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Peaky Blinders is the perfect Netflix weekend binge

Cillian Murphy is electrifying as Tommy Shelby in British gangster series Peaky Blinders.
Cillian Murphy is electrifying as Tommy Shelby in British gangster series Peaky Blinders.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

You need to watch: Peaky Blinders

When is it on: All day, everyday, on Netflix, where it's been streaming for a few months now.

What is it: Yet another series about mobsters, this one gains novelty by being about 1920s British gangsters, doing their best to corner the market on criminal enterprise in the city of Birmingham. Expect lots of threats, lots of showdowns with the police, and lots of attempts to game horse races so as to maximize the amount of money made on betting. The title refers to said gang, so named because they keep razor blades in their caps. (It's Britain. Everything is weirdly named.)

Why you should watch: Did you love Boardwalk Empire? Then you'll probably love Peaky Blinders.

Both shows are impeccably designed. Both shows involve vaguely historical gangsters. And both shows are set in the wake of World War I.

Early Blinders, however, is more consistent than early Boardwalk. (Blinders is only two seasons in, so it's anybody's guess as to whether the show will eventually find the higher level Boardwalk did in its fourth season.) And so much of that comes down to the series' respective leads.

In Boardwalk, Steve Buscemi was always solid at the center, but it still felt slightly weird that the whole show was about him, as he played his character as someone who tried his level best to avoid being at the center of everything. Blinders, however, features Cillian Murphy (who played Scarecrow in Batman Begins) as Tommy Shelby, a young man freshly back from the war who has big ambitions and bold schemes. To call Murphy magnetic might be underselling his presence, and even though the rest of Blinders is quite good, the show can't help but sag a little whenever Murphy's not around.

The rest of the cast is similarly good, particularly Sam Neill as an Irish policeman brought to Birmingham to bring down the Peaky Blinders, and Helen McCrory as the woman who ran the gang while the men were off at war and now bristles at being sent back into a subordinate role. Because the British TV system skews toward shorter seasons, it's able to better accommodate actors who also want to have film or stage careers, and that's very much true for Blinders, which boasts something of an all-star cast. Even Tom Hardy (Bane from The Dark Knight Rises) joins in series two.

Peaky Blinders is written by Steven Knight, probably best known for his screenplay for the terrific crime firm Dirty Pretty Things, and he more than knows his way around the genre, enlivening old clichés by wholeheartedly embracing them and reminding viewers why they loved them in the first place. He's particularly good when it comes to ideas about men coming home from war and just how disruptive that can be for their psyches and those they left behind.

And, finally, Peaky Blinders just looks amazing. Beautiful production design can only carry something so far if the storytelling and filmmaking lag, but any lulls in the course of Peaky Blinders are more than accounted for by just getting to look at how wonderfully the series has resurrected Birmingham in the 1920s. Images like a woman walking away from the camera, snow drifting around her, or Tommy riding cockily through town atop his horse give the series a slightly ethereal feeling that makes it feel less like historical fiction and more like a particularly involving dream. It's hypnotic.

You'll know if you're in or out by... the credits sequence for the first episode, which dives wholeheartedly into the show's world by having Tommy give us a rough tour of it to the tune of Nick Cave's "Red Right Hand." (Anachronistic music choices are another thing the show does well.) You'll either find it impossibly stylish or a little pretentious. Follow that instinct, whichever direction it lies in.

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