Boardwalk Empire literally begins on the eve of Prohibition in New Jersey's Atlantic City, 1920. A crowd holds what should be their final toast before alcohol officially becomes illegal, paying their respects with silence as a trombone solemnly plays Taps at the stroke of midnight. Of course, Atlantic City is Enoch "Nucky" Thompson's town - a town in which this crooked politician takes a cut of everything, from local business to gambling, and he gets away with it because he practically owns the police - so instead of snapping his fingers and sputtering 'aw shucks', Nucky blesses the ignorance of the federal government for providing him and his fat cat friends the means to become obscenely rich. The plot? Bootlegging liquor, and not just for the good folks of Atlantic City. No, the real money in bootlegging is going to come from supplying major cities like New York and Chicago with the alcohol they need. Since Nucky is taking all the risk by receiving secret shipments direct from the distilleries, and hell, even making cheap liquor on his own turf, there's nothing to stop him from asking for exuberant amounts of dough for a single crate... especially since his buyers know their public will pay any asking price, no questions asked. When you go into business for yourself though, especially when that business is in direct violation of federal law, there are too many micromanaged variables that can turn the tide in an instant. All it takes is one slip-up to draw the attention ofthe federal government, and unfortunately for Nucky that's exactly what happens.
Jimmy, Nucky's driver, has been away for a few years serving his country in World War I. He's learned a few things about himself on the battlefield and realizes he's ready to be a gangster. Despite the fact he feels he couldn't be more ready, Nucky gives him a reality check and tells him to slow down a bit and get a lay of the land for a while. Not content with that response, Jimmy does what he feels is necessary to get Nucky's attention and make him understand that hedoes have what it takes. So, he hijacks the first shipment of alcohol that was supposed to go to New York, sells it to Chicago and gives Nucky a large percentage of the proceeds. However, what was meant to be Jimmy's 'one and done' proposition forgetting a promotion, instead turns into four dead men on the side of the road. This draws the attention of Federal Prohibition agent Nelson Van Alden, a religiously motivated individual that isn't afraid to brutalize anyone that comes in between him and truth(he sees his job as a some kind of mission from God). This is only the beginning of Nucky's problems though, as Jimmy's misguided ambition has also upset a devious criminal mastermind in New York. Certainly, there was irony in Jimmy telling Nucky he could no longer merely be 'half a gangster', as Jimmy has begun a chain of events that forces Nucky to step up and become entangled in a mess that's far more complicated than he ever could have imagined.
Now my primary concern, again, was the way Boardwalk Empire was being advertised as the answer to all those Sopranos fans that wanted more 'hits' and less of what that show was actually about - Psychologically driven character study, both individually as well as within certain relationships, and all the 'little nothings' that managed to make us feel like anything could happen at any time. The Sopranos certainly had its fair share of shocking moments, but much like a graceful dance, it was the things that were never spelled out for us that truly made it tick. Much like the previews of Empire depicted though, the show starts off with one hell of a bang. I can recall at least five people having been gunned down in the first episode alone (and one brutally beaten to death), but with that being said, my fear of Empire leaving interesting characters and contextually clever plot points by the wayside has been alleviated. However, this is where Boardwalk Empire's success was going to hinge for everyone, not just myself. Without a damn good story with believable characters and impeccable writing, everything about the show would have fallen apart... and not just in a 'well I guess the show is ok'kind of way. I mean, shows set in modern times have a huge leg up on Boardwalk Empire right out of the gate - They take place in the 'now', inherently allowing you to feel like you're part of the world that's being depicted. If the characters happen to be unlikeable or boring, a member of the audience might be inclined to chalk that up to the fact that, well, not everyone is interesting in real life. As a result, the show can still go on. A period piece like this however? It has to prove itself. The writing has to be stellar, because even the most minor slip-up could pull the audience out of its 'reality'. The acting has to be second to none, because if the characters don't feel like they fit in with the world around them, again, the audience would be pulled out of the 'reality' of the show and without that sense of credibility, a show like this simply can't succeed. However, thanks to the combined efforts of Winter, Scorcese, Mark Wahlberg (he's often overshadowed by Scorcese, but he's also an executive producer here), director Tim Van Patten, and a majority of the cast, this show succeeds in being a flawlessly preserved time capsule.
Simply put, I'm absolutely floored at how well things gel across the board. Take the first episode into consideration again - It would have been cliché, if not just plain bad writing, to give us separate and lengthy introductions to everyone, more or less spelling out who the characters are and what they're about. However, Winter's scripts are written to instead opt for a method of storytelling that allows us to watch the characters in their natural element and come to whatever conclusions need be made, for ourselves. Taking a look at the main character for such an example, it's only a matter of minutes before we feel like we know who Nucky is and what he's all about. One minute he's standing at a podium, a key speaker for the Women's Temperance League rally, giving a sob story about how his father was an alcoholic and practically ruined his life. The next, he's outside advising his driver - "First rule of politics, kiddo: Never let the truth get in the way of a good story." In that moment it's clear - He's the worst kind of politician, right down to his very core. He'll do whatever it takes to keep his public image untarnished so he remains favorable during elections, and most of all, he'll do whatever it takes to keep the money rolling in. Of course, that stuff is laid out for us plain as day. What was surprising to me however, was that Nucky Thompson could truly be the next great character to study in modern television:
When examining Jimmy's statement once again (that Nucky could no longer be 'half a gangster'), a mental bell went off within me. I remembered that Nucky was actually punishing Jimmy for foolishly running off to war - which was a sign that Jimmy may have been prone to making decisions that would get him killed - instead of working towards becoming a politician. Not a gangster, mind you, but a politician. Indeed, Nucky seemingly differentiates between the two. Does this help him sleep better at night? Does this make him feel like he's doing something noble because he's providing people with what they want? Nucky knows he's skirting the law, but this begins to lead me to believe that he's probably not quite the criminal mastermind he needs to be in order to take care of business... not yet at least anyway. No, there's a softer side that he's kept carefully tucked away from the people that really know him. This becomes all the more clear when he walks by a baby incubator nursery, stops in his tracks, peers inside and lets his emotions temporarily take control. His wife passed away some years ago, and that boardwalk 'attraction' was a painful reminder of what he was robbed of when she died - A life as a family man, settled down with wife and child. The questions that immediately come to mind are: Is this hidden pain the reason why Nucky has hardened over the years, and furthermore, does it compromise his ability to step up to the big leagues and throw his weight around? In this first season, we see that Nucky can certainly adapt under pressure... but I have a feeling that there may end up being more than a few similarities between him and Tony Soprano in seasons yet to come. That is, I can see Nucky continually digging himself deeper by carelessly hurting everyone around him, while somehow justifying all of his actions via sociopathic tendencies. Despite the fact the history books inform us that Enoch Johnson was imprisoned in the early 40's, I'm still curious to see if Winter's story will ever allow his human side to emerge. However, mob stories typically end in sorrow so I doubt such liberty would be made against historical fact, but, you never know. Boardwalk Empire, although keeping major historical accuracies intact, has taken a lot of liberties to make things more interesting.
And again, a lot of these character developments aren't exactly spelled out for us (keep in mind the above observations stem from only a single character), and I'm glad that Terence Winter is still unwilling to insult our intelligence by pandering to us with his material. He's letting us find these things out for ourselves to a certain degree, and that's an aspect of writing in television that I've sorely missed since The Sopranos. But as far as character portrayal goes, there is one complaint I have - Paul Sparks as Mickey Doyle. Now, Paul certainly has flashes of brilliance here and there, but for the most part he plays Doyle like a clichéd cartoon caricature of a gangster. I mean, Doyle has a tendency to do this snarky little giggle on a regular basis, and although we all know someone who's a little goofy, Doyle really comes off sounding like a Looney Tunes mobster. I'm a little confused as to how this could have gone unchecked. Surely, somebody behind the scenes had to have realized how silly this was, but then again, when Doyle was required to be menacing, Sparks really hit the mark. He does make the Doyle character seem unsettling at times, but that giggle still haunts me... and not in a good way.
Anyway, even if you're not a fan of the intellectual detective work that elevates a show like this from 'good' to 'great', worry not - There's more than enough surface material to keep you sitting on the edge of your seat. Each episode is loaded with drama and tension, and palpably so. Some of the thrills come from moments that happen out of nowhere, others come from the mounting tension that draws on for episodes at a time, further enhanced by some of the most menacing villains to grace the small screen in quite a while. Obviously, I went into Boardwalk Empire expecting the worst, but not only did I find myself pleasantly surprised after the first season was all said and done, but I found it to be the most captivating season of television I've seen in quite some time. In fact, it's quickly becoming a new personal favorite, even over my other longtime favorite - Dexter. Despite the fact I wasn't too sure how Buscemi would perform in such a lead, he's smashed my expectations and made Nucky Thompson the current character on television that needs to be seen. The rest of the cast (well, for the most part) is absolutely magnificent and really lends to the show's credibility as a period piece set in the 20's. Furthermore, the detail in wardrobe as well as the lavish boardwalk set (located on what was previously an empty lot in Brooklyn, a set which came to the tune of five million dollars) is remarkable, and whatever couldn't realistically be built, or whatever modern construction couldn't be blocked out of a shot, CGI was used to fill in the gaps. Is it any wonder how this show ended up being as immersive as it was right out of the gate? Despite the fact this is only the first season, most every element has already been finely tuned by the experienced hands of Winter and Scorcese. If this Blu-ray release is your first experience with the series as it was mine, then you're going to be pleasantly surprised. This is, hands down, television at its finest.
HBO keeps the illusion of their 1920's time capsule alive with this 1080p AVC encoded transfer (1.78:1). This should come as no surprise considering HBO's track record, but the video presentation here is nearly flawless. Although a visually dark undertone is used throughout a majority of the season, with the exception of the boardwalk and casino when it's lit up at night, black crush is never a problem unless it was specifically done by design. Even at its darkest, colors are still allowed to pop (such as Arnold Rothstein's red tie, for example, or the color of leaves in the middle of the night on an unlit road). During the day, everything is vibrantly produced thanks to black levels that continue to hold up as well as they do during night sequences, as well as a contrast that compliments them just as well. Coming from a 35mm source, a very fine layer of film grain has been preserved, leaving every bit of detail, be it from facial textures, clothing, the gorgeous set designs or otherwise, intact. As a result of this film-like presentation (although still more than clean enough for the people who don't care for grain), there's an impressive amount of depth in the high-def imagery as well. Furthermore, banding, DNR, digital artifacts and edge enhancement are nowhere to be found. Although I didn't watch this during its initial run on HBO, I have no doubt that the 1080p presentation on this release is better than the bitrate starved televised broadcast. Fans and newcomers alike are sure to be impressed by how good this show looks, and should have no reservations in picking this up over the DVD.
The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track that's been included is equally as impressive. You wouldn't think so, but Boardwalk Empire's sound design was decidedly an integral aspect of bringing the 20's back to life, helping once again to lend the series a heightened sense of credibility. This is an immersive experience through and through - Whenever outside, you'll hear environment sound effects in the rear channels with pinpoint precision and leveling, making you feel like you're right where the action is. The same can be said inside the casino when the dice are being thrown and the roulette ball is spinning round and round. Even more impressive is when a band is playing indoors, as their sound can be just as loud as a modern day club might be, while still retaining the warmth of the instruments. Again, you'll feel like the casino is right there in your living room, as well as the band, made all the more impressive by a realistic level of dynamics. The LFE even tends to get a workout between the music, gunshots, or anywhere else it would be appreciated. Dialogue is never an issue - It's crisp and crystal clear at all times, no matter what's happening on-screen. This show may not inherently pack the wallop a series like True Bloodmight, but it's subtle and soft during moments of unsettling tension building, yet loud and boisterously proud when required. Again, I have no qualms in making a statement I haven't been able to verify myself - That this undoubtedly sounds a great deal better than it did during its initial broadcast.
Other than the more recent series Game of Thrones, Boardwalk Empire is HBO's baby, so the fact they went all out for this release comes as no surprise.
-Enhanced Viewing Mode - You can view episodes with picture-in-picture interviews with the show's creators as well as historians, and you can even get mini-history lesson clips that educate you on the booming Atlantic City of the 20's. Other clips that will pop up feature the production of the series in general, and if all that isn't enough, you can also partake in some trivia challenges along the way.
-Audio Commentaries - Six (half) of the season's episodes have been provided with commentaries, and all are extremely professional and informative. It wasn't been too long since the first season had been filmed, so discussing the most important aspects of the story and the character development during the first season is a breeze for them, and by extension a pleasurable experience for the audience at home. Numerous combinations of people switch up from episode to episode, but after you hear all six commentaries you would have heard from the likes of creator/writer/executive producer Terence Winter, Steve Buscemi (Nucky), Michael Kenneth Williams (Chalky White), director/writer/executive producer Tim Van Patten, writer/supervising producer Howard Korder, director Brian Kirk, director Allen Coulter, and Michael Shannon (Nelson Van Alden). The obvious glaring omission here is Martin Scorsese, which is a real disappointment considering the first episode, which he directed, is one of the episodes that were provided with a commentary. In the grand scheme of the entire supplemental package, this is really the only complaint I have.
-Character Dossier - If for some reason you need a refresher on exactly what's been happening with each character as you go through the season, this evolving character guide will fill you in. This is a great feature and should be noted by other major television studios when releasing major series on Blu-ray.
-Atlantic City: The Original Sin - This documentary chimes in at around 30 minutes, and basically acts as a historical look at what life was like in Atlantic City during the 20's. If you're not much for audio commentaries or even taking the time to see such material in the enhanced viewing mode, then this is the perfect one-stop documentary piece for you.
-Speakeasy Tour - The cast gives us an intimate look of the speakeasies (establishments that illegally sold alcohol) that were utilized in Chicago and New York during the era of Prohibition. It may be a simple supplement, but it's very well done. Considering that they even utilized some of the cast to make this presentation for us, shows that they were willing to even give a piece that most other studios may have taken a cheaper route with, some much deserved attention. Cheers to HBO for seemingly going with the mantra, 'if it's worth doing, it's worth doing right'.
-Making Boardwalk Empire - This is a behind-the-scenes look at the series, featuring interviews from both cast and crew. If you want some real behind-the-scenes information though, you probably want to stick with the commentaries. Although there's some interesting tidbits to take away from this, it's somewhat self serving, if not 'pat on the back' promotional material.
-Creating the Boardwalk - Much less self-serving than the previous supplement, this fascinating piece shows us how the 300-foot Boardwalk set was made.
I guess lightning can strike twice after all...
Everything I've said in this review boils down to one thing - Boardwalk Empire is one of the most fascinating crime/mob dramas to ever hit television. Whether or not it's going to live up to, or succeed The Sopranos is yet to be seen, but this is only the first season. What I can say however, is that Terence Winter stays true to form and has crafted the show in a way that doesn't insult our intelligence, and allows us to piece together the subtle things, which elevates this series from 'good' to 'great', for ourselves. Although the series has a great number of dealings in crime with vicious criminals that will keep the mob-thirsty at home happy as can be, my favorite aspect of the series thus far has been trying to dissect the Nucky Thompson character. It may be premature to say he's going to be one of the more interesting character studies we've had on television in some time, but I can certainly see the series heading that way as long as the creative staff play all the right cards. Last but not least, each episode is better than the last and it's worth noting that I eagerly took in the entire season in two sittings. I ended up saying aloud to myself, "What? That was 12 episodes?" And then I realized it was probably time for me to buy my wife some flowers as an apology. Yes, Boardwalk Empire is that addicting, and besides the fantastic programming included on 5 discs, this release has been topped out with a nearly flawless A/V presentation as well as an impressive list of supplemental material. I never hand this rating out lightly, but the first season of HBO's latest mob crime-drama is deserving of the coveted DVD Talk Collector's Series rating. The only real downside to this release? The fact the series now has an awful lot to live up to.