Our reviews of The Sopranos: The Complete Second Season (published March 28th, 2002), The Sopranos: The Complete Fourth Season (published November 11th, 2003), The Sopranos: Season Six, Part II (published October 23rd, 2007), and The Sopranos: Season Six, Part I (published November 1st, 2006) are also available.
If one family doesn't kill him…the other family will.
When pay cable network HBO was created, it was merely used as a channel to show unedited movies on television long before they would hit network television in their watered-down versions. As with any successful business, however, HBO has managed to adapt as they aged, broadening their programming to move beyond the original intent of the network, though not to the degree that MTV has altered their programming. (Does MTV actually play music videos any more?) HBO has developed sports programming and original series, which have included critically-acclaimed hits such as "Dream On" and Gary Shandling's satire of late night TV "The Larry Sanders Show." HBO's latest and greatest (and sometimes controversial) success, The Sopranos, is available on everyone's favorite shiny discs.
Facts of the Case
Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini, True Romance, Get Shorty, The Mexican) is an average middle-aged member of the nouveau riche. He has a loving life, Carmela (Edie Falco), a teen-aged daughter, Meadow (Jamie-Lynn Sigler) and a pre-pubescent son, Anthony Junior (Robert Iler). Tony also has a demanding, aging mother (the brilliant Nancy Marchand, Sabrina) who resists Tony's efforts to place her in a retirement community. Tony also runs a successful business in waste management, and he's experiencing the worries of most middle-aged American men. He has anxieties about his family life, which seems to be crumbling down around him, and worries about his job. This has Tony finding himself entering psychotherapy, entrusting himself into the capable hands of Dr. Jennifer Melfi (Lorraine Bracco, Goodfellas, The Basketball Diaries), who quickly prescribes Prozac for Tony's depression.
Did I also mention that Tony is a boss in the New Jersey Mafia?
Tony's other family is equally as troubling. The current boss, Jackie Aprile (Michael Rispoli, Rounders) is wasting away in a hospital with cancer, leaving a power vacuum that will end up in contention between Tony and his Uncle Junior (Dominic Chianese, The Godfather Part II). This could all be okay, because Tony has surrounded himself with some loyal lieutenants: Paulie Walnuts (Tony Sirico, Goodfellas, Innocent Blood), Sal "Big Pussy" Bonpensiero (Vincent Pastore, Mickey Blue Eyes), Jimmy Altieri (Joe Badalucco, Jr.) and Silvio Dante (Steve "Little Stevie" Van Zandt). Tony also has his nephew Christopher (Michael Imperioli, Goodfellas, Last Man Standing) trying to become "made" under Tony's direction. Throw in other elements of the mob genre like Tony's mistress and Uncle Junior's meddlesome lieutenant, Mikey, and you have all the elements necessary for thirteen episodes of a classic mob story.
• "The Sopranos"
• "46 Long"
• "Denial, Anger, Acceptance"
• "Pax Soprana"
• "Down Neck"
• "The Legend of Tennessee Moltisanti"
• "a Hit is a Hit"
• "Nobody Knows Anything"
• "I Dream of Jeannie Cusamano"
The Sopranos is one of the great television triumphs for a reason. Make that several reasons. The depth of the stories (the above descriptions of which don't even scratch the surface) is enough to make your head spin. Various subplots weave their way through the entire season, with most of them culminating in the tightly-woven finale. The writing is crisp, making the characters realistic personas despite their larger-than-life roles. A tapestry of intrigue is carefully set down, creating a story rife with incredible amounts of humor in one moment, anguish the next, and gut-wrenching violence in the next. The Sopranos might occasionally slow down, but it is never at any moment boring. I would also be remiss to point out the references the writers work in to the various mob movies and television shows that have come before The Sopranos. The gangsters in The Sopranos are modern guys who've seen The Godfather hundreds of times, but they'd never admit to liking The Godfather: Part III. Brilliant. On top of this, they hang out at a nudie bar called The Bada Bing, they pine for the old days when there was still honor in the mob and grouse when confronted with the idea of paying five dollars for a cup of cappuccino.
Of course, the characters are breathed to life by the outstanding talents of the cast. James Gandolfini creates a sympathetic character in Tony Soprano despite his sociopathic tendencies. Tony is a guy who cheats on his wife, intimidates people for money, and, when it comes down to it, heartlessly kills people. Yet, Tony is a guy you'd feel perfectly comfortable going out and having a beer with, hanging out at a ball game with, or inviting over to your house for a barbecue. It's Gandolfini's ability to portray a vulnerable everyman on the outside, while being a seething murderer on the inside. The contradictions in Tony Soprano's life could fill a psychiatric thesis. Tony feels the need to project the Italian mob guy stereotype when he's around his lieutenants and bosses, so he goes to great lengths to hide the fact that he's seeing a shrink. His home life is subdued, and his mob life is a rough and tumble ride. The best episodes portray Tony when his worlds collide, especially in "College" and "Isabella." I'm not entirely sure another actor could fill Tony's shoes better than Gandolfini; the fit is that natural. With Tony the centerpiece of The Sopranos, the rest of the cast seems to fall into place.
This is not to say that the rest of the cast isn't able to hold their own with Gandolfini. Far from it. Lorraine Bracco's Dr. Melfi comes across as a confidant, modern, professional woman, yet maintains a sexy allure about her. She's continuously able to withstand Tony's personality quirks, whether they be unwanted advances for affection or sudden, violent temper tantrums, with a natural calm that someone of her station would maintain.
The people who make up Tony's worlds feel like real people. Carmela has doubts about her relationship with Tony and with being a mob wife. She'd rather just pick up and leave everything behind, but then she doubts whether she could survive without the luxuries that Tony's chosen profession bring to her. Meadow and A.J. seem like normal teenagers. Meadow experiments with drugs and A.J. has discipline problems at school, some of which are brought on by the knowledge of his father's deeds. Special mention really needs to be made of Nancy Marchand, who portrays the scheming, manipulative Soprano matriarch, Livia. Livia not only manipulates the entire family, but she also has to come to grips with her "golden years." When Carmela confronts her about her demeanor towards Tony, she simply opines "Just wait until you've been abandoned," reflecting a natural fear an elderly person might have. It's the little touches that can turn a typical character into one that feels natural, and The Sopranos manages that 99% of the time.
Tony's crew is cast with various mob movie veterans. Michael Imperioli was made famous for getting shot in the foot by Joe Pesci in Goodfellas, and in "The Sopranos" he gets to turn the same table on a victim of his own in a brilliant scene. Steve Van Zandt also manages to get in a flawless impression of Al Pacino, performing the infamous "Just when I thought I was out…they pull me back in" line like a natural. Not bad for a guy with no acting experience. The faces are recognizable, and that makes The Sopranos that much easier to digest.
The drama feels much grander in The Sopranos thanks to creator David Chase's decision to film in a widescreen format. A bold decision a few years ago, we've now seen several network dramas emulating this format. This also benefits the transfer quality, as HBO has given The Sopranos a top-notch anamorphic transfer. Flesh tones look perfectly fleshy and blacks are as deep as you would want them to be. There are a few occasional problems with pixelation, but nothing so severe as to distract you from the show. My only complaint on the technical aspects would be the inability of The Sopranos to take full advantage of the Dolby 5.1 sound. With most of the show revolving around its sharply-written dialogue, however, this is only a mild complaint.
The extra features included on this The Sopranos set are worthy of DVD releases, but certainly don't reach to the lofty heights that have been set by others. The pilot episode has an excellent commentary that should not be missed by the show's fans, and the interview with David Chase, which clocks in at 77 minutes, covers everything else you want to know, from the show's genesis to the details of the show's infectious theme song. (It's by the band A3 and can be found on their album "Exile on Cold Harbor Lane," in case you were wondering.) Two behind-the-scenes featurettes are included, along with the "Previously On 'The Sopranos'" and "Next On 'The Sopranos'" spots with which HBO bumpers the show, a feature that might be helpful in case you missed something.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
While The Sopranos is easily the best show currently on television, it should be noted that the language used by Tony and his comrades would make a sailor blush, and the sex and violence depicted is definitely not for the weak of heart. Avoid this show if you are easily offended.
I should also point out that The Sopranos has garnered some criticisms along with its critical acclaim. Various Italian anti-defamation organizations have taken exception to the "stereotypical portrayal of Italian-Americans," and at least one congressperson (who has admitted to never having watched the show) has asked that the show be condemned for such portrayals. I won't get into politics here, but if you're overly-sensitive to the plight of Italian-Americans, you probably won't find The Sopranos to your liking. To be fair and balanced here, I'll point out that the stereotyping issues are dealt with on a number of occasions within the context of the show.
The Sopranos is one of the greatest television shows ever created—funnier than most comedies, and far more thrilling than anything you'll see at the local Googleplex. If you have not seen The Sopranos and you're not one to get offended too easily, then run, don't walk, and rent this one or catch it on HBO. Just don't blame me if you're immediately hooked. If you're already amongst the show's faithful viewers, then you must own this DVD set. It comes with my highest possible recommendation.
This judge has clearly been bribed. Everyone is acquitted.
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