Mixing fact and fiction, the past with present sensibilities and a great cast, Boardwalk Empire hit TV with a bang. Much of the initial interest came from the fact Martin Scorsese directed the first episode, and his influence is felt throughout the 12 episodes of Season 1. With the little expense spared in the creation of 1920s Atlantic City, it’s an incredibly rich world full of well-written characters, plenty of intrigue, decadence and moments of shocking violence.
The series centres around Nucky Thompson (Steve Buscemi), a fictionalised version of a real-life New Jersey prohibition figure, who’s the treasurer of Atlantic City and one of its most esteemed businessmen – largely because he’s got the entire city in his pocket and his criminal network is pretty much untouchable. The series opens on the eve of the enactment of the 18th Amendment, when alcohol will be banned across the United States. Nucky and his cohorts aren’t going to let this stop the fun, and bootlegging operations are already up and running.
As Prohibition begins, organised crime realises it’s a golden opportunity, with the jockeying between different crime groups causing friction between Nucky’s well-ordered but relatively low-key operation (which is at least in part about keeping more dangerous and scary criminals out of the resort city), the more rarefied gangsters of New York and the up and coming criminals of Chicago, including a young Al Capone (Stephen Graham).
Against this backdrop, Nucky tries to keep order, but soon has to fire his protégé, Jimmy Darmody (Michael Pitt), when the young man tries to pull off a heist on his own, which causes huge problems for Nucky. There’s also Agent Nelson Van Alden (Michael Shannon), an intensely religious and seemingly incorruptible man on a single-minded and relentless mission to stop illegal alcohol. Nucky also develops a relationship with Margaret Schroeder (Kelly MacDonald), a young immigrant woman who comes to him looking for help. She gets more than she bargained for when she inadvertently sets off a chain of events that results in her husband being killed and the initially morally upright Margaret realising that being part of Nucky’s world involves a lot of backbone and a lot of compromises.
The show tells a complex tale which works largely because the world it’s set in is so beautifully realised and also because the characters are so well drawn. Boardwalk Empire feels like it’s learned some of the lessons of The Sopranos and taken them back in time, not least that you don’t have to like a character if they’re fascinating and complex enough to keep you drawn in. It’s set in a world where nobody is 100% good or 100% bad, and where even positive attributes can be negatives.
That’s particularly true of Agent Van Alden, played superbly by Michael Shannon. He writes devotedly to his wife, refuses to be corrupted and is very Christian. Normally those would be good things, but here they’re signs of alienation, an inability to get close to anyone, an obsessive personality and a sadistic/masochistic streak.
He’s just one example of a slew of interesting and well drawn characters the show features, where it’s not so much about good and bad, but hoping the lesser of two evils wins out. Indeed there are so many good characters that it almost becomes a problem. The middle of the season sags under the weight of trying to do justice to everybody (with numerous characters in Atlantic City itself, as well as the very different criminals in New York and Chicago, as well as the government agents trying to bring the whole criminal enterprise down, there’s a lot going on), meaning there’s not really enough time for the series to sink its teeth into any particular story. This was more of a problem when Boardwalk Empire was being shown week-by-week on TV, as on Blu-ray or DVD you can just keep watching to get to the last few episodes where everything comes back together and Season 1 goes out on a high.
With the world of 1920s Atlantic City being so well realised, Blu-ray is definitely the way to watch the show. The HD picture brings out the colours and clarity of the series, letting you wallow in the subtle yet clever special effects, beautiful costumes and decadent sets (the main boardwalk is believed to be one of the most expensive sets ever created for a TV show).
You also get plenty of good special features, including a Blu-ray exclusive enhanced viewing mode which offers an interactive timeline with interesting picture-in-picture production insights from the cast and crew, along with historical nuggets and various other bits and pieces, most of which is worth taking a look at.
Alongside that are a selection of worthwhile featurettes about the making of the series. It’s all good stuff, with the only negative being the menu system. Menu options for every special feature and every episode are included on all five discs, whether or not the content is actually available on that disc. It’s rather annoying, as you click to watch a featurette, only to be told that despite being on the menus, you have to put a different disc in to watch it.
With Season 2 having recently aired on Sky Atlantic, now’s a great time to go back and see where it all began. It’s a great show, with plenty of fascinating characters, moments of high drama and plenty to keep you entertained.
Overall Verdict: There may be a couple of weak episodes in the middle, but it’s well worth immersing yourself in Nucky Thompson’s brilliantly created world.
Reviewer: Tim Isaac