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Boardwalk Empire: Season One

by on January 8, 2012
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There was a recurring thought I had as I watched all 12 hours of “Boardwalk Empire’s” first season: “I really ought to watch that new Ken Burns documentary on Prohibition.” It’s a very odd thought to have while I’m watching a TV show filled with gangsters, sex and action — to wish I was watching a (probably) cold, detailed examination of the same material.

HBO has quite the reputation of creating worlds filled with detail and the willingness to forgo expectations and let series move at their own pace. “Boardwalk Empire” surely fits both of those descriptions but then never creates the proper payoffs. Millions of dollars were spent to recreate the look of 1920 Atlantic City, especially the impressive-looking boardwalk.

One of the biggest trappings of any story set with historical accuracy is being too faithful. Almost every major player in “Empire” is based off someone real like Nucky Thompson (Steve Buscemi). Nucky is able to run the entire city thanks to his power, connections and scheming. The fact such a man existed is fascinating, but that didn’t make him a very compelling character. It is possible for him to have too much power because it never really feels like anything — not the law, not his rivals, not his loves — could even bruise him. What results is a lack of conflict or commitment.

None of the other characters can save the show because their stories are flat. All of the themes of morality, loyalty and conflicted religion were better handled on Terence Winter’s other show, “The Sopranos.” Without a proper set of people to follow, all of the brilliant elements feel wasted. The cast is great (especially Michael Stuhlbarg, Michael Kenneth Williams and Kelly Macdonald), the sets are dazzling and you even have Martin freakin’ Scorsese to direct your pilot.

The last third of the season seemed to pick up a little bit as the writers developed what sort of story they wanted to tell, but by then it felt too late. I’m not sure why HBO is releasing this season weeks after the second season concluded. Perhaps they’re going to release that season in a few months, but it’s disappointing that I have no interest in seeing what happens next.

The DVD set has more bonus features than the usual HBO release. There are a number of commentary tracks for selected episodes. I listened to one, and having the creator of the show explain the obvious imagery of the opening credits was a low spot. The documentaries about how they made the show were really good, especially when they went around to real speakeasies that were around during this time.

Season: 3 Yaps
Extras: 4 Yaps