Boardwalk Empire: The Complete First Season Review

There is a conflict at the heart of Boardwalk Empire far more compelling than any of its ongoing turf wars: that between a serious, incisive drama and a violent, pulpy noir. At times, it succeeds as both, but never simultaneously, and never for long enough to adequately categorize the show as one or the other. As the spawn of Martin Scorsese and Terrence Winter, there was clearly an expectation that the show would engage in the sort of gunplay that made both men's careers, but if anything, it is the omnipresent violence that prevents the show from realizing its full potential and speaking more deeply to the American experience.

Like The Godfather and Scarface before it, Boardwalk links organized criminal enterprise to the ascendance of minority and immigrant groups in the United States, establishing it as a sort of shadow fixture to their concurrent rise in business and politics. The dominant figure of Atlantic City's alcohol production and distribution is Enoch "Nucky" Thompson (Steve Buscemi), an Irishman able to maintain power through tactful coordination of the East Coast's Italian, Jewish, and black populations. Though distrustful of each other (and unshy about using choice epithets in addressing one another), they are held together by mutual interest against the curious political coalition of Klansmen, federal agents, and women's rights workers seeking the destruction of their livelihood.

In its broad strokes, Boardwalk gets everything right. Its setting is well-positioned to have historical bullet points interact organically (though they are frequently anything but), and its scope is wide enough to lend weight to its themes of democracy and nationalism without detracting from its central axis, which might be termed the immigrant’s dilemna. Do cultural minorities honor their parents better by keeping their traditions, or by finding success in their new homeland (and thus assiminilating)? Nearly every character in Boardwalk struggles with this to some extent (save for Michael Shannon’s puritanical federal agent, who sees only defiling hordes), but it finds its surest foothold in Kelly MacDonald’s Margaret, another Irish immigrant who Nucky takes under his wing, then beds.

Recalling prior mob wives such as Karen Hill and Skyler White, Margaret struggles personally with the business of the man she cares for, but recognizes the grimness (and unfeasibility) of the alternative. Her interest in Nucky is based both in affection and survival, but her qualms about his ostensible violations of Catholic law are as cultural as they are ethical. For her, and for other supporting characters such as Chalky White, criminal success is offensive not just because it requires illicit behavior such as homicide, but also glad-handing in polite society with those who would otherwise have you destroyed were you not useful to them. Conversely, Nucky is trying to distance himself from his past as much as he can, but cannot break with it entirely. As accurately pointed out by former consort Lucy (Paz de la Huerta), he keeps her around because he can’t shake the good Catholic boy he was raised to be, and finds some measure of redemption in protecting her. Together, they form this season’s most compelling drama, and come closest to fulfilling its initial promise.

Why then does Boardwalk spend so much time slogging through mob histrionics so well-established by so many other works? Given the resources clearly at the producer’s disposal, and the freedom to incorporate genuine figures such as Arnold Rothstein, Lucky Luciano, and Al Capone, the show would seem to have no trouble evoking its era in fresh and terrible terms. Instead, it spends the bulk of its running time rehashing themes from The Godfather, replete with turf wars, betrayals, and doomed truces. The show is slick enough to keep it consistently watchable, but it never generates the kind of menace or shock to make its shootings anything more than punctuation marks.

Blu-ray Bonus Features

The biggest feature (as it is with any modern HBO release) is the enhanced viewing mode, which allows you to gain additional production and historic information about the show through picture-in-picture options; if that's not enough, there are also audio commentaries with a good deal of the main talent on six episodes. Enhanced viewing is on all twelve. On top of that, there's "Making Boardwalk Empire", as much a promotional tool as a production history, not to mention character dossiers, and a featurette on creating the boardwalk set, still (to my knowledge) the most expensive set ever built for television. For the history buff, there are also features on both Atlantic City and Prohibition, lending credence to the idea that whatever else Scorsese and Winter may have overlooked, historical accuracy was at the forefront of their minds.

"Boardwalk Empire: The Complete First Season" is on sale January 10, 2012 and is not rated. Crime, Television. Directed by Alan Taylor, Allen Coulter, Brad Anderson, Brian Kirk, Jeremy Podeswa, Martin Scorsese, Tim Van Patten, Simon Cellan Jones. Written by Terence Winter, Margaret Nagle, Lawrence Konner, Howard Korder, Paul Simms, Meg Jackson, Steve Kornacki. Starring Gretchen Mol, Kelly MacDonald, Michael K Williams, Michael Pitt, Michael Shannon, Michael Stuhlbarg, Paz De La Huerta, Shea Whigham, Stephen Graham, Steve Buscemi, Vincent Piazza, Aleksa Palladino.

Anders Nelson • Associate Editor


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