If you want to explore the topic of organized crime--and premium TV channels such as Home Box Office can't seem to get enough of it--then sooner or later you have to visit the Prohibition era. This "noble experiment," begun in January of 1920, ironically gave rise to a class of super-criminals who, by violating the law and continuing to sell much-needed liquor despite a federally-mandated ban, became rich and powerful beyond their wildest dreams.
Atlantic City, New Jersey was perhaps the single most heavily utilized point of entry for illegal liquor into the United States from Canada, and so much of the riches, the corruption, the violence and the "glory" were centered in this beachside vacation haven. Nelson Johnson revealed the specifics in his book Boardwalk Empire, which also recently completed its second season on HBO.
Here in The Complete First Season though we are introduced to city treasurer Enoch "Nucky" Thompson, a fictionalized version of real-life Nucky Johnson for the sake of dramatic license. As embodied by Steve Buscemi, Nucky is not a gangster per se but a very corrupt elected official, ultimately the most powerful man in this vice-addled town. He's a fascinating contradiction, ruthlessly wielding his power while maintaining a too-wholesome public image. He's short-tempered with almost everyone, and yet he still mourns his long-lost wife and son.
Nucky is in the middle of all the action but, since this is an ongoing saga, he is surrounded by a colorful supporting cast. The story begins at the dawn of prohibition, and a recently returned World War I veteran (Michael Pitt) is eager to do whatever Nucky needs done in order to advance up the gangster ranks. A capable but flawed federal officer (Michael Shannon) wants to do his job and shut down the liquor traffic, but he can't seen to catch the big break he needs. Arnold Rothstein, Lucky Luciano and a young Al Capone figure prominently as well, while the two women in Nucky's life; a conniving former showgirl and a widowed temperance advocate; certainly keep him busy.
Not surprisingly the city itself is a character too, as we are reminded of the ways that local establishments catered to a generation of tourists entertained by the oddest things, including midget wrestling, premature babies in incubators (two bits a gander) and Houdini's less-impressive brother. And hold onto your hats, not just because of the ocean breezes but for the graphic violence, nudity and harsh language heretofore reserved for Sopranos and vampires.
Maintaining its original 16:9 HD broadcast aspect ratio, Boardwalk Empire shows minimal film grain, video noise and motion streaking, with a pleasing image that flaunts the tremendous work that went into all of the costumes, right down to the textures and striking colors. Blood can be a little too pink for my taste, but while the quality of the blacks varies, overall they are more than adequately nuanced.
I noted a few instances of compression anomalies on fine lines, despite the fair-to-high AVC bitrate. The extensively employed digital special effects used to recreate period New Jersey reproduce marvelously.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix is somewhat disappointingly front-heavy, although those three channels are full and clear and powerful whenever they need to be. Some opportunities to exploit the surrounds are seized, particularly during dynamic camera moves, others missed. The boardwalk itself shows plenty of lively touches, including tourist banter, the flapping of awnings, and the squawking of seagulls. Music is cleanly reproduced and generously mixed, although not to the jaw-dropping extent of HBO's Treme.
Yet again, HBO has delivered an outstanding set of enhancements for another of their signature programs. An Enhanced Viewing Modes (Bonus View) is available on all twelve episodes, with four categories of "Events": Production insights from the creators, true History facts, real and fictitious Locations, and a spotlight on the Music of the Prohibition era. The events occur as pop-up video interviews, or text, or in the case of the music we jump to the song as heard in the show or we can hit the Red remote button and hear the complete tune. A running timeline that tells us what's coming up, or we can skip ahead to any event for the current episode.
The interactive Character Dossier meanwhile serves up biographies, still photo galleries and relationship links to other characters. Audio commentary is supplied for a total of six episodes, either solo or jam affairs from the likes of creator/writer/executive producer Terence Winter, actors Steve Buscemi, Michael Kenneth Williams and Michael Shannon, director/writer/executive producer Tim Van Patten, writer/supervising producer Howard Korder, and directors Brian Kirk and Allen Coulter.
"Atlantic City: The Original Sin City" (29-and-a-half minutes) is an authentic history told with panache, while the "Speakeasy Tour" (24-and-a-half minutes) hosted by co-star Greg Antonacci weaves more colorful tales of the cities that thrived thanks to the flow of illegal liquor. These two segments would be wonderful on their own but as a supplement to Boardwalk Empire, they totally rock.
"Making Boardwalk Empire" (19-and-a-half minutes) provides an excellent overview of the project, including interviews with executive producer and pilot director Martin Scorsese, the one to watch if you're short on time. And "Creating the Boardwalk" (five minutes) is a very cool study of the building of the central set and other tricks used to bring the bygone locale to life once more. These last four extras are all in HD.
Boardwalk Empire has earned its place among the very best original series ever to grace HBO, which is no small feat, and this Blu-ray box with its solid audio and video makes catching up easy. And the deep, sophisticated extras are so good, they should be illegal.