Stream On: The Roaring Twenties

By on November 1, 2019

In January 1920 the treasurer of Atantic County, New Jersey, and his brother, the Sheriff, decide to make some money the old-fashioned way in Boardwalk Empire. (IMDB.com)

Both of these series look at the intersection between crime and politics. In the first, established politicians decide to dabble in crime as a response to American Prohibition; in the second, the ambitious head of an outsider criminal gang in England ventures from the frying pan into the fire of politics.


This 2010 HBO series was created by Emmy Award winner Terence Winter, a writer and executive producer of The Sopranos, and is set in Atlantic City, New Jersey at the dawn of prohibition. Martin Scorcese directed the pilot episode, which was also the most expensive pilot on TV, costing $18 million. Scorcese had been interested in the long-form storytelling of TV since the 1970’s and while he directed only the pilot episode, was responsible fot the look of the series and stayed on as an executive producer and consultant.

Enoch “Knucky” Thompson (Steve Buscemi, Fargo), the treasurer of Atlantic County, New Jersey, Arnold Rothstein, and Charles “Lucky” Luciano, hatch a scheme to leverage the town’s seaside location and make some money bootlegging liquor during Prohibition. Nucky’s young protégé Jimmy Darmody (Michael Pitt, Murder by Numbers) returns from fighting in Europe with independent ideas about making money and makes some questionable friends, including the driver for one of Nucky’s Chicago associates, a young Alfonse Capone. Thompson becomes the target of an unstable federal agent (Michael Shannon, Waco), allies himself with black criminal  impresario “Chalky” White (Michael Kenneth Williams, The Wire) and deals with his own manipulative mentor (Dabney Coleman) while trying to work both sides of the rope of law enforcement.

More approachable as characters than the cold Thompson are his protégé Darmody and Darmody’s friend Richard Harrow, a sniper who lost half of his face in Europe (Jack Huston in a breakout role), a sociopath who hides behind a natural diffidence and politeness, with his (historically accurate) painted tin prosthetic half-face, a symbol of the dual nature of the times.

This sprawling, epic series is available with subscription on Amazon Prime and with subscription or on-demand from a half-dozen other services. Here is a two-minute trailer from HBO. [TV-MA]

In 1919 Birmingham, England, Tommy Shelby is the leader of the Peaky Blinders, a “back-street razor-blade gang” who, when he tries legitimize them, finds that politics is where the real action is. (IMDB.com)


At the turn of the 20th century English street gangs would apocryphally sew disposable razor blades into their peaked caps as weapons, used when head-butting adversaries; the blades would cut their opponents’ foreheads, causing their own blood to blind them. This notion is the basis for Peaky Blinders, an ongoing 2013 BBC2 series, which can be seen on Netflix.

While Knucky Thompson and his pals waded into the Atlantic to import contraband liquor into America, Tommy Shelby’s (Cillian Murphy, Dunkirk) back-alley street gang was taking care of business in Birmingham, England. When the family-run “Peaky Blinders” appropriate a consignment of arms destined for Libya, Parliamentarian Winston Churchill sends Chief Inspector Major Chester Campbell (Sam Neill, The Tudors) to retrieve the guns.

Shelby is pulled in opposing directions by his brother Arthur, his sister Polly and his own ambition, dabbling in race horses, smuggling, assassination, Wall Street, and politics, where he is noticed by Oswald Mosley, the head of a new party, the British Union of Fascists. The gang also crosses paths and swords with la Cosa Nostra, Communists, and a vicious Jewish gang, led by charismatic cockney Alfie Solomons (Tom Hardy, Band of Brothers). Shelby’s connection with Churchill becomes personal as he attempts to combine two of his areas of expertise in the fifth season. Writer Steven Wright has said there will be a sixth season, and probably a seventh.

Of note is the use of modern punk and post-punk music on the soundtrack, which complements the hard-edged action on-screen; the color palette and lighting in general is darker than Boardwalk Empire, as is the brooding direction. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ ominous 1994 song “Red Right Hand” is appropriately used as the theme song of the early seasons. Here is a 2-minute trailer. [TV-MA]

More small-screen fun next time! Email me and follow Stream On OBX on Twitter.

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