HBO // 2010 // 732 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // December 26th, 2011
Atlantic City, 1920. When alcohol was outlawed, outlaws became kings.
"Coward, monster, vicious brute / friend to thief and prostitute / heartless, godless, hell's delight / crude by day and lewd by night / conscience dulled by demon rum / liquor, thy name is DELIRIUM."
The year is 1920, and Prohibition has just gone into effect in the United States. This is bad news for the average drinking man, but good news for organized crime leaders like Atlantic City Treasurer Nucky Thompson (Steve Buscemi, Con Air), who stands to make a whole lot of money by participating in the illegal distribution of alcohol. There's never been a better time to be a gangster, and Nucky is surrounded by a horde of conspirators and competitors: the eager young war veteran Jimmy Darmody (Michael Pitt, Funny Games), the African-American liquor manufacturer Chalky White (Michael Kenneth Williams, The Wire), the ferocious intellectual Arnold Rothstein (Michael Stuhlbarg, A Serious Man), the violent young Al Capone (Stephen Graham, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides), the shifty Micky Doyle (Paul Sparks, Edge of Darkness), Commodore Louis Kaestner (Dabney Coleman, Tootsie) and many others. To make matters even more difficult, FBI Agent Nelson Van Alden (Michael Shannon, Revolutionary Road) has suddenly devoted himself to taking down Nucky's carefully-constructed organization.
Nucky's personal life is nearly as complicated as his professional life. He's currently in a relationship with the needy, dim-witted Lucy Danziger (Paz de la Huerta, Enter the Void), but has recently developed feelings for an Irish mother and political activist named Margaret Schroeder (Kelly Macdonald, No Country for Old Men). But can Nucky find a way to hide the darker side of his life from Margaret? If not, can he at least persuade her to accept him as he is?
The anticipation level for Boardwalk Empire was extraordinarily high in the months leading up to the series premiere. After all, the series was created by Terence Winter (best known for his work on The Sopranos, HBO's previous mob-themed series set in New Jersey), would be overseen by the great Martin Scorsese (who also directed the pilot), featured a terrific cast comprised of gifted up-and-comers and seasoned character actors and benefited from a budget which would allow the program to really immerse viewers in the world of yesteryear. Alas, when the pilot finally premiered, many viewers felt a little...deflated.
To be sure, it's a solid pilot, featuring exceptional direction from Scorsese and engaging introductions to all of the characters. However, it wasn't exactly the electrifying television event many hoped it would be; this wasn't a show that bolted out of the gate and announced its greatness. The next few episodes would confirm that Boardwalk Empire was a show that would be taking its sweet time about getting where it wanted to go, but that's much easier to appreciate in hindsight. Despite the fact that the series may feel like it's going nowhere in a hurry at times, this isn't just a hangout series like David Simon's Treme (a show which is rewarding in an entirely different way). Blazing through the first season again in just a few days, it became clear how meticulously constructed this program really is. Seeds are planted in the first few episodes that won't pay off until the end of the second season, but they're carefully tended to and developed in the interim period.
Boardwalk Empire can feel a little enigmatic at times, particularly because it's loaded with characters who are slow to reveal their true natures and intentions. That particularly applies to Steve Buscemi's Nucky Thompson, a character who seems to lack the forceful presence of a Tony Soprano or Al Swearengen. He's a well-mannered, generally amiable diplomat who prefers working things out in a business meeting to engaging in violent showdowns, and he seems to dislike getting his hands dirty. Nucky is thoughtful and cautious to a fault; his strengths and weaknesses as a leader are not too dissimilar to those of President Obama. "You can't be half a gangster anymore," Jimmy insists, but Nucky seems more interested in being the most respected gangster in Atlantic City than the most feared. Like many protagonists of Scorsese films, he is saddled with a good deal of Catholic guilt, and many of his more honorable moments seem like an attempt to compensate for all the wicked things he does. "I try to be good," he sighs sadly as a prostitute eagerly climbs on his lap. "It's too late to be good," she assures him.
Many of the major players have something lurking beneath the surface, and the series devotes a great deal of time to their assorted inner conflicts. For Margaret, it's the struggle to resist the life of tainted luxury Nucky can offer her. For Jimmy, it's determining whether he wants to earn Nucky's respect or break free of his sizable shadow (or both). For Van Alden, it's the urge to allow his stern religious beliefs to crush his personal and professional life (a slow-burning subplot which leads to the season's most stunning moment). Upon stepping back and examining all of these assorted strands developing over the course of the season, you begin to see the Boardwalk for the quietly-building tempest that it is.
Though the series moves at slow-to-moderate speed much of the time, there's very little fat on Boardwalk Empire. With such an enormous cast of characters and such a generous supply of interconnected subplots, there's very little that feels like filler (something which can't be said about the vast majority of television dramas). The only downside of this is that there are likely to be lengthy gaps between visits with some of the richer characters. I would have liked to have seen considerably more of Michael Stuhlbarg's icy Arnold Rothstein (who gives a spine-chilling speech in the second episode and seems like the most genuinely dangerous character in the show) and Michael K. Williams' brooding Chalky White. Still, most of the ways in which Boardwalk Empire leaves you wanting more are entirely positive. While it's less immediately gripping than, say, Deadwood or Breaking Bad, it's a show which consistently rewards attention and patience. Boardwalk Empire tastes good while you're drinking it in, but it leaves a terrific aftertaste.
Also consistently impressive: the acting, which is no surprise given the talent involved. While Nucky may not initially seem to be a character who plays to Steve Buscemi's greatest strengths, the actor makes the role his own. Though Nucky's default mode is "professional and polite," Buscemi really shines when he either lets his guard down (such as in some of the confessions he makes to Margaret) or gets really heated up (particularly his terse exchanges with Jimmy). Michael Shannon is never less than riveting as Van Alden, giving Nucky a focused, driven antagonist who looms large over the proceedings. Kelly MacDonald does a beautiful job of transforming earnest innocence into queasy uncertainty over the course of the season, and Michael Pitt commands the camera with his strong, naturalistic performance (so much so that at times he seems to become the lead actor of the series). There are dozens of actors who should be lauded for their work in smaller roles, but special praise should go to Jack Huston as the haunted ex-soldier Richard Harrow, Stephen Graham as the hot-tempered Al Capone and the aforementioned Stuhlbarg and Williams.
Boardwalk Empire: The Complete First Season (Blu-ray) offers a strong, appealing 1.78:1/1080p high definition transfer which fully allows viewers to appreciate the exceptional production design work which has been done on the show. Thankfully, the ratings are generally strong enough to sustain the cost of this show, as it's obviously one of the more expensive series on television. The level of detail is exceptional throughout, and the series does a nice job of balancing scenes built on moody shadows (which benefit from deep blacks and impressive shadow delineation) and moments of bright, vibrant color (which have all the pop they require). The DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio track is also excellent, going a long way towards selling the show's immersive atmosphere. Some exceptionally complex sound design work is on display throughout, and the show smartly incorporates a wide variety of period-appropriate music throughout (but avoids more anachronistic original score save for the airy guitar piece which plays over the opening credits). Dialogue is clean and clear, and the moments of action have the punch they need.
A reasonably generous supply of supplemental material is available for your viewing pleasure. First up, you have the option to watch every episode in Enhanced Viewing Mode, a picture-in-picture track which offers interviews with cast and crew members, info on the real-life historical individuals and locations the show uses, pieces that spotlight the assorted musical selections and much more. There are plenty of gaps, but fortunately you have the option to skip ahead to the next picture-in-picture enhanced scene at any time. Honestly, I found the experience less smooth than I would have liked, but overall it's a nice supplement. More satisfying are six commentary tracks featuring assorted cast and crew members on each episode. You'll hear from Terence Winter, Steve Buscemi, Michael Kenneth Williams, Allan Coulter, Brian Kirk, Tim Van Patten, and Michael Shannon on various tracks. I was sorely disappointed that Scorsese didn't offer a commentary on the pilot, but he does pop up from time to time in the Enhanced Viewing Mode snippets. Additionally, you get a handful of slick, well-produced featurettes ("Atlantic City: The Original Sin," "Speakeasy Tour," "Creating the Boardwalk" and "Making Boardwalk Empire") and an interactive character dossier which is updated as you progress through the season.
There are certainly moments in which Boardwalk Empire is a bit lacking in subtlety. Early on, the writers too frequently allow the dialogue to turn into slightly awkward exposition. Additionally, the show occasionally has a tendency to rely on rather heavy-handed symbolism, such as the moment in which Nucky wanders through a hotel lobby and then realizes he's left muddy footprints all over the place. It might actually be a nice touch if the show didn't make such a big deal of underlining it with lingering close-ups of the footprints and the concerned look on Nucky's face. That sort of thing happens less frequently as the show moves along, but it sometimes feels as if Winter and co. don't quite trust the audience to pick up on its more understated ideas on their own.
Speaking of a lack of subtlety: the first season of the show frequently uses gratuitous nudity as a cheap way to juice up the show. There are certainly moments that justify the use of nudity (such as a painfully uncomfortable dressing-room scene between Margaret and Lucy, or the numerous visits to many of Atlantic City's more sordid nightclubs), but many of the more explicit sequences feel like a slightly desperate bit of sensationalism in a show which otherwise avoids such things. There's certainly a place for explicit sexual content on pay cable television, but too many of these scenes in Boardwalk Empire don't feel like an organic part of the show's texture. Thankfully, the series would improve on this weakness in season two.
Last but not least: what's up with the late release date, HBO? For some reason, HBO has elected to release the first season of Boardwalk Empire just a few weeks after the second season finished airing. I don't know whether this was due to some legal holdup or whether HBO was making an attempt to draw attention to the advantages of its HBO Go service (which allows viewers to watch any episode of any HBO show at any time), but this made it a good deal more difficult for many viewers to catch up on the show. Here's hoping this problem isn't repeated with the release of season two.
Boardwalk Empire: The Complete First Season is a rich, rewarding journey back in time. It's an exceptional season of television, and if Winter and his team can continue building successfully on what they've established, they have a good chance of turning this exceptional show into a truly great one. Here's a toast to...quick, hide the champagne, the feds are coming!
Review content copyright © 2011 Clark Douglas; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2015 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 1.78:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* DTS 5.1 Surround (French)
* DTS 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 732 Minutes
Release Year: 2010
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Enhanced Viewing Mode
* Episode Commentaries
* Character Dossier
* Official Site