After some considerable delay, I've started watching "The Sopranos," one of the key turn-of-the-century series that finally got everyone to start taking television seriously. This was the one that raised the bar, a show that could be called feature quality, but told stories in a way that only episodic television could. "The Sopranos" has become a cultural touchstone to such an extent, referenced and held up as a shining example of great television so often, I know my expectations are probably going to hamper my viewing experience, not to mention that I already know all about three of the series' major deaths and the final scene of the final episode that has been analyzed to death. I was never planning to watch the show until recently, so I never took precautions against spoilers. Now, I'm a little sorry I didn't.
But let's start at the beginning. "The Sopranos" is about an Italian mob boss named Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini), who is based out of New Jersey and forced to see a therapist, Dr. Melfi (Lorraine Bracco), after suffering anxiety attacks and blackouts. The trouble is his family, both the nuclear one and the larger organized crime family that he controls. Tony's wife Carmela (Edie Falco) is clashing with teenage daughter Meadow (Jamie-Lynn Sigler). His mother Livia (Nancy Marchand) can no longer live unassisted, but has become so paranoid and contrarian, she won't come to a birthday party for Anthony Jr (Robert Iler) unescorted. Meanwhile Tony's nephew Christopher (Michael Imperioli) and elderly Uncle Junior (Dominic Chianese) both jostle for power they feel entitled to. I remember the print ads from that first season of "The Sopranos," with both of Tony's families lined up on either side of him, with the tagline being some variant of "if one family doesn't kill him, the other one will."
Of course, it's the interplay of both sides that are going to keep Tony Soprano's life interesting. I expect that subsequent seasons are going to turn darker and more psychologically fraught, but right now I'm enjoying the relative lightness of the early episodes, where just as much time is spent in Dr. Melfi's office or with the Soprano kids as with Tony's inner circle of loyal lieutenants, Silvio Dante (Steven Van Zandt), Paulie Walnuts (Tony Sirico), and Big Pussy (Vincent Pastore). There's a tongue-in-cheek playfulness to Sil's "Godfather" impressions and Carmela bringing out the literal big guns to confront a possible home invader. These are characters who have seen all the gangster movies that everyone else has over the years, and are aware of its absurdities. Some have bought into the mythos, romanticized it, and enshrined it as an ideal. We hear constant complaints about the current state of organized crime in the post John Gotti age.
However, the focus of the series will be the development of Tony Soprano, who has long been cited as one of the most iconic and influential modern anti-heroes, a man of questionable morality clinging to outdated conceptions of masculinity and power. He is not comfortable talking about his feelings. He is not good in situations that don’t conform to his fairly narrow existing worldview. Tony claims his reputation as a mobster depends on him not appearing weak, and swears Carmela to secrecy about his therapy sessions, but the truth is that he’s embarrassed that he’s fallen victim to an ailment he views as undignified. His discomfort is very endearing. Of course, this is no lovable schlub on a CBS sitcom, but a man who has the means to deal out violence and death as he finds necessary. Tony is good-natured and easy to identify with, but there’s clearly another side to him that hasn’t come out yet.
I look forward to getting to know him and the rest of the “Sopranos” crew. I’m firmly on board with the story and the characters. However, more than a decade of increasing quality across a broad spectrum of television dramas means that the high production values of “The Sopranos” aren’t as impressive as they probably were back when the show premiered on HBO in 1999. Yes, it does hold up very well, probably better than a lot of movies from the same time period, but I can’t help noticing little things like the pedestrian opening sequence and the odd artificiality of Dr. Melfi’s office. The show’s aesthetic is a bit uneven at this point, but I’m assuming these minor bumps are going to be ironed out over time.
There’s no mystery why “The Sopranos” is so beloved, but after only a handful of episodes it’s far too early for me to say whether it’s really up there with the best television shows of all time. Still, I’m having fun picking out all the elements that it seems like every other crime series has copied or paid homage to, and I’m fairly sure many of my favorites like “Breaking Bad” and “Dexter” wouldn’t be here without “The Sopranos.” Things are looking good so far.