With the departure of The Sopranos and the early demise of Deadwood, HBO was in need of a gritty series to remind viewers that the wave of excellent dramas on cable started with Home Box Office. If you miss either of those shows, look no further than this Prohibition era series created by Terrence Winter, one of the driving forces behind the success of The Sopranos, and executive produced by Mark Wahlberg, a guy who knows a thing or two about shepherding a successful show (Entourage) and Martin Scorsese, a guy who knows just a little about crime sagas.
Set at the dawn of America’s grand experiment to outlaw alcohol, Boardwalk Empire follows the rise in organized crime in America, in particular Atlantic City, the coastal town that was a hot bed for rum runners, crooked politicians and gangsters. At the center of the action is Nucky Thompson, Atlantic City’s corrupt city treasurer. As expertly played by Steve Buscemi, Nucky has his hand in everything. If someone’s being paid off or needs protecting, Nucky gets a cut. As the demand for alcohol grows and government agents begin to hammer down on bootleggers, Nucky inches closer and closer to becoming a godfather-like figure in Atlantic City. With the entire series resting on his shoulders, Buscemi shows us why he’s one of the most treasured actors of our generation. The actor has an uncanny talent to make us be scared of, despise and then care about Nucky all in the same moment. And he doesn’t have to say anything. It’s those eyes, man. They’re so expressive and lure us in with each scene he commands.
With Buscemi as their lead, the producers surrounded him with a group of strong, albeit mostly unknown actors. Each of them are able to play the gray areas required when playing a role in a crime series. Everyone has an agenda and by season’s end, the pieces are in place to keep Boardwalk Empire running for many seasons. Considering that Nucky is based on the real life Enoch “Nucky” Johnson, who ran Atlantic City until his incarceration in 1941, this show could run for a decade! The most intriguing characters throughout the first season are as follows: Jimmy Darmody, played with quiet rage by Michael Pitt. Jimmy was an Ivy League student who felt a sense a duty and went of to fight in World War I. Over there, he discovered a dark side of himself. Now that he’s back, he has no desire to study books, but instead has an insatiable need to feed that dark side of his psyche. He hooks up with a young hood named Al Capone and becomes involved with organized crime.
Kelly Macdonald plays Margaret Schroeder, an Irish immigrant who eventually becomes Nucky’s mistress. When we meet Margaret she’s pregnant, married to an abusive alcoholic and trying to manage raising her other two children. When Nucky discovers her dire situation he takes an interst in her. He feels a need to save her, even though she didn’t ask, and this leads to some extrodinary scenes late in the season between Margaret and Nucky. Finally, there is Michael Shannon as fundamentalist government agent, Nelson Van Alden. Shannon has a long list of roles of characters on the verge of coming unhinged. Van Alden is one of his finest. This man wants nothing more than to serve his country and his God. But he has desires and secrets, just like everyone else, which may be his undoing.
Along with Al Capone (played by English actor, Stephen Graham), Boardwalk Empire also introduces other real life figures Arnold Rothstein (A Serious Man’s Michael Stuhlbarg) and Lucky Luciano (Vincent Piazza). Rounding out this wonderful cast are Gretchen Mol, Dabney Coleman, Michael Kenneth Williams (way underused in this particular season) and Jack Huston. The latter gives one of the most fascinating performances in season one. He portrays a war vet who has lost part of his face and wears tin mask the scars. Using only one eye to express his emotions and speaking with an affect, Huston is mesmerizing.
As you would expect from Terrence Winter and the top notch writer and directors he has brought to the show, the technical aspects of Boardwalk Empire are across the board superior. As the bonus features show, the boardwalk that was built for the show is a 300 foot functioning set. When you see the characters enter buiolding, such as the lobby of a hotel, the cameras can actually enter that building so that filming can continue. The boardwalk is a stunning piece of craftsmanship. Since Scorssese is such a stickler for historical accurancy, you know that the music, dialogue and costumes are up to snuff. The master director helmed the first episode, creating the look and style of Boardwalk Empire. The other directors of the series seem to revel in the chance to emulate Scorsese, both in the way they move the cameras and edit the show. Each episode is like a mini movie, television at its finest.
It strikes me funny that HBO waited until after the conclusion of Boardwalk Empire‘s second season to finally release season one on home video. The bonus features, while all informative and well produced, are nothing extraordinary in the realm of Blu-ray bonus features. That shouldn’t stop fans of the show who’ve seen both seasons (I’ve only seen the first) from getting this box set. There is so much substance to this Boardwalk Empire that it’s worth a second and third look. For those of you who have yet to step foot in 1920’s Atlantic City, you’re in for a treat.