Well, it has been ages since I’ve reviewed a whole season of a TV show so, for today, I thought that I’d take a look at the first season of a show called “Boardwalk Empire”. This is mostly because I found a cheap second-hand DVD boxset of it on Amazon a week or so before I originally wrote this review. At the time of writing, later seasons of the show are somewhat more expensive – so I may not review them.
This review may contain some mild spoilers, but I’ll try to avoid major ones.
“Boardwalk Empire” is a semi-historical crime drama series set in prohibition-era/roaring twenties America. The series mostly takes place in the glamourous boardwalk area of Atlantic City, New Jersey and it focuses on a man called Enoch “Nucky” Thompson – the corrupt treasurer of Atlantic City. At the very beginning of the first season, prohibition has just come into force and Nucky realises that there’s money to be made in the drinks business….
The plot is, of course, considerably more complex than this brief summary. As well as a series of long-running sub-plots, there is also a fairly large supporting cast – many of whom also have their own story arcs within the first season.
In fact, one of the first things that I will say is that this show has an extremely high level of depth, breadth, maturity and complexity that both did and didn’t surprise me.
One of the things that first attracted me to this series (apart from the fact that it’s set in the roaring twenties and stars Steve Buscemi) is the fact that it was made by HBO. If you’ve somehow never heard of HBO before, they’re basically the American equivalent of the BBC when it comes to high-quality, intelligent drama. Although their budgets are somewhat higher than the average BBC budget though…
The first season of “Boardwalk Empire” is yet another example of why television is superior to film. Over the twelve episodes of the first season, we are treated to a multi-layered story, filled with complex characters and narratives that could perhaps rival a few chapters of a Mario Puzo novel (well, the two of them I read ages ago anyway). Because of the space that this TV series has to tell it’s story, it weaves the kind of complex, compelling novelistic story that lends itself well to binge-watching.
Although you might initially mistake the first season of “Boardwalk Empire” for something slightly immature (due to the copious amounts of sex and violence) there is a complex, mature storyline beneath all of this.
A lot of the historical context of the show is portrayed with a level of nuance and complexity that really surprised me. Although I haven’t studied the history of prohibition-era America in detail, the level of attention to detail in this show really stands out. Put it this way, it was hard to tell whether some parts of the show were an accurate reflection of history, or a story that was loosely-based on it.
Thankfully though, the absurdity of prohibition is still shown in all of it’s silliness (although there is some insight into the reasons why some people actually supported it at the time).
Very rarely does the show lecture or preach at the audience about anything, but it will often still make moral arguments about various issues in all sorts of subtle ways.
Likewise, although the characters spend a fair amount of time sleeping with and/or fighting each other, there aren’t really many two-dimensional characters here either. I could write a gigantic essay about all of the characters in the first season but, with the exception of a couple of characters, virtually every character in the show will experience some significant level of character development throughout the series.
For example, Nucky’s chauffeur (Jimmy) is a traumatised WW1 veteran who goes from just being a chauffeur to being someone more significant throughout the series. Likewise, an impoverished housewife who comes to Nucky for financial help (Margaret Schroeder) at the beginning of the season gradully becomes a more significant and complex character too.
Likewise, one of the characters who is seen briefly in one of the early episodes is a low-level, but ambitious, member of the Mafia called Al Capone.
Being a crime drama, one of the other interesting things is how law and order are portrayed. Since prohibition was a very unjust law, many of the more sympathetic characters are all criminals – this lends the series a really interesting dynamic, which isn’t really seen in other series that have morally-ambiguous criminal protagonists. However, the police in this series are fascinating in their own right.
There’s a really interesting contrast between Atlantic City’s corrrupt sheriff (Nucky’s brother, Eli) and the prohibition agent (Nelson Van Alden) who is investigating Nucky’s corrupt regime.
Although Nucky’s brother is no stranger to murder, police brutality, bribery etc… and wears a rather militaristic police uniform (complete with jackboots) that makes him look more like a fascist than a policeman, he still somehow comes across as the more sympathetic and human character when compared to Van Alden.
Agent Van Alden, on the other hand, initially comes across as a coldly emotionless (and totally unsympathetic) religious fanatic who treads a fine line between being comedic and terrifying. Yet, as the series progresses, we get tantalising glimpses inside his damaged psyche. He gradually goes from being a hilariously creepy two-dimensional cartoon character to being one of the most fascinating characters in the show.
Nucky himself is, of course, the star of the show though. I can’t believe it’s taken this long for Steve Buscemi to get a starring role – and the character of Nucky must have been written specifically for him. He’s able to be funny and serious at the same time, he’s able to be the kind of loveable rogue that you can’t help but like and he’s able to also come across as a real person at the same time. Seriously, Steve Buscemi is an amazing actor!
The atmosphere of the show is also really interesting and complex too. Initially, I really loved the glamourous, debauched atmosphere of roaring twenties America but – as the show progresses- the levels of suspense and tension gradually increase. It gets to the point where you can’t watch about half of the conversations in the slightly later parts of the season without the nervous worry that they could erupt into brutal violence at any second.
This is one of the show’s strengths since, although many of the characters lead very glamourous lives, the malevolence behind that glamour is always lurking in the background in a very subtle way that many crime dramas just can’t do as well.
All in all, this is an excellent first season of an excellent show. I don’t know when or if I’ll watch any more of it, but even the first season stands on it’s own extremely well (although there’s obviously room for the story to continue, at least there aren’t any of the ultra-melodramatic end of season cliffhangers that US TV shows are famous for). It’s a complex, serious, compelling, fascinating, mature semi-historical drama and it’s well worth watching.
If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get a five.