sin City" (30 minutes) is a documentary which explores the history of Atlantic City. We get comments from historians and many historical photos. "Speakeasy Tour" (25 minutes) continues the history lesson by taking us to the real-life underground bars in Chicago. The remainder of the extras are found on Disc 5. We get COMMENTARIES on "Paris Green" (Writer/Supervising Producer Howard Korder, Director Allen Coulter, and Michael Shannon) and "A Return to Normalcy" (Creator/Writer/Executive Producer Terrence Winter and Director/Writer/Executive Producer Tim Van Patten). "Making Boardwalk Empire" (20 minutes) includes comments from the shows creators and executives, as well as key cast members. We get an analysis of each of the main characters, where the actors talk about how they approach their roles. The last part of the piece examines the sets and the creation of the boardwalk. This idea is continued in "Creating the Boardwalk" (5 minutes) which takes a closer look at how the illusion of Atlantic City circa 1920 was born. We see concept art, old photos, and see time-lapse photography of the set's construction.

Review Copyright 2012 by Mike Long