Created by: David Chase || Written by: David Chase, Terrence Winter, Robin Green, Mitchell Burgess, Matthew Weiner
Starring: James Gandolfini, Lorraine Bracco, Edie Falco, Michael Imperioli, Dominic Chianese, Steven Van Zandt, Tony Sirico, Robert Iler, Jamie-Lynn Sigler, Drea de Matteo, David Proval, Aida Turturro, Nancy Marchand
No. of Seasons: 6 || No. of Episodes: 86
Where The Wire (2002-2008) was vast, epic, and sprawling, The Sopranos, long HBO’s premiere network drama, is intimate, detailed, and deeply personal. My second child with Home Box Office turned out to be my introduction to the greatest television show I have ever seen (so far), and boy, does it dress to impress. Centered around both the business and family life of one New Jersey mob boss, Tony Soprano (played by a powerhouse James Gandolfini), The Sopranos paved the way for modern TV giants who lived and died on the analysis of flawed yet fascinating protagonists, such as the much loved Walter White from AMC’s Breaking Bad (2008-present), Dexter (2006-2013), and House of Cards (2013-present). The show is a modern giant of narrative filmmaking and a landmark achievement in the gangster subgenre, every bit as important as juggernauts like The Godfather (1972), Goodfellas (1990), and Scarface (1983).
Beyond being a mammoth gangster tale, The Sopranos is every bit as much the story of a family, some connected by blood, some connected by the gruesome violence and cold, hard cash of organized crime. The central thesis of the series is how these two sides of Tony Soprano’s life, his mob family and his blood family, affect his personal image and, most importantly, his psyche. The story focuses on Tony, but takes time to analyze those close to him in both families. The Sopranos is a show that humanizes the modern gangster much like The Godfather humanized the post-WWII mobster. In terms of both written and visual structure, the series is virtually unparalleled in modern television.
The single most critical element of this series is the dynamic between Tony Soprano and his counselor and psychiatrist, Dr. Jennifer Melfi (a brilliant Lorraine Bracco). That’s right — our violent criminal protagonist sees a shrink. And not only does he see her to help keep himself afloat mentally, he sees her to help him find meaning in his life. Over six seasons, Tony continues to see his therapist, discussing his problems and taking medications to help him get through each week. The way Tony discusses his personal and business stresses (while always omitting certain details about his occupation, of course) with the charismatic, compassionate Melfi is both fascinating and entertaining. The fact that Tony even sees a shrink in the first place causes ripples in his life that are amazing to watch play out. To that end, the series takes ample time to examine Melfi’s own personal life and the state of her mental health.
This detailed care with which the show examines its characters extends to the members of Tony’s immediate and mob family. Both of Tony’s children and his wife (Edie Falco) have interesting lives of their own that are explored in intimate detail, but so do Tony’s extended family and business associates, his close brothers and rivals within the mob. Michael Imperioli as Christopher Moltisanti is particularly noteworthy for his character’s depth and importance in the series. His struggle to rise through the ranks of the mob underworld, while at the same time balancing a close girlfriend and his sanity, is an exercise that proves fascinating to unravel.
Really though, it’s the way that all these interconnected and interrelated characters react to each other that makes the show so great to watch. Like I said earlier, The Wire was a show whose main thesis was the story of a city, where as in The Sopranos, the focus is on a much more intimate scale, on something much smaller: A family. And like real families grow and develop in response to their environment and to each other, so does the family in The Sopranos. In particular, the most fascinating fireworks occur when the show analyzes how these various family members in business and blood affect its protagonist. The complex mental status of the gangster overlord, husband, and father is constantly evolving and changing over the course of the series, be it from interactions with his cruel, psychopathic mother (Nancy Marchand), his cousin and fellow mobster, Christopher, or his New York gangster rival, Phil Leotardo (Frank Vincent).
Another key part of the show’s allure is its sense of humor. The Sopranos is a hilarious show that doesn’t forgo frequent comic relief within its serious story. It’s a much more humorous show than something like The Wire or Game of Thrones (2011-present) or Rome (2005-2007). It’s one of the funniest dramas to have aired on HBO, and its witty characters seem like they’re constantly coming up with new remarks to make you smile. Despite all the deadly serious family drama and gang violence, The Sopranos knows how to deliver laughs.
The final great aspect of the show is how it all ends. Much has been made about the finale to The Sopranos, how abrupt it is, how it leaves so many questions as to what happens next, what it all means, etc. I personally think that creator, David Chase, and the writers ended it in the best way possible. Tony’s life had no way to end other than in a bloody shootout or going to jail, and either climax would have seemed too cliched or predictable. I think that leaving the show’s ending as a question mark was the smart thing to do, and best of all, the final season (divided into two parts) built to an action-packed crime-war between Tony’s gang and their rival New York syndicate, led by Phil Leotardo. You could see the time and patience that the writers took to evolve and end the series right, and I think they did a great job.
Cinematographically speaking, the series’ directors employ perhaps the best use of hidden long-takes in television history. Most episodes seem based around the use of a dolly, which fluidly transitions from singles to doubles to ensemble stagings with startling precision. In terms of subtly and effectiveness, they rival the best of Spielberg, though they are somewhat shorter, being in the 15 to 45 second range. Much can be praised about the show’s visual prowess, from its subtle framing of character relationships to its abstract dream sequences, but David Chase’s commitment to these prolific dolly oners is the show’s most distinct cinematographic feature. Though a show like The Wire is arguably more versatile in terms of camerawork (the show features a variety of surveillance footage, Cinema Verite handheld, and powerful soundtrack montages in addition to more classical cinematography), The Sopranos‘ consistent old Hollywood style of photography never fails.
SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: Tony Soprano is the best protagonist to have ever hit a television crime drama, and he’s so well drawn, relatable, and likable that he’s a breeze to root for ’til the bitter end, flawed nature and all. The Soprano’s incredible supporting cast are almost as deep as Tony himself, and their intricate web of relationships is endearing in a twisted way, captured by some of the subtlest long-takes on screens of any size.
—> No matter how many Breaking Bad (2008-2013) clones come out of the waterworks, there will only ever be one original. The Sopranos receives MY HIGHEST RECOMMENDATION, end of story!
? You know, Tony, it’s a multiple choice thing with you. ‘Cause I can’t tell if you’re old-fashioned, you’re paranoid, or just a fucking asshole.
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