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Boardwalk Empire: The Complete First Season (Blu-ray Review)

5 Jan, 2012 By: John Latchem

Street 1/10/12
five-disc set $59.99 DVD, $79.98 Blu-ray
Not rated.
Stars Steve Buscemi, Michael Pitt, Kelly Macdonald, Dabney Coleman, Shea Whigham, Anthony Laciura, Stephen Graham, Aleksa Palladino, Michael Stuhlbarg, Vincent Piazza, Paz de la Huerta, Paul Sparks, Michael Shannon, Gretchen Mol.

Watching HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire” is like watching a fictionalized version of Ken Burns’ Prohibition documentary. It begins with the banning of alcohol in America in 1920 and charts the rise of organized crime by turning local political bosses into a ruthless cadre of gangsters for whom theft and murder are a way of life.

The show presents events of the era through the perspective of Enoch “Nucky” Thompson (Steve Buscemi), who runs Atlantic City, and his protégé, Jimmy (Michael Pitt). The Atlantic City-based characters are based on real people but are fictionalized here, though they frequently interact with real-life mobsters such as Arnold Rothstein, Al Capone, Lucky Luciano and Meyer Lansky.

The first season chronicles Nucky’s war with Rothstein over control of Atlantic City’s port, which is vital for bringing illegal liquor to the thousands of speakeasies that are soaking a would-be dry nation. Rothstein is best known to history as the mobster who fixed the 1919 World Series, the ramifications of which are being dealt with in this first season.

The series is based on Nelson Johnson’s book Boardwalk Empire: The Birth, High Times and Corruption of Atlantic City, and was adapted by “Sopranos” writer Terence Winter. Martin Scorsese won an Emmy for directing the pilot, which is the show’s most visually distinctive episode and gives the series a strong start that it effortlessly builds upon with the feel of a long-form film. There’s a reason this is one of the best shows currently on TV, and while it isn’t quite at the level of “Mad Men” (from another “Sopranos” alum, Matthew Weiner), sometimes it gets pretty close.

There’s a strong hint of The Godfather in “Boardwalk Empire,” with the various dealings of crime families and a prodigal son whose exploits will come to taint his worldview. Similarly to “Mad Men,” the show’s stories run parallel to historical events and trends, with nods to how comparatively primitive society was back then (and some adjustments to the real timeline to fit the show’s story beats).

But “Boardwalk Empire” also feels like a strong spiritual successor to “Deadwood,” HBO’s gripping Western series that was unceremoniously canceled after just three seasons. That show served as a metaphor for the rise of civilization, and “Boardwalk Empire” seems to pick up where it left off, with the invasion of modernity and the changing roles of women and minorities. There’s also a strong parallel between illegal alcohol in the 1920s and the current move to decriminalize marijuana and, perhaps, other drugs.

“Boardwalk Empire” flawlessly re-creates 1920s Atlantic City with seamless visual effects, the extent of which can be seen in the Blu-ray’s behind-the-scenes featurettes (and there are blue screens everywhere).

Each episode has an enhanced viewing mode that serves as an invaluable resource of information about the show’s production and historical re-enactments, as well as notes about the music used on the show. There’s also an excellent featurette about the history of Atlantic City, and another program in which some of the actors tour the modern-day locations of real speakeasies in Chicago and New York. And six episodes include commentary tracks.

The timing of this release of the first season of “Boardwalk Empire” on disc is a bit unusual since it comes not long after the second season has finished airing. However, with on-demand for season two, new viewers will have no trouble watching the whole series in a weekend.

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