Our reviews of The Sopranos: The Complete First Season (published August 14th, 2001), 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.
With the success of The Sopranos one would think that creator David Chase would sit back and rest on his laurels. The first season marked one of the greatest seasons of television any television show has produced. Sure, it's only on the pay network HBO, but how many shows can boast that their subscription rate rises dramatically for one show? The trend or original programming has certainly caught on, with other networks trying to achieve the success of The Sopranos. HBO itself has even gone on to air original, provocative series such as Oz and Six Feet Under while Showtime is taking a chance with Jeremiah. Do I sense a trend here?
Facts of the Case
First off, I'm going to do something different here and suggest that if you're reading this review you should take a moment and catch up by reading an earlier review of The Sopranos: The Complete First Season. This should be a primer on the main characters and will save me the time of explaining who everybody is if for no other reason that I'm lazy. I will, however, spoil the first season so I can talk about season two, so if you haven't watched season one, I'd suggest you skip down to The Evidence.
The end of the first season left as many loose ends as it tied up. Sure, Jimmy Altieri (Joe Badalucco, Jr.) was found with a dead rat in his mouth, and Uncle Junior ended behind bars on racketeering charges (thanks to the FBI), and Tony (James Gandolfini, True Romance, The Mexican) managed to take over as boss despite his own mother's attempts to have him killed by using Uncle Junior (Dominic Chianese, The Godfather Part II). Sal "Big Pussy" Bonpensiero (Vincent Pastore, Mickey Blue Eyes) is still missing, as are most of Uncle Junior's lieutenants, who happen to be mostly dead. Tony's psychiatrist, Dr. Melfi (Lorraine Bracco, Goodfellas, The Basketball Diaries), has gone into hiding on Tony's insistence and Tony's nephew Christopher Moltisanti (Michael Imperioli, Goodfellas, Last Man Standing) is still torn between becoming a made man and devoting his time to becoming a writer. All in all, things are pretty normal in Tony Soprano's world.
• "Guy Walks Into a Psychiatrist's Office"
• "Do Not Resuscitate"
• "Big Girls Don't Cry"
• "The Happy Wanderer"
• "Full Leather Jacket"
• "From Where To Eternity"
• "Bust Out"
• "House Arrest"
• "The Knight in White Satin Armor"
What's there to say about The Sopranos that I didn't already mention in the earlier review? The show is still one of the best shows on television and outscores just about every network combined. Additionally, The Sopranos managed to build on the success of the first season. Instead of sitting back, kicking their feet up, drinking some good scotch, and mailing in scripts and performances, the cast and crew continues to impress with dynamic storytelling and acting. For starters The Sopranos takes the things that we already know and are already comfortable with and gives them a good shaking up. The return of Big Pussy was definitely in the cards, especially since David Chase mentioned that the lack of any resolution of his disappearance was an oversight by the writers. As it turns out, the oversight managed to bring one of the most humane and gripping subplots to The Sopranos. You just know the big lug is going to catch a bullet at some point, but they manage to create a great drama in bringing the inevitable. The addition of Richie Aprile managed to be the best move in Season Two. Richie was mentioned in passing in the first season and he grew from a nuisance to a genuine menace to a true threat to Tony's seat of power. On top of that, Richie's tragic end was one of the most shocking and unexpected events the show has delivered to date, and after the shock wore off it turned out to be one of the funniest (in a really sick sort of way, of course). I'd also like to point out that I'm not spoiling anything here. If you don't realize Richie is doomed after the second episode, you missed something. Another great move was bringing in more of the family. Tony's meddling sister Janice turns into an excellent foil and object of Tony's anger. Furio, Tony's "cousin" from Italy, provides a bit of comedy relief but also demonstrates his own vicious streak. While I don't feel we really saw enough of Furio in Season Two, I'm anxious to see where his character goes in the future. The last of the additions to the cast was Robert Patrick portraying the pathetic gambling addict David Scatino. It may have been a small role, but it was a role that demonstrated that someone like Tony Soprano really has no real friends.
On top of all the new characters, the old, familiar characters progress and grow as you might expect them to. Carmela, upset with her domestic life, toys with the idea of having an affair. Meadow struggles with her own social life and worries about getting into college. Anthony, Jr. discovers the power of existentialism and begins to doubt his own faith in God (part of the teenage rebelliousness, I guess) and uses this as an excuse to experiment with drugs. Tony's most trusted lieutenants, Silvio Dante and Paulie Walnuts, are promoted and begin to take a more active stake in Tony's operations. Paulie and Silvio still get a lot of comedy time (Paulie's trip to Italy and Silvio at the card game, for example) and are necessary parts of the dynamic of The Sopranos. Dr. Melfi needs to deal with her own guilt over not treating a patient that needs her balanced against her own mental health and her substance abuse. Christopher continues to need to get his priorities straight; he dreams of writing a screenplay but still wants to be made, and he dreams of roaming free through heroin use and one night stands but still wants to marry Adriana. He has a great deal of contradictions he needs to face and does so in the startling "D-Girl" episode. Uncle Junior continues to scheme against Tony, but finds himself helpless under his house arrest. In the end, while he may not like it, he comes to realize that Tony really is the boss and will continue to be. Of final note is Livia Soprano, the dangerous and scheming matriarch of the family, who continues to make life miserable for Tony. Livia becomes ostracized by not only Tony and his family, but also Uncle Junior, who's still a bit miffed that he was set up. Sadly, this was Nancy Marchand's final performance (she passed away in June of 2000), but she certainly went out with a bang. Her presence has definitely cast a shadow over The Sopranos and it will remain there until the series comes to its end. I mean this in a good way.
Of course, the heart and soul of the show remains Tony Soprano, the contradictory character who at one moment shares a tender moment with his family and in the next flies into an uncontrollable rage. David Chase was fortunate to find an actor as skilled as James Gandolfini, as it's his performance that brings out the best of the rest of the cast (not to say that any of the other actors are slouches). The other cornerstone of the show is the solid writing. These characters feel real and they all contain traits that many people can identify with. They raise families, they love, they hate, they worry about going to school, et cetera. A great amount of effort goes in to the writing to create three-dimensional characters and the results are phenomenal. The Sopranos goes way beyond a show about guys shooting each other in the head.
The Sopranos is presented as it should be, in glorious widescreen thanks to the anamorphic transfer. The color levels are all where they should be and there was no noticeable edge enhancement during the presentation. My only complaint about the video transfer is some noticeable levels of pixelation. This isn't anything that will ruin the experience of watching The Sopranos, but it is there and it can annoy you if you notice it, sort of like Kevin Costner. The audio transfer is capable but there isn't a whole lot of The Sopranos that takes any real advantage of a full sound field.
With The Sopranos: The Complete Second Season we're treated to four audio commentaries for four of the more important episodes ("Commendatori," "From Where to Eternity," "The Knight in White Satin Armor," and the season finale "Funhouse"). If you like the show, you will enjoy these commentaries. The only other episode I wish they'd done a commentary for was "D-Girl," which turned out to be the turning point of the season (especially in the last ten minutes). Additionally we're given the standard cast and crew biographies, a list of awards garnered by The Sopranos and its brilliant cast, and two featurettes. "The Real Deal" features interviews with real police investigators, FBI agents, and psychoanalysts commenting on the stark realism of the show. "A Sitdown With the Sopranos" is an interview with the cast and is recommended to anyone who might be a critic of the show (you might gain more of an appreciation of what they're trying to accomplish).
The Rebuttal Witnesses
In the latest round of silliness, Italian-American lawyers in Chicago, organized as the American Italian Defense Association (AIDA), filed suit against the producers of The Sopranos under a rarely invoked section of the Illinois State Constitution. The section condemns "communications that portray criminality, depravity or lack of virtue" in a racial, ethnic, or religious group. They aren't looking for money, they just want a jury to say that The Sopranos is offensive to Italian-Americans. People would think our courts have better things to do than to make non-awards to people who probably haven't even watched the show and even if they did could just turn it off. On the other hand, I'm happy that people like AIDA are around so they can remind me that my Italian neighbors aren't operating prostitution rings or plotting my death. I only wish they'd been around during my formative years to tell me that horses don't talk and coyotes can't survive falls off steep cliffsides.
I should also mention that if you get offended easily you may not want to give The Sopranos a chance. Sure, the acting and human drama is great, but keep in mind this is also a mob drama. People are killed messily and foul language abounds.
Is the second season better than the first? Yes! And that's really saying something. If you enjoyed the first season you will love the second installment. The Sopranos: The Complete Second Season comes with my highest recommendations.
The verdict? Fuhgeddaboutit! Just go out and buy this amazing piece of entertainment. You can thank me later.
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Scales of Justice
• Audio Commentary by Tim Van Patten on "Commendatori"
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