With its subject matter 'Boardwalk Empire' has already drawn a lot of comparisons to HBO's other famous gangster show, 'The Sopranos.' However, to me 'Boardwalk Empire' more closely resembles HBO's 'Rome.' It's a sweeping period piece that tries to tell the history of a certain time using somewhat fictionalized events based on historical record. It isn't satisfied in limiting its scope to one person, or even one city. 'Boardwalk Empire' routinely branches out from the boardwalk of Atlantic City in order to cover the rise of organized crime in Chicago. Just when you think HBO is losing too many of its good, critically acclaimed shows they keep finding more to replace them.
With its premiere episode directed by Martin Scorsese, people were already hooked. What a perfect pairing right? Scorsese is attached to something about gangsters in the 20s. How can this not be a good thing? From the first episode, which now holds the record as the most expensive pilot ever produced, the show hit the ground running. It has a decidedly Scorsese flair to it. Something that is missing in the subsequent episodes, but that's okay. We couldn't imagine that he'd be around directing every single episode.
The main focus of the show is to tell the story of the corrupt, underhanded Treasurer of Atlantic City, Enoch "Nucky" Thompson (Steve Buscemi). The character is based on real-life corrupt politician Enoch Johnson. He's a hard-nosed Irish politician who runs the city like his own personal coffer. He extorts, cajoles, and now that Prohibition has taken a hold on the country he now runs the liquor trade too.
Jimmy Darmody (Michael Pitt) is Nucky's right-hand man to begin with, but soon follows a collision course path that leads him straight to Chicago and into the life of notorious gangster Al Capone (Stephen Graham), although Capone really hasn't reached "notorious" status as of yet. We get to imagine what it was like for Capone to claw his way to the top of the criminal underworld first.
The show doesn't just follow around the no-good mobsters though. There's a young Irish woman named Margaret Schroeder who is trying her best just to get by in a world run by thieves and bootleggers. She's a staunch member of the temperance movement, but soon takes a liking to Nucky. Nelson Van Alden (Michael Shannon) is perhaps the most underused character in the entire show. Shannon is one of the best character actors out there, and his role as a pious Prohibition agent is reason enough to get into the show.
I've always had a fascination with early organized crime and how it evolved during Prohibition, so I'm predisposed to liking 'Boardwalk Empire.' This isn't a show that is just content on showing how tough and intimidating the mob can be. It's also a show about the innocent people caught in the crossfire. Even the bad guys have soft spots. For Nucky it's a weakness for vulnerable women who he just feels like helping. For Capone it's dealing with the fact that his son is deaf.
HBO has done it again. Combining its awe-inspiring production values and the minds of showrunner Terence Winter ('The Sopranos') and executive producer Martin Scorsese, 'Boardwalk Empire' is another hit. The only concern is that creating a believable period piece like they have here takes a lot of money, just like 'Rome' did. Hopefully, this show stays around long enough to tell the story it has set in motion before the bean counters decide to trim costs and pull the plug.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Boardwalk Empire' is packaged in a cardboard foldout with four separate disc hubs for the five 50-GB Blu-ray Discs included in the set. The foldout has some snazzy art work, coupled with episode lists which give brief synopses of the episodes along with information on who wrote and directed each one. The foldout is then housed in a cardboard slipcase much like season one of 'Treme.' It's indicated as being a Region A only release. Disc one, four, and five hold two episodes each, while discs two and three hold three episodes each. There are 12 episodes in all.
As has become the custom with HBO TV Blu-rays, 'Boardwalk Empire' features some drop-dead gorgeous visuals that will have you gawking at the TV screen during almost every scene.
As soon as the show opens on that distinct and pristinely created 20s Atlantic City Boardwalk, we can see that no expense has been spared to make this show look as realistic as possible. Fine detail is visible throughout the season. It doesn't matter at what range the camera is place, the detail here is unmistakably noticeable. Close-ups reveal pores and scars, like the light ones on Capone's face. Blood spatter is almost too realistic. When Jimmy takes out one of the Chicago bosses at close range and his brains splatter on the wall behind him it's easy to see chunks of brain and skull dripping down the wall.
Color is a rich feast. From the opulent gold and silver of Nucky's office to the dark shadowy surroundings of speakeasies and illegal distilleries colors run the gamut and they're all presented cleanly. Reds are especially prominent, offering that colorful pop that we've become accustomed to with HD. Textures like Nucky's perfectly manicured pinstriped suits or the rough tweed of henchmen overcoats, it's easy to see every bump and weave.
I know you expected it, but I'm here to simply report what you'd already been hoping for. 'Boardwalk Empire' comes to Blu-ray with a flawless presentation. Each episode being presented in its original 1.78:1 aspect ratio. The show has always had a distinct cinematic feel and nothing has changed with the Blu-ray. It looks as good as it ever has.
As flawless as the video presentation is, there's a possibility that the audio does an even better job. Too bad there isn't a choice above five stars here at the site. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio blows the original broadcasts out of the proverbial water. This is how 'Boardwalk Empire' was meant to be heard.
Surrounds are teaming with ambience. Nucky's grand parties are full of rabble-rousing crowds all hankering for another drink. The boardwalk, no matter how sparsely populated always has ambient sound making it a full viewing experience. It can be gulls cawing in the distance, the far off sound of waves, or a couple chatting as the walk past. No sounds are lost or mismanaged. Everything is brought in as a whole. Providing an overwhelmingly realistic audio environment in which to envelope the viewer.
Dialogue is always clear and intelligible. Even the soft spoken words of Margaret Schroder are easily audible. Directionality is key because so many of these scenes feature more than a few characters, all talking at once from different areas of a large room. The mix keeps track of all of them placing you in the center being able to hear every word spoken. LFE is alive and well whenever an old 20s car roars to life, or someone opens up on a crowd of unsuspecting mugs with a tommy gun.
Finally the 20s-inspired soundtrack bleeds throughout the soundfield offering a perfect representation of the swinging music from that period.
Half of the season's episodes (six) contain commentaries. The first is for the self-titled pilot episode "Boardwalk Empire," and features the voice of creator Terence Winter. The episode "Anastasia" features Steve Buscemi and Kenneth Williams who plays Chalky White. "Family Limitation" has a duo of writers, Tim Van Patten and Howard Korder discussing it. "Hold Me In Paradise" features Winter and director Brian Kirk. "Paris Green" has a trio consisting of Korder, director Allen Coulter and Michael Shannon. Finally, "Return to Normalcy" gives us a commentary duo consisting of Winter and Van Patten.
You really should give every one of the commentaries a shot, especially if you're a fan of the show. You'll get a lot of insight into the show's development and characters. It's great to hear from actors like Shannon and Buscemi, I only wish they were included on more episodes. It's sad that we don't at least get to hear a few words from Scorsese himself. He would've been a fantastic addition to the pilot episode commentary, but I'm sure he's a busy man.
'Boardwalk Empire' is another HBO hit, but with the astronomical production costs associated with it, how much longer can it keep running? Hopefully, until Winter and his team have exhausted the story they set out to tell. I'm excited for what 'Boardwalk Empire' has up its sleeve. The sordid affairs of some of the world's most notorious scofflaws make for interesting and engaging television. With the perfect audio and video, along with some clever PiP Blu-ray exclusives, this set comes highly recommended.