***No plot spoilers***
Binge-watching is a relatively new concept, chez beetleypete. In the past, I have been known to return from holiday and catch up on a series recorded on VHS tape, by watching them all in one day. But that wasn’t called ‘binge-watching’ then. ‘Boardwalk Empire’ is an HBO series, first shown in 2009, with the last episode in 2014. Some years later, it was bought by SKY TV, and shown on their satellite network in the UK. But I have never had that, so couldn’t watch it.
However, when I set up my NOW TV streaming box, I was excited to find that the whole thing, five seasons numbering 56 episodes, was available for me to watch. I started slowly, with the $18 million pilot episode, directed by the estimable Martin Scorsese. I liked it a lot, and had soon seen season one, after a couple of weeks. Then I noticed a warning come up on screen. I had limited time to watch the rest, before NOW TV, in their wisdom, took it from the schedule to replace it with something else. There was nothing for it, but to embrace the concept of binge-watching, and cram in as many episodes a day as I could manage.
Two weeks later, and I have seen it all, watching the final episode of series five on the last day it was still available. Now I am someone who doesn’t mind waiting for ‘next week’s episode’. I always avoid the annoying trailers showing what will happen next week too. But this series was perfect for this new way of watching, as it enabled me to completely understand the complex flashbacks, and to get to know the huge cast of characters quickly and easily.
So, what’s it about? It is about gangsters. Real people like Al Capone, Meyer Lansky, Bugsy Seigel, Johnny Torrio, Lucky Luciano, and Nucky Thompson,the boss of Atlantic City, New Jersey They are already involved in all kinds of crime and corruption; from prostitutes, to the numbers gambling rackets, and extorting protection money. Then the Volstead Act is passed, Prohibition arrives, and the gangsters start to cash in on the illegal booze business. If you have ever seen a gangster film set in the 1920s or 1930s, you will know what to expect.
But there’s more. Some of the action goes back as far as the 1890s, when Atlantic City was a new idea, a small seaside town on the east coast. It follows the corrupt elections of town officials and even presidents; wheeling and dealing with influential senators, and the way that gambling and illegal booze turned two-bit gangsters into millionaires overnight. It deals with the greed that leads to the formation of the Mafia, and the ruthless way that they dealt with any rivals. Then it goes much deeper, looking at the lives of prohibition agents, the early days of Hoover and the FBI, and even examines the backgrounds and family life of the most notorious gangsters of their time. It has vast scope, and 56 episodes will allow that kind of exploration.
Did I like it? Of course I did. It was great. But that comes with warnings, lots of them. It has nudity, in abundance. Sex scenes, (quite graphic at times) in abundance, and violent deaths of all kinds. (Yes, they are in abundance too) Side stories deal with distressing things like sex with minors, (discussed, not shown, but still upsetting) the unfeeling medical treatment dished out to psychiatric patients at the time, and overt racism from both white gangsters, and the Ku Klux Klan. (Including any name-calling you can think of) There is domestic violence, drunkenness, drug-taking, and a great many scenes set in bordellos. Incest too, even that. Just one incestuous adult encounter, but it is shown in some detail. And swearing, lots of it, all the time. Every bad word you can think of, uncut.
It extends the locations to include deals down in Cuba to buy rum, (with a nod to the revolution that followed later) and covers the lead-up to the election of FDR, during the Great Depression. As I said, scope.
Stereotypes abound too. Irish drunks and wife beaters. Black people who cannot read and write, Italians who are all gangsters, and stiff federal agents who might all be amenable to the right bribe, or a night with a girl supplied by Nucky. The Jewish people in the drama are gangsters too, and racial slurs are thrown at them thick and fast. Characters of Scandinavian origin talk like the Swedish Chef on The Muppets, and there were times when subtitles might have been useful to understand everything mumbled by some of the black characters. But never forget, it is reflecting a time period, and a real one, not a fictional one. Most of the events shown really happened, and the treatment of minorities by rich white people is a matter of historical record.
In case you might already be thinking ‘this isn’t for me’, let me mention the cast. Because in something like this casting is all, and as well as the old clothes, cars, convincing sets, great period feel, and use of contemporary music, the cast is just perfect. Star of the show is Steve Bushcemi, born to play Nucky Thompson. Scottish actress Kelly Macdonald shines as Margaret, the Irish widow who becomes Nucky’s second wife. Michael Shannon is on wonderful form as the religious Prohibition Agent, Nelson Van Alden, and British actor Stephen Graham delivers a convincing Al Capone, always on the edge of madness. It just goes on, (and on) with Gretchen Moll, Dabney Coleman, Patricia Arquette, (looking deliciously voluptuous) Bobby Cannevale, Jeffrey Wright, and so many more.
OK, that’s a long review, I admit that. But it was a long series!
Here’s a trailer.