HBO’s Boardwalk Empire follows in a long line of prestige series produced by the cable network, which actually works against it a little bit. It’s hard to get excited about yet another must-see series from them, especially after the infamous letdown of The Sopranos finale and the way the network botched other great shows like Deadwood and Carnivale. One hopes, however, that those harsh lessons have been well-learned, and with Boardwalk Empire now a bona fide hit, HBO has a chance to capitalize on the very high standard that the first season sets. The new Blu-ray collection does the show justice, and makes an exquisite New Year’s present for faithful fans. Hit the jump for my full review of the first season of Boardwalk Empire on Blu-ray.
The show’s ambition knows no bounds: attempting to provide a near comprehensive look at Prohibition and the bootlegging industry in the 1920s. At the center stands Nucky Thompson (Steve Buscemi) treasurer of Atlantic County, New Jersey and – to quote another character – as corrupt as the day is long. He and his cronies see immense opportunities in the illegal liquor trade… which is why they lobby for its passage while lining crates of booze up to sell at obscene markups. Ruthless competitors soon arise – including a few bearing names like Lansky and Capone – and with the scruples of ethical society tossed out the window, it quickly devolves into unspoken war.
That basic description defies the series’ Byzantine ambitions, and the way it encompasses all aspects of 1920s society. Nucky serves as the fulcrum, but we branch out in a thousand different directions, from recovering war veterans (led by Michael Pitt’s baby-faced killer) to women enjoying the power of the vote for the first time. The show runners temper such ambition with disciplined storytelling: keeping the sprawling narrative in hand and directing it in the most dramatic fashion possible. It starts out slow, but the further is goes, the more entranced you become. Like all of HBO’s best, it sinks its hooks into you very subtly, then holds you fast as each new episode unfolds. The historical details become more flavoring than fact, but don’t feel any less authentic for their fictitious trappings. They’re bolstered by production values that attend to the tiniest detail – even when that detail is a massive 300-foot set – and plunge us headlong into this world without a second glance.
One look at the credits explains the high quality on display. Terence Winter emerges from The Sopranos to oversee this new project, bringing with him the same mixture of grit and narrative verve that made that earlier show such a hit. Martin Scorsese directed the inaugural episode, a seal of quality that both assures us of the show’s credentials and sets a high standard for future entries. Winter pens the season finale as well as the first two episodes, and the remainder of the writing staff do yeomen work in keeping pace with him. This is the kind of show you could devour in a single sitting almost without being aware of it.
The Blu-ray displays a fitting devotion to the subject, allowing fans to luxuriate in the era as they watch. In addition to the usual gaggle of behind-the-scenes features and audio commentaries, the set includes character dossiers that trace the evolution of the major players and a tour of real-life speakeasies. More technical documentaries cover the creation of the massive boardwalk set, as well as the history of the real-life Atlantic City. Picture-within-picture features let you access materials while watching the show, sound and picture quality are excellent, and the set looks damn snazzy on the shelf. It’s a handsome package (though the review copy had trouble getting in and out of its casing) that reflects the confidence HBO has in its latest standard-bearer. Season 2 has just ended, but the network will likely rebroadcast it quite a bit before Season 3 next fall. There’s never been a better time to catch up… or remind yourself why you tuned in in the first place. The new Blu-ray set is the ideal way to do it.