I don’t feel like writing a clever preamble today, so deal with it or you’ll be sleeping with the fishes. I’m a good earner, but the Castdaddy says if my next envelope is light, I might just get clipped. Oh, and Matt would like me to tell you that New Jersey is a fine state and that there is no such thing as the Mafia; it’s just anti-Italian propaganda.
|HBO|1999|13 episodes|60 mins.|
I like shows about fat people who swear, so The Sopranos is a natural fit for me. If you’ve been living under a rock for the past 13 years, which actually might not be a bad idea… I mean think of how much money you’d save on rent. I’d be fucking rich if I lived under a rock.
Anyway, for those of you without television, The Sopranos is not, in fact, about singing. It follows New Jersey Mafia captain Tony Soprano as he tries to balance the demands of both his mafia business and his family life, all while working through his psychological issues with his therapist.
In the first season, Tony begins having panic attacks and collapsing for seemingly no reason. He reluctantly agrees to see a psychiatrist, Dr. Melfi, about getting to the root cause of the attacks. He keeps this a secret from his Mafia associates for fear that it will make him seem weak.
The New Jersey boss, Jackie Aprile is very ill and his death seems imminent, so much of the mob storyline this season covers a power struggle over who will take Jackie’s place between Tony and his Uncle Junior, who looks like he might just tie balloons to his house and fly away.
On the home front Tony has to deal with the manipulations of his increasingly miserable mother, his wife Carmela’s growing distaste for his lifestyle, and of course raising his children, AJ and Meadow. AJ’s been quite a disappointment to Tony, an under-achieving troublemaker. Meadow, while far more successful than her brother, is in the midst of her rebellious teen phase. You can see why the stress is getting to Toner-Boner.
The acting and writing throughout the whole season is pretty much flawless. The mob plotline would be a dense, layered story to its own, but the addition of family life and the wonderful characters that come with it are what makes the show really come alive. Tony genuinely cares for his family and the contrast between that warmth, and his cold-hearted deeds as a gangster is pretty delicious. The real crown jewel of the series are Tony’s sessions with Dr Melfi. It’s a great way to give the audience a window into thoughts Tony would never articulate otherwise, and Melfi’s analysis and fascination with her patient make these scenes stand above the rest of the episode a lot of the time. The interplay between James Gandolfini and Lorraine Bracco is a pleasure to watch, and to be honest, if the show was nothing but the therapy sessions I’d still be entranced.
The first season isn’t perfect, however. There’s two things that bug me. The first is that the pilot, while being quite good in its own right, was filmed in 1997, two years before the rest of the series, and it doesn’t quite fit with the rest of the season as well as it should. James Gandolfini is much slimmer, his accent is more underplayed and in some scenes, not there at all. Sets are much different in the pilot, some characters are played by different actors, minor things that disrupt the flow of the viewing experience. You might not notice these on a first viewing, but there are a couple of quite glaring examples.
In the pilot, Carmela, who in the rest of the series is portrayed as being kept as distant from and in the dark about the goings on of her husband’s mafia business, hears what she believes to be an intruder in the backyard, and so she takes a fucking AK-47 out of a hidden compartment in the living room and marches outside to take a look. It’s a ridiculous, over the top and out of character moment that clashes with the series’ realism. No way that would have ever happened in any other episode.
There’s another continuity problem with Tony. Dialogue in the pilot makes it clear that he’s the boss of the family, despite the rest of the season quite clearly having him as a captain. If he was boss to begin with, the first season’s main storyline would never have happened. I know a lot of pilot have little things that are changed or dropped when it moves to a weekly series, but this is so egregious it becomes laughable.
The Sopranos also likes to throw loads and loads of characters at you right off the bat. I like it when a television series respects my intelligence and doesn’t feel the need to handhold me, but early on it really doesn’t do a great job of letting you know who’s who, especially with the mafia characters. Many of the minor gangsters will affect the plot in huge ways, but there’s only so many fat Italians in track suits a new viewer can keep track of before they start to run together. They become more well-defined as the season progresses, but it can be quite confusing at first. I had to finish the entire series and then come back for another look at Season 1 before I understood it completely.
I like that The Sopranos is more a deconstruction of the mafia drama than a straight-up crime film. David Chase and his merry band of assholes have created a series that picks apart the common mafia tropes and plays them in ways that’s not quite the way you’re used to. We have a bunch of characters who grew up watching things like The Godfather and Goodfellas and so the mafia itself has a romanticized view of what organized crime should be. Couple that with the fact that in the modern world the power of the Mafia is in steady decline, and you have a very interesting mob tale that is both more grounded and more playful than the classics of the genre.
Its impact on the television landscape can’t be ignored. This was the series that catapulted HBO into the public consciousness as producers for complex, intelligent, adult entertainment. Well, and swearing and violence, of course. They’d had hits with series like Oz and Sex and the City but The Sopranos is what cemented the dominance of premium cable dramas throughout the last decade.
There were other shows before this with long-running, complex stories, like The X-Files or Twin Peaks, but The Sopranos raised the bar for what could be done on hour-long television. Film actors taking regular parts, high production values, and a very cinematic presentation were groundbreaking at the time. Each episode was intended to feel like its own little movie, and it shows. We would not have things like the ever popular Game of Thrones or Breaking Bad today had it not been for The Sopranos.
Even if you don’t like the crime genre as much as I do, the absolutely stellar writing, acting, and production values should be enough to draw in any fan of quality television. This is art, laden with all the complexity and symbolism of a great film, on a level so rarely seen on television. If you missed out on the series’ original run do yourself a favour and check it out right now. Come on, join the family.