Along with True Blood and Game of Thrones, Boardwalk Empire stands as HBO’s current marquee series, which means they pull out all the stops when it comes to their Blu-ray releases. With the third season fast approaching, the beautiful second season set hits shelves to help the uninitiated catch up. There’s no better way to enjoy what has become one of the best shows currently on television. Hit the jump for the full review.
The series follows Nucky Thompson (Steve Buscemi), based on the actual Prohibition-era treasurer of Atlantic County, New Jersey who played a key role in the rise of organized crime. Each season encompasses another year of the Roaring Twenties, as the flow of illegal liquor creates an undeclared war for money, power and influence. The second season covers 1921, with Nucky struggling to hold onto everything he earned in Season One. Other movers and shakers in Atlantic City want him out of the picture, and use his surrogate son Jimmy (Michael Pitt) as a cats’paw to do it. Nucky turns to allies across the sea for help: notably Irish revolutionaries happy to trade their whiskey for his guns. But the biggest threat may actually come from Nucky’s “kept woman” Margaret (Kelly MacDonald), who sees more and more of his business and believes from the bottom of her Catholic heart that it imperils both of their souls.
The expanded canvas of a TV series means that the producers can develop things slowly… which sometimes acts as a double-edged sword. On the plus side, we can soak in the carefully crafted atmosphere and experience the unique cadence of life in the era, as well as watching the various characters’ schemes come slowly to fruition. On the other hand, it sometimes feels like a bit of a tease, as when Nucky finally introduces us to the vaunted Thompson submachine gun and the show resolutely refuses to follow up on it.
The downsides pale, however, when compared to the meaty drama the show delivers with every episode. Every detail feels authentic, from the rising Ku Klux Klan to the machinations of real-life gangsters like Arnold Rothstein (Michael Stuhlbarg) and Al Capone (Stephen Graham). The large ensemble tears into their appointed duties with the relish of fine diners at a banquet, breathing life into the gorgeous production design that might otherwise swallow them whole. Newcomers to the cast do best, particularly Gretchen Mol as Jimmy’s femme fatale mother and William Forsythe as Jewish gangster/meatcutter Manny Horvitz. (One of the season’s funniest moments occurs when Horvitz refuses to kill a man he beat senseless and left hanging on a meat hook… because doing so wouldn’t be kosher.)
At the end of the day, however, the show belongs to Buscemi, who may never have a more perfect showcase for his unique persona. We see Nucky’s kinder side on full display this season, as he attempts to protect Margaret’s perceived innocence from the seamy details of his work. But realpolitik brings out the nastier side to him as well, particularly during the series finale which kept fans talking all summer. Buscemi has publicly called the role a gift from the acting gods, and watching him own the beating heart of this series, it’s not hard to see why.
As usual, HBO has poured on the extras for this new Blu-ray set, including copious features covering the history of the era, updates to the boardwalk set, interviews with the cast and crew, and audio commentary for six of the season’s twelve episodes. The technical aspects are impeccable of course, and HBO deserves special props for including a separate folder in the set for the DVD and digital copies… allowing those so inclined to use them without fumbling through the entire set. Newcomers should obviously start with the first season to catch up, but when they finish, this new collection won’t let them down. Regular fans need no prompting of course; with Season Three just a few weeks away, these new Blu-rays can give us our fix while we wait… as well as reminding us why we tune in.