Home > Reviews, Television > Television Review: The Sopranos – Seasons 1, 2 & 3

Television Review: The Sopranos – Seasons 1, 2 & 3

The Sopranos – Seasons 1, 2 & 3 (HBO; 1999-2001)

To a great extent, television as we know it now, at least in its multi-character, interwoven-storylines, serial narrative prestige drama iteration, is the responsibility of The Sopranos. David Chase’s sprawling, intermittently memorable, location-specific New Jersey mafioso saga won nearly every award there was to win (Emmys, Golden Globes, even a pair of Peabodys), ravished every television critics from Newark to the moon, and was a touchstone of American popular culture throughout the first decade of the new century. Its television children include closely-connected creative offshoots (key series writer Terence Winter’s Prohibition-era gangster series Boardwalk Empire and his fellow scripter Matthew Weiner’s Mad Men, the heir to The Sopranos‘ zeitgeist-defining crown, are the most obvious ones) and subsequent adult-oriented sagas approximating and expanding its aesthetic and thematic reach (Breaking Bad comes immediately to mind, but every HBO, AMC, and Netflix drama of the past 15 years owes it a debt, at least).

So much was written about The Sopranos, not merely in traditional entertainment media outlets but online, where it was appointment television for an expanding internet critical community, that one might strain to find something of value to say about it at this late juncture. Like its contemporaneous HBO counterpart series The Wire, The Sopranos took a well-established American genre (cop shows for the former, gangster movies for the latter) and the sopranosambitiously expanded its aesthetic, thematic, and metaphorical reach. Centred on New Jersey mobster Tony Soprano (the late, great James Gandolfini) and his web of  family members, “legitimate” and otherwise, The Sopranos does not (at least not in its first three seasons) possess The Wire‘s trenchant liberal sociological conscience. What it does have is one of the most wicked senses of humour in American television history. Spurious labelling as a “drama” aside (what truly defines that classification, beyond the tyranny of running time?), The Sopranos is one of the great comedies of social manners in the history of American entertainment, and its vision coalesces considerably when seen as a satire. This grand comedy just happens to be about criminals who make money from illegal activity and frequently murder people over it.

Consider The Sopranos‘ clearest and most influential precedent: Martin Scorsese’s classic 1990 mobster movie Goodfellas. Not only does The Sopranos share no fewer than 27 cast members with Goodfellas (most prominently Lorraine Bracco, who plays Tony’s astute psychiatrist Dr. Jennifer Melfi), it is cut from a similiar aesthetic cloth. Both focus on the mafia in America, yes, but both sing with the rough melody of Italian-American slang and culture, employ soundtrack music to craft meaning both sincere and ironic (the wall of classic rock in Goodfellas vs. the curated selections of The Sopranos, including the witty Henry Mancini/”Every Breath You Take” mash up at the start of Season Three), and are in constant conversation with film history and contemporary social mores. The mobsters in The Sopranos and Goodfellas have seen lots of gangster movies, debate their favourite scenes and moments, and sprinkle their speech with knowing references to the classics of the genre. In the first three seasons of the show at least, this meta element is rarely front and centre; even the second-season arc concerning Tony’s protégé Christopher Moltisanti (Michael Imperioli) pursuing an interest in screenwriting, a potential gold-mine for meta-commentary on the gangster genre, is utilized primarily for character development and advancement.

What The Sopranos is much more concerned with is contrasting the cutthroat underworld of the mafia, with its codes of conduct, tribute, and violence, with the mundane reality of contemporary American society and culture (which can sometimes be just as cutthroat, let’s not forget). This tension is rife with potential humour, pathos, and deeper import. It is most evident in the series’ anchoring dichotomy between the opposing poles of Tony Soprano’s life: his comfortable, respectable suburban home with his wife Carmela (Edie Falco) and children Meadow (Jamie-Lynn Sigler) and A.J. (Robert Iler), and the complicated and often dangerous world of mob business that pays for that life. Gandolfini’s Tony is a proud alpha male reared in a vanished time who leads a complex double life that both he and the show’s audience constantly prod and interrogate, seeking to establish which side is a fantasy construction. All of the Sopranos-influenced television dramas mentioned before feature similar protagonists in similar intractable conundrums, from Nucky Thompson to Walter White to Donald Draper.

Where these men tend to flee one half of their double life while disavowing the other half, Tony Soprano is forever made to face up to both. This reluctant self-reflection is catalyzed by his recurring therapy sessions with Dr. Melfi, aimed at penetrating his mental state as he suffers occasional debilitating panic attacks. Melfi is especially interested in Tony’s relationship with his mother (Nancy Marchand), a miserable and manipulative old battle-axe who gives her son no end of headaches (up to and including engineering a hit on him), and his memories of his father, in whose footsteps Tony follows. By the end of the third season, the doctor-patient relationship has migrated through sexual tension, mortal danger, and angry hiatus to reach a sort of wary mutual respect, if not always full and healthy disclosure.

The mobster-in-therapy angle was done in Analyze This, released the same year as The Sopranos premiered (the film is referenced directly by another therapist that Tony sees after breaking off his treatment with Dr. Melfi). Although Tony and Robert De Niro’s mob boss have similar reactions of repulsion to Freudian Oedipal theory, there the similarity between the two texts’ approach to their psychology ends. Both Tony and Dr. Melfi experience dream sequences that delve symbolically into their psyches and the plot turns that face them, from the talking fish that sopranoscemeteryexpress Tony’s guilt and self-loathing over his murder of long-time friend and associate “Big Pussy” Bonpensiero (Vincent Pastore), who had turned government informant, to a fearful symbolist nightmare addressing Dr. Melfi’s rape in a parking garage stairwell (a lurid, soon-forgotten sequence that is not among the show’s proudest moments).

Alongside these psychological delvings, The Sopranos contrasts the mafia realm of illegal clubs and racketeering, sit-downs and hits, made men and capos, with the “straight” world of shopping malls and nursing homes (sorry, “retirement communities”), parent-teacher meetings and football practice, tennis instructors and lawyers. But The Sopranos‘ subterranean satire of American society lies in how the show repeatedly implies that there is not so much difference between organized crime and square life. David Chase hinted at this blurred line between gangsters and the legitimate elite in his 2007 Best Drama Emmy acceptance speech, and it’s gestured towards at various points in the show itself. In a session with Dr. Melfi, Tony verbalizes his contempt for the assumed difference between how he makes his living and how legal capitalism exploits and chews up its consumers and the world they live in. The underhanded quid pro quo of mob business is only a slightly exaggerated version of the inside trading that characterizes the American elite that holds itself above Tony and his ilk, which the mob boss registers while golfing with his doctor neighbour and his country club buddies. This irony is registered in dozens of moments throughout the first three seasons of The Sopranos, notably when Meadow’s acceptance to Columbia University is greased by Carmela’s $50,000 donation towards the construction of a new building on campus. “Morningside Heights gangsters,” mutters Tony, recognizing familiar extortion tactics all too well.

All this talk of social satire, dichotomies, and psychological symbolism short-sells The Sopranos as an engine of pure entertainment, however, which it excels at delivering. Like Mad Men, which likewise had its weaknesses and wrong turns along the way, the writing of The Sopranos is fantastic, witty, and frequently hilarious from line to line, and this is the impression that lingers from watching it. Its actors may be not uniformly strong, but they are given showcase moments and often grab them for themselves (I must have rewound and rewatched Falco’s tremendous reaction to Tony’s weighted hint about the fate of his sister’s fiancee Richie Aprile five times at least).

Even in the midst of saggy stretches of the run, such as in the middle of the third season, the creative team can unleash wonderful left-turn classics like “Pine Barrens”, which intercuts the breakdown of Tony’s and Meadow’s separate current romantic entanglements with Christopher and Paulie Walnuts (Tony Sirico) getting lost in the titular snowy woods where they planned to kill and dump a Russian who owes them money (bonus trivia: the episode was directed by Steve Buscemi, who borrows some of the frigid snow-drifted noir atmosphere of Fargo, which gave him his most famous role). The violence is persistent but not repetitive and (usually) deployed for narrative or character arc purposes above all.

This particular critic won’t have much more to say about The Sopranos‘ legacy for television at this time, as he pauses to consider at the halfway mark of the series. We’ll save that for the conclusion of the six-season run. But much is already clear about this unique and excellent television classic even with 50% of it in the bag, and how its themes and ideas will continue to be expertly drawn out is a matter of anticipation even if it is a fait accompli for much of the rest of the viewing audience.

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Categories: Reviews, Television
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  1. December 16, 2015 at 5:48 pm

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