BOARDWALK EMPIRE: SEASON 2 – Blu-ray review

HBO has been able to string together a rather impressive line of hit shows.  With shows like “The Sopranos,” “Six Feet Under” and currently “Game of Thrones,” HBO is continually reinventing ideas, keeping them fresh, modern and instilling them with tenuous uncertainty.  The Mark Wahlberg and Martin Scorsese produced “Boardwalk Empire” is based on the book Boardwalk Empire: The Birth, High Times, and Corruption of Atlantic City, which revolves around Enoch L. Thompson and his involvement in prohibition-era New Jersey in the 1920’s and 30’s.

The show plays very similar to actual events with some of the names changed for fiction’s sake.  Enoch “Nucky” Thompson (Steve Buscemi) plays the main character dealing with gangsters, politicians, bootlegging, murder, back alley deals and prostitute-filled boozefests.  Season 2 starts in 1921 and continues Nucky’s battles to keep his power.  From the opening gunfight with the KKK in season 2, “Empire” shows its bravado.  The name of the game is business and getting your own, no matter what.  Atlantic City is a busy world in the 20’s.  This is a world where tough guys talk tough and good guys get stepped on.  There is constant double-crossing and doing business behind everyone else’s backs.  Everyone’s trying to get their own piece.  Servants steal silverware from their masters and kids who change out poker chips take their own secret slice.  It’s hard not to compare “Empire” to HBO’s other hit, “The Sopranos.” The level of violence and gangland-like brotherhood makes them very similar.  The violence is plentiful and almost acts like a rite of passage for most of the characters.  There is much kicking, punching, shooting, lip splitting and eye’s getting blackened.  Characters take pistol whips to the head like most people take a hand-stinging high five.  It’s visceral and not at all glamorous.

Another similarity is their characters.  Both shows have many peripheral characters that have their own problems going on other than helping move along the main plot.  There are times where Nucky is not present onscreen for long periods at a time.  This is a testament to the other characters and storylines.  Aside from Enoch Thompson, the most involved major character is Jimmy Darmody (Michael Pitt) who looks like a cross between Leonardo DiCaprio and a Dick Tracy villain.  His brooding demeanor adds complexity and depth to help widen the character scope.  Michael Shannon is great as the reserved, stone-faced Federal Agent Nelson Van Alden.  Dabney Coleman has an intimidating turn as Nucky’s rival Commodore Louis Kaestner. There are also some highly sympathetic characters like the facially traumatized Richard (Jack Huston) and Nucky’s Irish interest Margaret (Kelly MacDonald.)  Those characters help inhabit the world that ultimately Nucky runs.  Buscemi does not rule with fear but with intelligence and calmness.  He doesn’t get angry, he gets annoyed and then he gets even.  I have always found Buscemi eminently likeable.  His awkward visual appearance is offset by his smooth talking abilities.  He has the charisma and depth to help carry this show.

This isn’t all a boys’ game though; women play a prominent role in the show as well.  Many of the men philander with prostitutes and have parties with scantily clad women dancing all around them.  They represent tools of power for the male characters, almost as if they help define their importance.  However, these women of ill repute are offset by some strong-minded, confident women.  Jimmy’s mother, Gillian, and Margaret in particular.  Margaret has the ability to challenge the man in her life with words and her faith.  Gillian has a Lady Macbeth quality that is interesting, unpleasant and absorbing all at the same time.

One of the main factors why “Empire” works is that it is bathed in authenticity.  Not only are the 1920’s sets and clothing incredibly reproduced, but it is historically rich as well.  Boxing is the main sport on the radio, polio is a real-life concern, the KKK is very much out in the open and the presence of the Irish working as servants is everywhere.  The CGI is very much Hollywood blockbuster grade.  Atlantic City is meticulously envisioned the way it must have looked back in the 20’s.  There are several sweeping camera shots of all the vintage buildings and they look great. There are massive ocean liners docked in the background flawlessly, all of it looking photorealistic

Video:
“Empire” is presented in a 1080p/AVC-MPEG-4 transfer from HBO. It is filmed with Super 35 cameras which give the show a very cinematic feel.  The image is crisp with just enough grain to make to feel filmic.  The color palette is rather dull but that is an artistic approach and does not hinder the magnificence of the picture.  The picture is incredibly detailed with the texture of paper, the fabrics of the furniture and the bright sandy seascape coming out in an eye-popping manner.  The only issue I witnesses was some shimmering in certain scenes.  It was noticeable but not at all distracting.  Other than those few moments, the quality is near perfect. “Boardwalk Empire” is presented in 1.78:1 widescreen.

Audio:
The featured audio is a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround track and is a delight.  The sound deisgn of the show is all-engrossing.  During any given scene you will hear water dripping in prisons, clothes rustling, fireplaces crackling and waves crashing on the beach.  All is life-like and clear as a crystal liquor decanter.  There is also some great low end during the gun-fight scenes and when the brass period music starts blaring.  It may not reach the dizzying heights of a summer action movie but it fits the show perfectly. Additional audio options are Spanish and French DTS 5.1, with subtitles in English, French, Spanish, Danish, Dutch, Finnish, Norwegian, and Swedish.

Extras:
HBO has a solid presentation filled with extras all in HD.  First off I should mention that HBO makes it extremely accessible to information and summaries of all shows.  On the main menu where you choose the episode you can also opt to watch a quick recap of all the events leading up that episode.  You can also watch a preview of the upcoming show as well.  These options are very welcome.
Following that are six interesting, episode specific commentaries ranging from the producer, director Terrance Winter to the executive producers as listed here.
– “21”writer/producer Terence Winter,  writer/director/executive producer Tim Van Patten and actor Michael K. Williams
– “To the Lost” with Winter and Van Patten
– “Gimcrack and Bunkum” with executive producer Howard Koder and actor Jack Huston  (Richard)
– “Peg of Old” with Korder, director Allen Coulter, writer/producer Steve Kornacki and actor Charlie Cox
– “To the Lost” with Winter and Van Patten
– “Two Boats and a Lifeguard” with Winter, Van Patten and actor Steve Buscemi (!)
– “Under God’s Power She Flourishes” with Coulter, Korder and actress Gretchen Mol
– “To the Lost” with Winter and Van Patten
There are four other informative extras, starting with “Living in 1921”: This is a wealth of interactive information all relating the life in the 1920’s.  Following that is “The Money Decade”: An additional summary of life in the 20’s with a focus on the beginning of the middle-class.  There are also “Character Dossiers” that run along each episode.  An option pops on the screen with info about the onscreen characters.  “Back to the Boardwalk” : This is a nice summary of characters and actions from the first season.  The last two extras focus on new characters to season to and the locations chosen for the show

Bottom line:
Boardwalk Empire is one of HBO’s premier shows and there is a reason why.  It contains richly written characters that exist within a larger character itself: Atlantic City.  The show lives and breathes period authenticity and Season 2 continues mightily with bold revelations and shocking twists that will keep viewers in a state of unease and intrigue.  This is a solid presentation that fans of the show will love.  Recommended.

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