Boardwalk Empire - The Complete First Season Blu-ray Review
Boardwalk Empire comes to UK Region Free Blu-ray complete with a stunning 1080p High Definition video presentation in the show’s original broadcast ratio of 1.78:1 widescreen. It really is up there with all of the best looking TV productions on the format, the considerable budget used to create an effects-embellished world where pretty-much every shot is picture perfect. Sure, some scenes are given a slightly softer edge, and there’s quite a lot of processing done to give the production that specific, consistent, period look, but, when it counts, this show steps up and provides some truly flawless images. Facial detail is stunning, from the lines on Steve Buscemi’s face to the fine object detail observed in the decadent world he lives in – check out the pristine Rolls that he drives, in all its glory, or the fur on the expensive fur coats he wears. The colour scheme is well-represented, again slightly biased towards more period tones – with a dash of sepia – to give the production that classic edge, but still showcasing some excellent tones, with a broad palette of lovingly reproduced colours. Black levels are excellent, remaining strong and deep no matter how dark the scenes get, and providing great shadows where there is simply no detail lost. With no intrusive digital defects – no edge enhancement, and no unruly DNR – this is a near-perfect video presentation for an outstanding show.
Perhaps somewhat surprisingly so – although the debt is probably owed to Scorsese’s input – the soundtrack design on Boardwalk Empire is also stunning, perhaps even unprecedentedly so for a TV series. The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix presents the dialogue clearly and coherently throughout, dominating the frontal array wherever necessary. Effects are standout, with every little atmospheric noise, from the waves rolling in by the boardwalk itself, to the wind blowing and the crackle of underbrush under foot, presented well, drawing the use of all the channels – even the rears – where appropriate. Of course there are plenty of more aggressive, in-your-face noises which pepper the track, most notably the thunder of shotgun blasts and the thud of (midget) boxing blows. The sound design has a very cinematic feel throughout, but perhaps never more so than in relation to the score, which is a superior collection of classic from-the-era pieces that pop and crackle authentically as they play out in the background. Bass is prevalent, both from the louder effects and also providing a weighty undercurrent for the score. Visually, Boardwalk Empire may excel in its presentation of the Roaring Twenties, but, if anything, the period scoring even manages to best it, and remains one of the most impressive aural accompaniments that I have ever come across for a TV series.
As impressive as the video and audio are, the extras given are arguably above and beyond the call of duty for a TV series release. I’ve come across shows that have audio commentaries for most of their episodes, and which have further background Featurettes, but I’ve never come across a release which boasts audio commentaries on basically every other episode, HD Featurettes to further offer background into the proceedings and a picture-in-picture behind the scenes track for every single episode, as well as character trivia tracks which delivers yet more background detail.
Enhanced Viewing Mode
Without a doubt this is the single best extra for this TV series – an extra which has not even become regular for mainstream movies, and so is a pleasant surprise to find adorning every single episode on this lavish TV production. Boasting not only cast and crew interview snippets, reflecting on their characters and on the series as a whole, we also get the filmmakers talking about the work that they did to make an authentic yet exciting period piece, as well as historians on board to discuss the real situation after Prohibition took hold, and just how accurate this drama is in delivering an authentic period setting and accurate reflection of the ongoing business and criminal activities (even if some of the specifics are clearly fictionalised). We also get behind the scenes clips, effects deconstructions (it’s interesting to see what the shots look like without effects – particularly those on the boardwalk itself) and shots of the production shoot. For a Boardwalk Empire fan who has the time, there simply is no better way to broaden your knowledge of both the subject matter and the production itself.
Whilst producer/director Martin Scorsese is conspicuous in his absence, there are plenty of worthy contributors on hand to make Boardwalk Empire’s six Commentary tracks worth a listen. The show’s creator, writer and co-producer Terrence ‘Sopranos’ Winter participates in over half of them, and is perhaps the most consistent, interesting commentator, offering up great background into his creation and his strive to reflect the authenticity of the period and of the original book that they based the production on. Amidst the other participants is star Steve Buscemi himself, as well as supporting actors Michael Kenneth Williams, who plays Chalky White, and Michael Shannon, who plays Agent Van Alden, and we also get some further comments from the other writers and producers in the show to add yet more background on the production. I’d recommend Winter’s commentary on the Pilot episode to be your first port of call, and thereafter it’s certainly worth exploring the cast commentary on episode 2: Anastasia, to hear from Buscemi and Williams.
As if all this were not enough, and assuming that you had trouble absorbing all of the background information for all of the numerous myriad characters that are brought to life in this show (which is no easy feat) then you also have the option to activate this trivia track that will likely fill in the gaps. For those who are completists there certainly is some additional information that can be gleaned here as well, particularly in respect of revealing the full real-life background into some of the historical figures.
Atlantic City: The Original Sin City is a thirty-minute Featurette in HD. In fact, all of the Featurettes are in HD, and it certainly makes them look impressive. As if the Enhanced Viewing options were not enough, this offering further looks at the actual history of the location: the political and economic climate post-War and pre-depression, the effect of prohibition on organised crime, the vying for power that went on, and the ineffectiveness of the Federal officers commissioned to enforce the law during the period. An interesting accompaniment, if you’ve made it through all the Enhanced Viewing tracks and still want yet more historical background information, then this is a great place to start.
Speakeasy Tour offers us a further 25 minutes dedicated to the actual drinking locations, mainly within New York and Chicago, which were (illegally) providing alcohol to the population during this period, the people who ran these establishments, and the various methods by which they produced or procured liquor.
Making Boardwalk Empire is a 20 minute Behind the Scenes offering which seems almost overkill considering the behind the scenes gems that can be absorbed through watching the PiP track. Still, one can’t complain as this is an excellent little summary that provides quality background into the production, particularly for those who don’t have the time to watch all of the episodes for a second time with the Enhanced Tracks playing.
Creating the Boardwalk rounds out the proceedings at just 5 minutes in length but, even with such a short runtime still manages to impart a great deal of background information into the work done to recreate an authentic 20s setting.
HBO has consistently brought us some of the best TV productions over the last decade and Broadwalk Empire maintains that high standard, arguably establishing itself as the best new crime drama on TV. Often regarded as a period take on The Sopranos, the comparisons are certainly understandable, but it's the presence of legendary filmmaker Martin Scorsese that really defines this sumptuously authentic period gangster production, not only producing the show, which happens to be one of the most expensive ever commissioned, but also directing the feature-length pilot episode and thus setting both the style and tone for the entire series. Highly recommended.
On Region Free UK Blu-ray, this lavish 5-disc box set offers up outstanding video and audio presentation, as well as all the extras you could ever want – and more. I don’t think that I have ever come across a TV series which has been given this kind of spectacular presentation, although it is not wholly surprising considering the track history of HBO’s other productions, which have also had impressive home format releases. If you’re a fan of the show then this is a must-have purchase which should have been on your pre-order list for quite some time now, and if you’re a newcomer then it comes highly recommended. After The Sopranos, Rome, The Wire and Deadwood, make this your next big TV event. With three seasons commissioned thus far, here’s looking forward to plenty more time spent with Nucky Thompson in the Roaring Twenties.
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