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Boardwalk Empire - The Complete Series

HBO // Unrated // May 19, 2015
List Price: $239.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Ian Jane | posted May 18, 2015 | E-mail the Author

The Series:

Created for HBO by Terence Winter and executive produced by none other than Martin Scorsese (who also directed the first episode), Boardwalk Empire ran for five seasons, each season having been previously released on its own. This Complete Series collection gathers together all of that previously released material and bundles it together, but it also includes an exclusive bonus disc. If you've already got the five single season releases, go ahead and skip to the extras to see if that disc is worth a double dip. If it's not, you can safely stick with your older discs, as things are pretty much identical here on this reissue.

As to the series itself, the show takes places in the 1920s in Atlantic City, New Jersey just as Prohibition is starting to become a big deal. The main story revolves around a man named Enoch "Nucky" Thompson (Steve Buscemi), the county treasurer who sees, with Prohibition, an opportunity. As such, he gathers together a group of his associates and sets out to get into the bootlegging business, albeit without blowing his spot as the treasurer. As the series unfolds, alliances are formed and broken: James "Jimmy" Darmody (Michael Pitt) starts out working for Nucky but soon branches out on his own; Elias "Eli" Thompson (Shea Whigham) works alongside his older brother and uses his position as the Sheriff to help where he can; a New York based kingpin named Arnold Rothstein (Michael Stuhlbarg) also gets into business with Nucky.

Of course, there are scores of other characters who drift in and out of the series. Al Capone (Stephen Graham) rises to power, Charles "Lucky" Luciano (Vincent Piazza) runs his operation out of New York City with an iron fist, a black mobster named Albert "Chalky" White (Michael Kenneth Williams) sets up shop in Atlantic City too. While all of this is going on, Nucky has to deal not only with the business side of things, but his personal life as well. He's got a mistress named Luzy Danziger (Paz de la Huerta) but then there's this thing he's got going with Margaret Thompson (Kelly Macdonald) as well. Things evolve, we learn more about the main characters in the series, how their relationships affect things, how their respective pasts will come back to haunt most of them and how far many of them are willing to go to make a quick buck. Things get especially complicated between Nucky and Jimmy, though Nucky's charitable work paints him in a positive light in the eyes of many of the citizens of Atlantic City. Pressure from NYC comes into play, forcing Nucky to take action, and towards the end of the third season, a mob war of sorts breaks out.

As the early twenties turn into the mid-twenties, Capone's presence becomes a bigger issue while Nucky gets fairly reclusive for a while. Time moves even further, as the finale season comes into play, and everything that Nucky and company have been building appears to be in jeopardy. Like the packaging says… ‘no one goes quietly.'

Boardwalk Empire is, to be concise, very well done. Everything is top notch here, from the writing to the acting to the production values… it's all of a consistently strong level of quality and it takes what can be done with a period crime drama and brings it to the next level. The characters are all very well written. The dialogue feels natural, never too forced or hackneyed, just plain believable. There's plenty of emotional content throughout the series to hinge the fairly massive cast of regular and recurring characters off of and the show does that right. The core of the story remains Nucky's plight, his moral conundrums and ambitions, but the episodes where we see what he's dealing with in his personal life are often times just as interesting, if not occasionally more so than those that deal with his professional life. When you've got interesting characters that are as well written as they are in this series, a bit of romance or a bit of melodrama in between shoot outs, hits, gang wars and the like isn't a detriment at all but instead a way to make the more violent sequences have important implications and to keep the characters grounded in real life.

When the series first began it was renowned, and rightfully so, for its attention to period detail. HBO poured massive amounts of money into the series and the intent from the start was to get that part of the series perfect. It would seem by all accounts that the production team certainly succeeded as we not only get some great costumes that feel entirely period appropriate, but some fantastic sets as well. Of course, there's the boardwalk itself, high point in that regard, but various hotels and night clubs and even family homes all show a sense of class and style completely befitting of the story that unfolds throughout the show. In short, this is a fantastic looking show and there's so much going on visually that even during those times where there's a lull in the intrigue and the drama, your eyes won't complain. The series looks amazing.

Of course, a TV series is, to a certain extent, only as good as its cast. Thankfully, Boardwalk Empire's cast is just as strong as every other key element. All of the key players here do great work, with Michael Shannon really standing out as former Prohibition agent Nelson Van Alden and Paz de la Huerta (who was notoriously crazy on set) doing great work as Lucy Danziger. Michael Pitt is fantastic as Jimmy, particularly when his character's arch starts to reach its peak, and Stephen Graham does a very fine job as Al Capone. With so much of the story revolving around Nucky, however, it's key that Buscemi's work be up to par, and it is. As Nucky he manages to create a fascinating character and his performance, the right balance of determined and sometimes very nuanced line delivery combined with his own oddball physical presence, is fascinating to watch. The guy has fantastic range and he uses a lot of that in this role.

If the ending of the series is a little on the predictable side, so be it. Getting there is an amazing ride, a superb blend of drama, suspense, humor and intrigue carefully laid out and beautifully shot. This is time well spent, to be sure.

The Blu-ray:

Boardwalk Empire, like most of HBO's flagship releases, looks excellent in high definition. The AVC encoded 1.78.1 1080p transfers are strong from start to finish and do an amazing job of bringing the series to life. Everything looks lifelike and natural, while skin tones look dead on. The quality of the image makes it easier to appreciate the details in the series' production values from the costumes to the sets to the props to the locations. There aren't any problems with compression artifacts or edge and the authoring here is excellent. There's no noticeable noise reduction, leaving the texture of the visuals wholly intact. A couple of outdoor nighttime scenes look just a tiny bit noisy but this is nitpicking, the series really does look fantastic in high definition and its loyal fanbase should be more than pleased with HBO's superlative efforts in this regard.


The English language DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio mix that this set contains sounds stunning right from the start. Surround channels are used throughout the series to build atmosphere by spreading out the effects and score perfectly. Directionality is spot on, with plenty of left to right and front to back movement noticeable when the series calls for it. Ambient and background noise is very crisp detailed, so you'll pick up on not only background character voices but more subtle effects in the background of certain scenes. Dialogue is very natural sounding and easy to understand without having any of the dialogue sound pumped up at all. The more action intensive scenes benefit from strong and full bass, making each sound effect resonate properly and with a good amount of weight behind. As such, gun shots pack a serious punch. This series sounds excellent on Blu-ray, it's difficult to imagine anyone complaining about the work done here. Optional subtitles are offered in English, Spanish, Portuguese, French and Dutch.


The extras in the set are spread out throughout each season as follows:

Season One:

Every episode in Season One includes an optional Enhanced Viewing Mode option that is basically a picture in picture track. When this is enabled, you enter a pretty awesome world of supplemental material made up not only of the expected cast and crew interviews and behind the scenes clips but also interviews with historical experts and academic types who are able to chime in on the history behind the series' concept. As with other HBO Blu-ray releases that have included this option, it's very well done and a great addition to the set. There are also optional character dossiers that are accessible throughout that are interesting and handy.

For the first season, HBO have also recorded six audio commentaries for the following episodes with the following participants:

Boardwalk Empire: Series creator Terrence Winter
Anastasia: Winter and cast members Steve Buscemi and Michael Kenneth Williams
Family Limitation: Writer/director Time Van Patten and writer/producer Howard Korder
Hold Me In Paradise: Winter and director Brian Kirk
Paris Green: Korder, director Allen Coulter and actor Michael Shannon
Return To Normalcy: Winter and Van Patten

The extras for the first season also include some pretty great featurettes starting with Atlantic City: The Original Sin City a half hour long piece that explains, in all sorts of nitty-gritty detail, the sordid history of Atlantic City's past. The twenty-five minute Speakeasy Tour is just what it sounds like, a look inside the way that speakeasies were run during the era of prohibition and a look at those who ran them. Making Boardwalk Empire is a twenty minute long segment that is essentially a standard behind the scenes featurette showing the cast and crew hard at work on the first season that includes some decent input from the aforementioned. The last Season One featurette is the five minute Creating The Boardwalk piece that shows how the production team have recreated the decade in which the series takes place.

Season Two:

Once again, HBO has carried over the character dossiers but they've also updated things a bit for the second season. Unfortunately we only get the Enhanced Viewing Mode for one episode, Under God's Power She Flourishes. Additionally we get a selection of commentary tracks that play out as follows:

21:Van Patten with Terence Winter and actor Michael K. Williams
Gimcrack And Bunkum: executive producer Howard Koder with actor Jack Huston
Peg Of Old: Director Allen Coulter with Korder, writer Steve Kornacki and actor Charlie Cox
Two Boats And A Lifeguard: Van Patten with Winter and leading man Steve Buscemi
Under God's Power She Flourishes: Coulter, Korder and leading lady Gretchen Mol
To The Lost: Winter with Van Patten

Again, HBO has included some featurettes as well. First up is Back To The Boardwalk, which does a fine job of recapping the events of the first season for those who need it. It runs about fourteen minutes in length. Living In 1921 is an interactive bit that, if you explore in it, shows off various historical and culturally significant events and people from the twenties that shaped the era. Some interesting archival material and interviews make this worth checking out. The Money Decade, at twenty-five minutes, is the longest piece in the second season. It too focuses on the twenties and how the implications of the financial markets and their ups and downs shaped so much of what happened during these years. Rounding out the featurettes for Season Two are a four minute piece called New Characters that, as you'd guess, talks about some of the characters introduced this season, a three minute Updates To The Boardwalk piece that shows some of the changes made to the show's main sets and a quick two minute promo spot used to advertise the second season on HBO.

Season Three:

Once again, we get a selection of audio commentaries from various cast and crew members, this time covering the following six episodes:

Resolution: Winter, Van Patten, and actors Buscemi and Jack Huston
You'd Be Surprised: Korder and actors Michael Stuhlbarg, Bobby Cannavale and Stephen DeRosa
Sunday Best: Korder, Allen Coulter, Shea Whigham and Gretchen Mol
The Pony: Winter, actors Michael Shannon, Charlie Cox and Meg Chambers
Two Impostors: Korder, Coulter, Buscemi, and Michael Kenneth Williams
Margate Sands: Winter, Van Patten, Cannavale and Chris Caldovino

Moving on to the featurettes we get Boardwalk Empire: The Director's Chair, which is a half hour long piece in which series directors Van Patten and Coulter discuss some of the more integral scenes from this particular season. Topics covered include shooting style, cinematography, lighting effects, capturing certain actors from specific angles for dramatic effect and quite a bit more. This is an interesting piece that lets them talk quite bluntly about why they did things the way that they did things on this series. We also get a give minutes piece called Scorsese On Season Three which, as you'd probably guess, is a five minute talk with the show's Executive Producer. Here Scorsese talks about what sets this season apart and some of the important changes and the ramifications of those changes that are seen in the run.

Rounding out the extras is a five minute New Characters segment in which we review the new characters introduced in this season, some text based historical vignettes called American Empires that detail the impact of organized crime in America during the twenties, a fourteen minute Distilling Season Two recap that will bring new viewers up to speed before launching into season three and, last but not least, an interactive Boardwalk Chronicle option for each episode. When enabled, this allows you to explore in scene specific detail some of the historical events and characters that play such a big part in this series.

Season Four:

Another half dozen audio commentaries grace the fourth season's extras:

New York Sour: Howard Korder, Van Patten and Buscemi
All In: Winter, writer David Matthews, director Ed Bianchi and Michael Stuhlbarg
Erlkonig: Korder, Van Patten, Anthony Laciura, Brian Geraghty and Gretchen Mol
The Old Ship Of Zion: Korder, actors Erik LaRay Harvey, Michael Kenneth Williams and Margot Bingham
Havre de Grace: Korder, Coulter, Williams and Bingham
Farewell Daddy Blues: Winter, Van Patten and Buscemi

The featurettes for this season kick off with a twenty-six minute long panel discussion that took place at PaleyFest with Winter, Korder and actors Michael Kenneth Williams, Jeffrey Wright and Gretchen Mol. It's a decent enough talk that covers some of the events that took place in the first half of this season, but as it was done before the last few episodes had aired they don't really take the discussion past the half way mark. The Onyx Club: A Step Back In Time spends nine minutes exploring what went into creating, designing and then physically building the sets that would become The Onyx Club featured in this season. Becoming Harrow runs eight minutes long and it sees Jack Huston and Van Patten talking about Huston's work as Harrow in this season: what went into getting the character properly written, Huston's ability to express himself physically, and quite a bit more. We also get twenty-three minutes of Scouting The Boardwalk featurettes that show off the different locations used in this season and explain how and why they were chosen as well as for what reason(s) they were chosen.

Rounding out the extras are a six minute long five minute New Characters segment , a fifteen minute long Distilling Season Three recap that will bring new viewers up to speed before launching into season four and, lastly, an interactive Boardwalk Chronicle option for each episode. When enabled, this allows you to explore in scene specific detail some of the historical events and characters that play such a big part in this series.

Season Five:

Extras for the last season aren't as extensive as for the seasons prior, but we do get four audio commentaries spread out across the set:

Golden Days For Boys And Girls: writer Howard Korder, Van Patten and Buscemi
Cuanto: Terrence Winter, Korder, Buscemi and Vincent Piazza
Friendless Child: director Allen Coulter, actors Michael Zegen and Ben Rosenfield
Eldorado: Winter, Korder, Van Patten and Buscemi

Aside from that we get eight short Scouting The Boardwak featurettes that run about fifteen minutes in combined running length. These are, as the title implies, quick little bits that show off the locations and what went into finding the right spots to shoot the series.

The Bonus Disc:

So in addition to the extras that were included in the standalone complete season releases, this complete series release contains an exclusive bonus disc that contains some extra features not available elsewhere. First up is a half hour long featurette entitled The Final Shot: A Farewell To Boardwalk Empire in which Executive Producer Martin Scorsese teams up with Series Creator/Executive Producer Terrence Winter and leading man Steve Buscemi and a few other cast members to give us what is basically a really interesting ‘beginning to end' remembrance of the series. The piece starts with the idea, the origin of the series, then moves on to the production itself where we learn about the casting, the production run, the sets, the different characters and a lot more. We also get a peek at some interesting casting footage and behind the scenes material that complements the interviews quite nicely.

Also included on the bonus disc is the eight minute Anatomy Of A Hit featurette I which Terrance Winter is joined by Tim Van Patten and Howard Korder, executive producers both, to discuss how and why some of the series' more intense and powerful moments were crafted. A lot of the discussion here puts the show's infamous violence into context and it's an interesting, if all too short, discussion. Building The Boardwalk is a quick four minute piece with Van Patten, DP Jonathan Freeman and members of the production and set design team. They talk, not surprisingly, about the unique look that the series showcases so well and how they created the sets and backdrops over which the show plays over. Moving right along we come to the five minute Shooting The Series where Freeman and a few others talk with DP Bill Coleman about the show's look, the lighting, the transitions, and the overall visual feel of the series and how they really went for it in terms of period detail. Designing The Series allows Groom, once again joined by Silverman, to spend four minutes talking up the design work that went into the show. Again, there's a lot of emphasis here on getting the period detail right and really doing everything they could to recreate a certain time in American history. Last but not least, we get an eight minute segment called Visual Effects in which the VFX crew go for eight minutes about the different techniques used to bring the more effects intensive moments in the show to life. Not surprisingly it was a mix of digital and practical but hearing how they went about decided how to do what is quite interesting,.

Each of the twenty discs in the set includes menus and episode/chapter selection. Additionally HBO has done a nice job with the packaging, getting the discs housed sturdily inside a well-constructed and very attractive cardboard box.

Final Thoughts:

HBO's Blu-ray release of Boardwalk Empire: The Complete Series is excellent. The writing, the characters, the production to period detail and the production values are all consistently impressive and this set does a fine job of bringing it all to life with some gorgeous audio and video quality and a score of extra features. Highly recommended.

Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.

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