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Boardwalk Empire - Season 1 (HBO) Blu Ray

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In fine (and bloody) style, HBO's Boardwalk Empire returns to 1920 when the ban on booze led to a syndicate of bootleggers and smugglers. Created by Sopranos scribe Terence Winter and coproduced by director Martin Scorsese, the story centers on Atlantic City treasurer Enoch "Nucky" Thompson (Steve Buscemi), who schemes in private while preaching temperance in public (Mark Wahlberg and Tim Van Patten also serve as producers). Jimmy (Michael Pitt, Buscemi's Delirious costar), a war veteran, acts as his right-hand man, while zealous Agent Van Alden (Michael Shannon) and refined mobster Arnold Rothstein (A Serious Man's Michael Stuhlbarg) represent significant threats to his enterprise. Nucky's other associates include his sheriff brother Eli (Shea Whigham), sexpot girlfriend Lucy (Paz de la Huerta), and distributor Chalky (The Wire's Michael K. Williams). If Nucky has little regard for law and order, his soft side emerges in his dealings with Irish immigrant Margaret (Kelly Macdonald, excellent), who segues from abused wife to kept woman. As Nucky puts it, "I try to be good. I really do." After he sends Jimmy away a spell, his sidekick joins forces with Al Capone (Stephen Graham, Public Enemies) and disfigured vet Richard Harrow (Jack Huston), abandoning his son, common-law wife Angela (Aleksa Palladino), and mother Gillian (Gretchen Mol), who has a fling with Lucky Luciano (Vincent Piazza). Inspired by Nelson Johnson's book, Boardwalk Empire takes a Deadwood-like approach to history by combining characters both factual and fictional with blue language and ladies without brassieres. Winter, who won an Emmy for The Sopranos episode Pine Barrens, takes liberties with the historical record, but the series never claims to represent the truth and nothing but--which is only fitting when everyone's hiding secrets. If the entire ensemble deserves praise, Buscemi rules the show as thoroughly as Nucky rules the city. --Kathleen C. Fennessy

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  • Boardwalk Empire - Season 1 (HBO) [Blu-ray][Region Free]
    George Orton

    In the past ten or fifteen years, American television has undergone a remarkable transformation. Way back at the tail-end of the 20th century, US shows often felt like the more conservative, conventional cousins of their UK counterparts: bound by network restrictions that prevented them from pushing programming boundaries in the same way that other, more liberal, countries were able. But ever since pay-for-subscription US networks like HBO and Showtime were given more leeway to make shows for mature adults (with far fewer restrictions on language, violence and sexual content) we've seen a wave of high-quality shows like Oz, The Sopranos and The Wire demonstrate just how well-written, intelligent and un-patronising American TV can be when it's at its best.

    The latest addition to that impressive list is Boardwalk Empire. Set in Atlantic City at the start of the prohibition era (and backed by Martin Scorsese as executive producer - and, sometimes, director), you can probably guess that the series revolves around gangsters, guns and gambling. But behind the obvious flashy allure of these elements, there's a lot more going on. Like the Sopranos, the show's gangster trappings are hung off a more universal and relatable skeleton built around families, romance and politics. This helps to give viewers an intellectual and emotional connection to the show, to go alongside the visceral reaction that the show's more violent moments are sure to provoke.

    Boardwalk Empire is certainly not a show for the faint-hearted: although used sparingly, there are some moments of extreme violence and sexual content that might turn off audiences looking for a more reserved and historical approach to the series' subject matter. But despite the sometimes convoluted webs of gangster relationships and human drama that make up so many of the show's storylines, the series manages to stay surprisingly faithful to real-life history. The central character, 'Nucky' Thompson - played superbly in an effortlessly understated manner by Steve Buscemi - is a fictionalised version of local politician and racketeer Enoch Johnson, whilst other real-world historical figures such as Albert "Chalky" Wright and the famous Al Capone are also incorporated into the fabric of the TV show. It's fascinating to watch their various story threads play out in a fictional context, but it's even more interesting when you appreciate the real-life historical links that these characters have to the era.

    As well as boasting a very strong central cast (alongside Buscemi, there's Michael Pitt as a young WWI veteran with whom Nucky shares a fatherly bond, and Kelly MacDonald as an Irish immigrant mother who develops a complicated personal relationship with Nucky), the show benefits from a fantastic raft of supporting players. Anthony Laciura provides a hilariously minimalist performance as Nucky's awkward manservant, whilst Michael Shannon steals every scene he's in as Nelson van Alden, an intense religious zealot who also happens to be a Federal Prohibition agent. Stephen Graham provides a compelling mix of bonhomie and psychotic menace as Al Capone, whilst Michael Kenneth Williams - probably best known as Omar Little from 'The Wire' - brings a certain dignity and strength to Chalky White.

    Complementing the interesting storytelling and great acting are some of the best production values I've ever seen in a TV show. When I first heard about the rumoured $18 million budget of the show's first episode - just one episode! - I thought it sounded a little steep. But when you combine a full-scale re-creation of Atlantic City's waterfront (probably the showiest aspect of the series) with the lavish interiors of the clubs and casinos that Nucky frequents, as well as all the fine period detail that's apparent in every element of the show - from the costumes to the cars to the cabaret acts - it's easy to see where the money went. And on Blu-Ray, this detail looks even more impressive, with the high-definition format allowing you to pick out every street sign, advertising hoarding or liquor-label for closer examination, should you so desire.

    By the end of this first season of Boardwalk Empire, it's likely that you'll be hooked on the intelligent mixture of politics, human drama and organised crime that the show provides - and luckily, with a second series complete and a third on the way, you won't have to wait long for more. With the season finale leaving certain characters in some very interesting places, and setting up a very different framework for the second year of the show, I can't wait to see how the series progresses.

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