Modern day morality tale about New Jersey mob boss Tony Soprano, as he deals with personal and professional issues in his home and business life.
Year 3, Show #1, Season #1 (Total Shows—1, Total Seasons—1)
THE GOOD: The Sopranos is often regarded as one of the best television shows of all time and comes up at the top of most Google searches. It’s also credited as a major influence in helping all the shows we watch today actually be on the air. When The Sopranos debuted in 1999 on HBO, there weren’t many serialized dramas on TV let alone shows with content as mature and graphic as The Sopranos. While it’s difficult for me to fully appreciate how much of an impact this show has had on our culture since I’m seeing it for the first time in 2014, fifteen years after it first premiered, it’s not difficult for me to recognized how great and entertaining a show it is.
I’ve mentioned time and again just how many films about the mafia I’ve seen. The Godfather parts one and two, Goodfellas, Casino, Scarface, Donnie Brasco — the list goes on and on — and the recurring theme throughout all of them, whether I find them fun to watch or not, is their ability to depict this very detailed and structured life of organized crime. The Sopranos is no different. From the boss, to the capos (captains), and to the soldiers, the show examines the duties and responsibilities of each and also how different families and divisions within a family (based upon the capos) function. A major benefit that The Sopranos has over a film is that as a television show, there is substantially more time to play with that can be used to go into great detail and elaboration. Whereas watching a thirteen hour film would get boring, watching thirteen, one-hour episodes is more manageable because it’s more clear where individual stories start and end while still having an overarching story.
Many of the characters are given great focus and have clear-cut purposes in the show. Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini) is our main protagonist and is a capo in the DiMeo family. He is the epitome of an anti-hero and, as I mentioned before, is probably a big reason characters like Walter White, Gregory House, and many other exist today. While Tony is responsible for numerous deaths, including some by his own hand, we feel for and relate to his character because he is a loving father who cares for his family in addition to having mental and psychological problems that forced him to start seeing a therapist, Jennifer Melfi (Lorraine Bracco). Dr. Melfi is also an interesting character given that she is openly helping someone who she highly suspects (and most definitely knows for sure) is part of the mafia. In several episodes she is very conflicted about the matter and she struggles between doing what she know is right — helping her patient — while also avoiding to tell anyone about what she hears (in part because of doctor-patient confidentiality, but also partly because she wouldn’t want to anyway).
There are many other gems scattered about the cast including some of my personal favorites like Uncle Junior (Dominic Chianese), Paul Gualtieri (Tony Sirico), Tony’s mother Livia (Nancy Marchand), and Tony’s children Meadow (Jamie-Lynn Sigler) and Anthony Jr. (Robert Iler). All-around everyone in the cast feels important. Some obviously don’t demand as much of the spotlight as others, but one of the great things about The Sopranos is that you never feel like anyone is forgotten. Unlike many films, or even other television shows, where there are minor characters that seem to show up just to advance the story in one very specific way and then vanish, all the characters in The Sopranos are interconnected and even when they’re not serving a story point, they’re serving the show as a whole giving us a better idea of who these people are and what kind of world we’re living in.
What has to be the most entertaining part for me however, is just how astutely it depicts the life an Italian-American household. This is separate from the mafia life, or “the business” as they refer to it. This is the everyday goings-on, all the whacking set aside. Growing up in one myself, there are many things I took for granted until I got to the age where I realized every family wasn’t the same and did things differently from mine. As I kept watching episodes, I was surprised with how many of these things I kept smiling at that I identified as something my family does all the time. The list includes (in no particular order): pasta dinners every Sunday, the inclusion of the grandparents, the loud yelling as a form of typical conversation, the welcoming/come here slap(s) on the face, the pronunciations of words like sfogliatelle and ricotta pie (phonetically: sfoo-ya-dell and ri-got), the fact there was a ricotta pie (it’s my favorite pie and one I’ve never seen anywhere else; sometimes called Easter pie), the hand-talking, the fact that it’s gravy and not pasta sauce, and many others. These little tidbits are what really got me hooked with the show in the first few episodes before the characters and the story really took over for the rest and these nuggets were like icing on the cake.
THE BAD: Probably the biggest complaint I have against The Sopranos is one that I have for many (but not all) first seasons of new shows I watch: getting started. Many shows I give myself the ultimatum of watching the first season before I make my decision of whether I like it or not. Some shows, like Breaking Bad and Battlestar Galactica I knew right from episode one I would watch the rest of the series, but for many others, Doctor Who probably being my most notable it’s not until the second (sometimes third) season when I get really hooked. With The Sopranos there’s a little bit of time spent on the runway getting up to takeoff speed and it wasn’t until around episode five, “College”, that the switch flipped and it went from a show that I was forcing myself to watch to one that was “just one more episode before bed… just one more… just one more.”
Besides the general warmup time to get going with the show, there’s a few minor issues scattered about the show that don’t really pose problems, but do offer areas for improvement. The whole storyline with Artie Bucco (John Ventimiglia) was a bit iffy until the season finale where it showed a lot of potential for season two, Adriana’s (Drea de Matteo) start in the music industry, and the odd thing that happens in “Isabella” all were low points in the season. They’re easily overcome by all the other great moments, but hopefully in season two there’s less of these.
THE TAKEAWAY: Season one is a great introduction to The Sopranos, a show often cited as one of the best ever. That claim is validated as you see the extraordinary depth the show goes into with characters, story (mafia), and lifestyle (in an Italian-American household). Tony Soprano is a great anti-hero who leads you through a journey that’s just getting started, and one that once you start, you won’t want to stop. I for one and very excited to see how the show progresses.
THE RATING: 4 out of 5