Set in Prohibition era Atlantic City, Boardwalk Empire begins in 1920. It focuses on four key storylines – Enoch “Nucky” Thompson and his thirst for power, Agent Van Alden and his quest to bring down Thompson and his associates, Jimmy Darmody’s involvement with the Mafia, and Margaret Schroeder’s attraction to Thompson following the death of her husband and the turmoil that she experiences.
Thompson, on the surface, supports Prohibition, though he plans to keep Atlantic City as “wet as a mermaid”, with a suitable increase in the cost of alcohol and the influx of bootleg booze that he intends to oversee. As the city comes to terms with the new state of Prohibition, he works with smugglers and gangsters to ensure that Atlantic City is a pleasant place to live – at least, for him.
Thompson’s right hand man, Jimmy Darmody, has recently returned from active duty and has his own crosses to bear. His rise to power is in stark contrast to his life as a loving family man, with a wife and small child. It also sets him on a course of destruction with Thompson, especially when he discovers Thompson’s involvement in his family’s affairs, and starts believing his wife may not have been as loving as he was. Implicated by a dying witness, he is forced to leave Atlantic City, abandoning his family and moving to Chicago, where he quickly becomes friendly with the local mob community thanks to his acquaintance, Al Capone.
The series takes place before the rise to power of such names as Al Capone and Lucky Luciano, so if your experience of gangsters comes from films like Bugsy or Casino, seeing historical figures portrayed before they became infamous names may initially seem a little unusual.
On the subject of preconceptions, the series isn’t filled with shoot-outs and raids in every episode – instead, what we get is a finely woven story that is more about politics, business and the lives of the characters than the stereotypes of the genre. Seeing the story told in this way brought to mind the way that The West Wing shaped views of American politics, or Mad Men did the same for 1950s business, while still introducing characters that you can care about.
Comparing Boardwalk Empire to these two series is a deserved high compliment. If you thought The West Wing packed a lot of story into each episode, you’re going to be bowled over by the way each episode of Boardwalk Empire develops its characters and the world of 1920 Atlantic City, while the story spreads out across 12 well-written and compelling episodes.
The characters aren’t one-dimensional, but richly developed and wonderfully realised. It would have been easy to write a character like Al Capone as a flat stereotype, bearing in mind what we expect of the character, but here, he’s a family man, with a child suffering a disability, aware of his position and suffering, it seems, from little-man syndrome. All the main players, then, are well defined, with political and social points of view, even if their actions may be at odds with their intentions. Among the drama and intrigue, there’s an undercurrent of humour that runs throughout the series.
Steve Buscemi owns the series as Enoch Thompson, the corrupt treasurer of Atlantic County, while Michael Pitt is on slow burn as Jimmy Darmody. Together, they are a formidable team, supported by a stellar cast including such familiar names as Gretchen Mol and Michael Shannon. Kelly MacDonald, in particular, is such a captivating actor, portraying Margaret as strong and forthright, yet conveying such emotion and sensibility that you can’t help but feel for her character’s plight.
The interaction between Lucy (Paz de la Huerta), and Margaret is full of barely concealed hatred, and both actresses are fantastic in their respective roles. Stephen Graham is perfect as Al Capone, with a convincing Italian-American accent and the viciousness that you would expect from an actor of his ilk. From the regular characters right through to minor, recurring faces, you get the feeling that every actor is invested in their role.
Every episode is shot with the same intricacy and attention to detail that you would expect in a feature film. With Scorsese’s direction in the first episode, the bar was set incredibly high for the rest of the season, and every director stepped up. The set design looks authentic and larger than you might expect from a television production, as do the costumes, hinting at the care and attention that has been taken to the look and feel of the series.
With series creator Terence Winter previously having written for The Sopranos, and executive producers in the form of Mark Wahlberg (who was previously executive producer on Entourage) and Scorsese on board, the series is in exceptionally qualified hands.
The series’ Blu-ray release really shows off its amazing set design and cinematographic presentation. The bitrate stays comfortably above 20Mbps, while the soundtrack, available in DTS-HD 5.1 drops us in the middle of an immersive experience as we move from small houses to large ballrooms, business meetings to shoot-outs.
Alongside audio commentaries, each episode has an enhanced viewing option, which acts as a making-of with behind the scenes footage and interviews with cast and crew. Together, these form a compelling behind the scenes experience; more so than the standalone features on disc.
There’s also a comprehensive character dossier, which is a great way of keeping up with the complicated relationships between characters, especially those that are on the periphery.
Speakeasy Tour takes us on a 24-minute tour of Chicago and New York during the Prohibition. Revisiting locations and exploring some of the history of Torrio and Capone’s control of the cities and the lives they were leaving behind, the feature is interesting from a historical point of view, with many of the locations from the 20s still in existence.
The current owners tell interesting and detailed stories of the locale’s involvement, while building a more personalised story of the era, interspersed with some footage and photos from the period and tales about the lengths the owners would go to in order to ensure their businesses functioned, despite constant threats of raids.
Atlantic City: The Original Sin City is a half-hour documentary looking at the real location. Alongside the tour, it’s a historical exploration that provides a backdrop for the series. Experts, many of whom live or lived in Atlantic City, take us through the development of the area by settlers, and the involvement of African Americans in the success of Atlantic City as a hub for tourism.
The Boardwalk and the influential players of Atlantic City dominate the feature, exploring the various developments that led to its construction, the way that it attracted its audience through showmanship (from displaying premature babies in incubators to the steel pier entertainment complex) and the clientèle that it brought to the city. Enoch Johnson, the character upon which Thompson is based, is featured, along with his celebrity and influence within and beyond the city limits.
While the extras on its history are richly produced and informative, the standalone features on the series itself seem to come up a bit short. It doesn’t stop them being interesting, however. Running at 20 minutes, Making Of Boardwalk Empire is a behind the scenes feature that is more of an electronic press kit for the series, setting the scene for season one and the characters, the impact of Prohibition on Atlantic City and offering a few insights into the series from its key cast and crew, including Scorsese.
Creating The Boardwalk is a five-minute look at the creation of the Atlantic City Boardwalk and the work that went into recreating the landmark. This isn’t just a redressed location – it’s an amazingly recreated set that, mostly, is functional. It’s only 300 feet, but with digital and visual effects it looks eight miles long. After watching this, you’ll be even more impressed with the look of the series and hoping that, in season two, there will be more on the production.
With a fantastic series supported by some equally impressive extras, Boardwalk Empire is a Blu-ray release that is definitely worth owning. With any luck, it’ll have a long run, and we’ll see more of the quality content that the season one boxset offers.
You can rent or buy Boardwalk Empire Season One at Blockbuster.co.uk.