Our reviews of The Sopranos: The Complete First Season (published August 14th, 2001), The Sopranos: The Complete Second Season (published March 28th, 2002), The Sopranos: Season Six, Part II (published October 23rd, 2007), and The Sopranos: Season Six, Part I (published November 1st, 2006) are also available.
"Everything comes to an end."—Carmela Soprano
After more than a yearlong hiatus, television's most revered and criticized drama finally returned for thirteen more episodes of mob mayhem, family explosions, and psychiatric sessions. But when it was all over, something wasn't quite right. Though treated to the usual barrage of placements on year-end ten-best lists and awards recognition, audiences were left with a general feeling of "I waited over a year for this?" So does the season's DVD release help amplify its qualities or confirm its status as weak link in The Sopranos' history?
Facts of the Case
When we last left Tony Soprano, he was okaying a hit on his daughter's ex-boyfriend, Jackie Aprille Jr., celebrating his beloved Uncle Junior's victory over cancer, and sparring with sexy but psychotic love interest Gloria Trillo (Annabella Sciorra). It is now more than a year later, and all is not well in the Soprano world. Tony's business is hurting thanks to the post-9/11 economy. Uncle Junior, having beaten cancer, is now on trial for his life. Friend Paulie Walnuts (Tony Sirico) has been sent to the slammer on weapons charges, and is getting a bit too friendly with the New York family. And Carmela and the kids are still breathing down Tony's neck on a regular basis. Lucky for fans, it's just another year in Soprano-land.
"For All Debts Public and Private"
"Pie O My"
"Watching Too Much Television"
"Mergers and Acquisitions"
"Whoever Did This"
"The Strong, Silent Type"
"Calling All Cars"
(Warning: What follows is a detailed dissection of several plotlines that made up Season 4, and contains major spoilers.)
When it first aired back in 2002, The Sopranos' fourth season proved to be its most polarizing, dividing audiences into two camps. The season's critics cried foul at the apparent decline in violence that had become the show's trademark over the previous three seasons, and complained that various loose ends from season three (e.g. Dr. Melfi's rape, the Russian conflict) were either dropped or left dangling. Its supporters, conversely, applauded the audacity of the creative team to delay audience gratification by providing easy payoffs, and quickly pointed out that real life does not tie itself up as neatly as we would sometimes like. Those that stood by the show felt that for a series like The Sopranos, which strives for emotional realism in favor of conventional narrative, the season's slow development was more than appropriate.
I happened to fall into the first camp. It wasn't the shortage of violence that bothered me, or even the refusal to continue developments from previous seasons. It was the lack of forward momentum of any kind. When reflecting on the thirteen episodes that made up season four, I just couldn't shake the feeling that although major developments occasionally took place, they were few and far between, and the various subplots that made up the interim periods felt like tacked-on filler material. Each week we were teased with a "Next on…" vignette that promised that the real stuff would happen in the next episode. Only it never did. We had waited over a year for new developments in both the business and family aspects of Tony Soprano's life, and what we got was…character development, and not much else. A show that had, for three seasons, been as consistently brilliant as The Sopranos couldn't possibly have become this—and there really isn't any other word for it—this dull, could it?
So it was that I looked forward to this DVD release as an opportunity to reassess the quality of the season as a whole, hoping that the knowledge of the overall arc of the season would make it easier to focus the overriding theme of Tony (James Gandolfini) and Carmela's (Edie Falco) marriage and, subsequently, would make the various subplots easier to stomach. And it helped. But only a little.
A number of the season's tangential storylines improve considerably with a second viewing and help to flesh out some of the peripheral characters dramatically. For example, the Jonny Sack/Ralphie confrontation that develops over the first four episodes of the season and originally felt like water-treading instead helps to provide insight into both Johnny Sack (Vincent Curatola) as a character (he may be a sociopath, but he sure loves his wife) as well as the absurdity of the idea that one of these men would have another man killed over a throwaway fat joke at his wife's expense.
Other such subplots, including Artie Bucco's failed attempt at a business venture and the Pie-O-My storyline don't feel quite as tacked on as they once did, and the latter is the catalyst for enough valuable character moments (as well as a major character death) so as to justify its existence.
And to be fair, the season's high points still rank among the best episodes of the show's brief history. Episodes like "No-Show," "Whoever Did This," and the stunning season finale, "Whitecaps," help to remind us just what made this show great in the first place. "No-Show," (episode 2) which sees Tony's daughter Meadow (Jamie-Lynn Sigler) threatening to move to Europe due to her depression over last season's slaying of her ex-boyfriend, Jackie Jr., plants the seeds for the rift that will develop between Tony and Carmela over the course of the next eleven episodes, while at the same time giving us more of the Tony-Meadow dynamic that has proven to be one of the show's most fascinating and heartfelt aspects. "Whoever Did This," in which Tony brutally murders Ralphie over the death of his horse, Pie-O-My, features one of the most realistic fight scenes ever filmed, and with no forewarning from the last episode's "Next On" feature, proves that The Sopranos has the ability to shock like no other television show around.
Then there's "Whitecaps," which may rank as the best season finale the show has ever given us. In an episode that pays off all of the betrayals and emotions that have been bubbling under the surface for the previous four years, Tony and Carmela's marriage finally comes to an end, and the actors play it for all it's worth, displaying all the pain, fear, and anguish that a real-life separation undoubtedly causes. Ironically, though James Gandolfini and Edie Falco probably won their recent Emmys for this episode alone, their performances are so good that they render all awards meaningless, and reveal the Emmys for the sham that they are. You will not find better acting on a movie or television screen this year.
And yet, even despite the brilliance on display in these remarkable episodes, the season's flaws are just too glaring to ignore. For every instant classic like "No-Show," "Whoever Did This," or "Whitecaps," there's a "Christopher," "Calling All Cars," or "Mergers & Acquisitions," installments that just lie dead and go nowhere. "Christopher," for example, concerns a Native American protest during an annual Columbus Day parade, and seems to exist only to expose the hypocrisy of characters like Sylvio (Steven Van Zandt), who complain about the oppression of their ancestors without ever having felt the effects of such oppression firsthand (a point made in a preachy and overblown speech by Tony toward the episode's end).
Furthermore, while I noted before that a few of the season's subplots improve with a second viewing, others still seem painfully out of place, and nowhere is this more in evidence than in the Janice/Bobby relationship. In the aforementioned "Christopher," Bobby Baccalieri's (Steven Schirripa) wife is killed in a car accident, and throughout the course of the season he is comforted by Tony's narcissistic sister Janice, a development that results in a romantic relationship blossoming between the two. Way too much time is devoted to their relationship and, for the most part, we simply don't care. It's nice to see some more screen time given to the excellent Steven Schirripa, but since her arrival in season two, Janice (Aida Turturro) just hasn't evolved past the point of being a conniving bitch. It's as if they couldn't think of how to fit these characters into the overall story arc for the season, so they just slapped them together.
And speaking of not knowing what to do with certain characters, why the hell is Uncle Junior's trial reduced to nothing more than an inconvenience for the rest of the characters if we're constantly reminded that the man is "on trial for his life"? Junior (Dominic Chianese), one of the show's most reliable characters, has always been a major source for conflict and wisdom for Tony, and their moments together in the fourth season serve as a reminder of just how fascinating their dynamic can be. But they don't have nearly enough screen time together, and the rest of the time Junior's trial is treated as a throwaway plot point, the resolution of which is anticlimactic and meaningless. Here's hoping that Chianese returns to a more pivotal position in the fifth season.
Finally, while "Whitecaps" is unquestionably the season's best episode, its events are also predicated on a huge leap of faith on the part of the audience that takes place earlier in the season. Tony's assemblyman friend Zellman (Peter Riegert) at one point reveals to Tony that he's been seeing Tony's Russian ex-girlfriend Irina, who we had been led to believe held no interest for Tony any more. While Tony is ostensibly happy to hear this (it means he won't have to deal with her any more), he is unable to let it go, and ends up beating Zellman senseless for it, which results in a phone call placed in the finale by Irina to Carmela, who subsequently decides to throw Tony out. There are two problems with this. 1) The Irina/Zellman romance comes out of nowhere, and feels like a cheap plot device when viewed in the grand scheme of the season. And 2) Are we really supposed to believe that Tony cares whether or not these characters see each other? I understand that Tony is supposed to essentially be a middle-aged twelve-year-old (it's hammered into our head on plenty of occasions over the course of the season), but Irena was thought to be a long-gone presence on the show, both physically and in Tony's mind, and yet here she is shoehorned into an unnecessary plot device that serves no purpose other than to break up Tony and Carmela for good. It comes off as lazy writing, and this show is better than that.
Despite the rockiness of the show's fourth season, HBO has once again given the series a rock-solid presentation on DVD. The episodes are presented in anamorphic widescreen and look positively stellar, with only the slightest bit of edge enhancement and shimmering present. The Dolby Digital 5.1 sound mix is adequate but not earth shattering, as this is mainly a dialogue-driven series. The set also includes Spanish and French language tracks.
Unfortunately, for the hefty price tag, the extras on this four-disc set are scant at best. For roughly $70 (best case scenario), you get the show's thirteen episodes, each just under an hour long, and four commentaries from the show's various writers. The commentaries vary in quality from insightful (David Chase on "Whitecaps") to insightful but rambling (Michael Imperioli on "Everybody Hurts") to dull and listless (Terence Winter on "The Weight"). Best tidbit to be gleaned from a commentary: Imperioli reveals that Steve Buscemi will play a major character in the show's fifth season, which now officially cannot get here soon enough.
Also included are the original "Previously on…" and "Next on…" vignettes (something I really wish the Fox DVD people would start to include on the Buffy and Angel seasons), Season 1-3 recaps, and the usual cast and crew biographies. With studios like Fox putting out full 22-episode seasons with copious supplements for around $50, the folks at HBO need to ether start laying on the extras or bringing the prices down. The Sopranos may be head-and-shoulders above most of what passes for television today, but $70 is still too much to pay for a single-season set.
As a footnote in the greater Sopranos picture, the fourth season stands as both a testament to the series' enduring genius as well as irrefutable proof of its fallibility. When a show has been this consistently great for this long, the highest highs make the lows seem just that much lower. Fans of the series have already made up their mind as to whether or not they'll purchase this set, and completists are no doubt going to want every episode of the series on disc. But if, for some reason, you happened to miss season four in its original airing, a rental is strongly suggested, as this probably ranks as the show's weakest leg thus far.
The trial ends in a hung jury. The show's creators are advised to get the focus back on track for season five, and HBO are urged to beef up the extras and bring down the price on its subsequent DVD set. Case dismissed.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary by Terence Winter on "The Weight"
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