Judge Clark Douglas likes to hang out under the boardwalk down by the sea.
Our reviews of Boardwalk Empire: The Complete First Season (Blu-ray) (published December 26th, 2011) and Boardwalk Empire: The Complete Third Season (Blu-ray) (published August 14th, 2013) are also available.
Know who's behind you.
"It's Sodom by the sea."
Facts of the Case
Well, Nucky Thompson's either closing his eyes,
Why sure he's the city treasurer,
It takes judgment, brains and money to score,
The first step on the big road,
And listenin' to some out-of-town Jasper,
Friend, let me tell you what I mean,
All week long in Atlantic City,
Oh yes, they've got lots and lots of trouble,
Now, I know all you folks are the right kinda viewers,
One dark night, they leaving town,
Trouble, oh we got trouble,
The first season of Boardwalk Empire may not have delivered the "critically acclaimed and high-rated instant classic" HBO was clearly hoping for, but it was a fine, thought-provoking season of television that generally avoided easy thrills in favor of focusing on long-term plot and character development. Season two continues this trend, arguably slowing the show's pace down even further to allow it to really dig into the minds of the players on its complex chess board. Yes, there's all sorts of salacious behavior and violence on Boardwalk Empire, but this show doesn't engage in the sort of constant, button-pushing excess that a lot of other pay cable programs tend to slip into (I'm looking at you, True Blood).
The actual story this season is telling is fairly simple, in one sense: city treasurer Nucky Thompson (Steve Buscemi, Reservoir Dogs) has lost quite a few allies, and now the angry Commodore Louis Kaestner (Dabney Coleman, Tootsie) is leading the charge to take Nucky down. Season two is fundamentally a slow-burning 12-hour drama about how this epic clash plays out (though there are obviously quite a few connected detours along the way). Making matters even more complicated is the fact that some of Nucky's closest friends have betrayed him. Sheriff Eli Thompson (Shea Whigham, Take Shelter) is Nucky's brother and Jimmy Darmody (Michael Pitt, Funny Games) is the closest thing Nucky has to a son, but they've both aligned themselves with the Commodore. To borrow the immortal tagline from Jaws: The Revenge: "This time, it's personal."
However, the real pleasure of Boardwalk Empire is not the high-stakes mob drama, but rather the manner in which creator Terence Winter and his team use the drama as a springboard to recreate a thorough snapshot of life in depression-era Atlantic City. The city is examined from almost every angle, and it's consistently compelling stuff. We witness the FBI's fruitless efforts through the eyes of the increasingly corruptible Nelson Van Alden (Michael Shannon, Revolutionary Road), the role of women in an exceptionally male-dominated society through the eyes of Nucky's live-in girlfriend Margaret Schroeder (Kelly MacDonald, No Country for Old Men), the perspective of the downtrodden African-American community through the eyes of the benevolent gangster Chalky White (Michael K. Williams, The Wire)—and that's just the tip of the iceberg. As such, this is most assuredly a show that tends to work a bit better when viewed in larger chunks, as one can feel the momentum a little bit more while still appreciating the many corners of the show's universe that are being explored.
Jimmy takes an even more prominent position in the second season, essentially becoming Buscemi's co-lead in terms of screen time. The second half of the season in particular devotes a great deal of time to Jimmy's family life and past (including a memorably cringe-inducing flashback episode that finally confirms a fact many have suspected since early in season one), giving us a more clear-eyed look at one of the show's most compelling characters. Meanwhile, Nucky remains immensely enigmatic for most of this season. Part of what makes the attempt to take him down so intriguing is that when this season starts, we still really don't know what Nucky is capable of. His skills are in working a room full of politicians, not in dealing with messier problems on the streets. Has he stumbled into his good fortune by accident, or is he really as clever and calculating as he seems? The season's final episode offers some sharp answers to this question, and defines Nucky in a way that should make him even more fascinating to watch in season three.
All of the surviving players from the first season return, though some are given expanded roles (Michael K. Williams' Chalky White actually has something to do this season) while others are reduced significantly (Paz de la Huerta appears briefly in the first few episodes and then vanishes completely—she was reportedly fired from the show due to behavior issues). On top of the show's already-expansive supporting cast, a host of newer players join the proceedings. We get a young Irish revolutionary played by Charlie Cox (Stardust), a sage member of the Commodore's cabal played by Dominic Chianese (The Sopranos), a fascinating government agent played by Julianne Nicholson (Kinsey) and—best of all- a terrifying, charismatic butcher played by William Forsythe (Raising Arizona). Forsythe owns every scene he appears in; he's only matched by Michael Stuhlbarg's chill-inducing Arnold Rothstein in his ability draw attention away from everyone else in the room.
Boardwalk Empire: The Complete Second Season (Blu-ray) arrives sporting the same sort of spectacular 1080p/1.78:1 transfer the first season received. The show looks gorgeous, benefiting from remarkable detail and depth at every turn. While it could be argued that the series relies a little too heavily on CGI (and it shows), the efforts made in the set and costume design departments are considerable and can be fully appreciated with this gorgeous release. Daytime scenes are bright and vibrant, while the many overcast/nighttime sequences benefit from strong shadow delineation and inky blacks. This season's DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio track is another winner as well, fully capturing both the intimate dialogue scenes and the large-scale shootouts with immersiveness and skill. A host of period-specific tunes are employed on the soundtrack once again, and go a long way towards defining the tone of the show (it's hard to think of Boardwalk Empire without imagining some chipper Eddie Cantor or Al Jolson tune).
The generous supplemental package emphasizes quantity over quality, but it's worth digging through nonetheless. Six audio commentaries featuring a rotating door of cast and crew members are scattered throughout the set, and there's a terrific picture-in-picture track that accompanies the pivotal eleventh episode. You also get a couple of middling interactive features to dig through: a "Character Dossier" (to help everyone keep up with who's who) and "Living in 1921" (which offers a host of historical tidbits of note). You also get four clip-heavy featurettes: "Back to the Boardwalk" (15 minutes), "New Characters" (4 minutes), "Under the Boardwalk" (3 minutes) and "The Money Decade" (25 minutes). Finally, you also get a DVD copy and digital copy of the entire season; a rare thing indeed for a television show. Props to HBO for making such a generous move for those (even if the show is most assuredly best appreciated in hi-def).
While there's still the sense that Boardwalk Empire is just an inch or two away from being a genuinely great television show, the final third of this season is HBO drama at its finest. If it can carry that momentum forward into season three, we could finally be looking at a show worthy of comparison with The Sopranos and Deadwood. In the meantime, it's still exceptional, educational, thoughtful television. Recommended.
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