Judge Patrick Bromley's review has death threat written all over it.
"To the people I love. Nothing else matters."—Tony Soprano
Maybe HBO and creator David Chase know exactly what they're doing, making fans of their flagship series, The Sopranos, wait so long between seasons; Season Five ended in the summer of 2004, and the show won't be resuming until nearly two years later. Maybe they're building anticipation, whipping us into such a frenzy that we couldn't wait another day to see what happens to Tony, his family, and his other "family." Or maybe they're just being cruel.
At least some of the wait is over. While we'll have to hold on until March of 2006 for the final season of The Sopranos, we can at least catch up with the new release of The Sopranos: The Complete Fifth Season on DVD.
*Note: I'll do the best I can to avoid spoilers in the course of the review, but it will be next to impossible not to reference past events of the series; unless you've seen the first four seasons of the show, I'd recommend getting caught up before reading any further.
Facts of the Case
At the end of The Sopranos's fourth season, Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini, True Romance, The Mexican) and his wife, Carmela (Edie Falco, Cop Land), have made the decision to separate. That's the way we find them as Season Five opens: living apart, uncomfortably attempting to co-exist for the sake of their increasingly distant son and working to negotiate the financial terms of their new arrangement. The house, now inhabited only by Carmela and AJ (Robert Iler, Tadpole), is overpowered by silence. The swimming pool has been neglected. The newspaper remains uncollected at the end of the driveway. The ducks—those great, metaphorical ducks—have flown away; taking their place is an enormous bear that has begun foraging in the back yard. The once-great Soprano kingdom is no more.
Things aren't going well on the business front, either. Due to a shakeup in leadership with one of the New York families, the Sopranos Family finds itself in the middle of a possible war with Johnny "Sack" Sacramoni (Vincent Curatola, 2BPerfectlyHonest), who's looking to take power with or without Tony's support. Christopher (Michael Imperioli, My Baby's Daddy) and Paulie (Tony Sirico, Bullets Over Broadway) are feuding over who is entitled to what, leading to bloody results. And the introduction of Tony's long-jailed cousin, Tony Blundetto (Steve Buscemi, Reservoir Dogs, Coffee and Cigarettes), who's recently been released and is looking to go straight, stirs up some feelings of resentment amidst everyone—including Tony himself.
Elsewhere throughout the season, the Feds continue to close in on Adriana (Drea de Matteo, Prey for Rock and Roll), pressing her for information and causing her to develop a nasty stress-related stomach condition. A possible indiscretion on her part causes a rift between her and fiancé Christopher, and between Christopher and Tony. Complications arise for Junior Soprano (Dominic Chianese, When Will I Be Loved) who remains on house arrest awaiting his trial, but who is beginning to show signs of memory loss and possible dementia. Carmela, attempting to move on and establish and identity separate from her marriage to Tony, begins seeing AJ's high school guidance counselor, Mr. Wegler (David Strathairn, L.A. Confidential). Still away at college, Meadow Soprano (Jamie-Lynn Discala, Call Me: The Rise And Fall Of Heidi Fleiss) begins a serious relationship with a new boyfriend. Tony's sister Janice (Aida Turturro, Mac), now married to recent widower Bobby Baccalieri (Steven Schirripa, See Spot Run), confronts her rage issues in a support group.
By season's end, Tony has been forced to make life-changing decisions, both in his family and in his business—in more than one instance, the two overlap. Bonds are destroyed. Blood is shed. And the bear once again crosses the Soprano's back yard, only this time in a different form.
Look, I'm not going to mince words. Not only do I believe The Sopranos (which once promised to be little more than a Mafioso-in-therapy extension of Harold Ramis's Analyze This, but quickly went on to change the face of television quality—it's the Brass Ring) to be the best show currently on the air, I think it's the best television show of all time. It's that simple. Knowing that, you should also know that the fifth season is one of the finest in the show's five-year run; I'd say it's a dead heat between this and Season Two (featuring the tragic tale of Sal "Big Pussy" Bonpensiero) for the best in the series's history. So yes, this is going to be a love fest. If this doesn't interest you, or if you've seen the show and think I'm nuts, I would suggest reading no further. It won't do either of us any good.
I can't vouch for the accuracy of the show's abundance of mafia material (having ended my days as a Made Man long ago), but I can say that it's just as compelling as all things Coppola and Scorsese—a worthy successor to the Godfathers and Goodfellas of the world, despite the detour from big screen to TV. It's got all the immediacy, the kicky rush and now-ness of the latter while still managing to retain the majesty and poetry of the former; it's got the deliberately languid pacing of Coppola and the violent bursts (which, unlike in The Godfather, more often than not involve average citizens and innocent bystanders) of Scorsese. Even the show's main character conjures up images of mafia past: Tony Soprano cuts the same looming, authoritative figure of Vito Corleone; he's got his regality, too, along with the piss and fire of Sonny and the humanity of Michael. James Gandolfini's depiction of Tony—more of a transformation, really—has gone beyond pop culture phenomenon, beyond icon status. He's the stuff of Myth, and Gandolfini deserves all due credit. His is the best performance on all of television.
What I can account for with the show—and what this one does better than any other, as far as I'm concerned—is the family dynamic that's portrayed. Never have I seen a finer or more accurate depiction of marital separation and its aftermath (and that includes the Oscar-winning Kramer vs. Kramer, which supposedly wrote the book on the subject) than what we witness over the course of Season Five. Watching Carmela stand in the entryway of an empty house, watching her break down and cry tears of frustration as her daughter is delivering some Big News—these are images that resonate beyond any arm-breaking or sneak-attack-whack. This is the stuff that matters. The series doesn't necessarily make that distinction, though, and it's the better for it; the notion of the two Families (the real family and the "family" family) is put to best possible use—one is forever illuminating the other. The show doesn't try to transcend this potential gimmick; it embraces it, melding the two worlds together to create the most emotionally complex and dramatically sophisticated show on TV. Compared to a show like, say, Fox's 24, which sprints noisily from rush to rush, The Sopranos unfolds. It's amazing how little seems to happen on a given episode; yet, by season's end, you can't believe how much as actually taken place. That's not to say that any individual episode is boring or disposable, just that it works best when viewed as an entire arc. It's not a story; it's a Saga—albeit a Saga about decidedly human endeavors. What college will my kid go to? What time is my therapist appointment? Did I remember to take the garbage out? It's the Saga of the Everyday.
So what makes the fifth season such a strong entry into The Sopranos mythos—better than the previous two years? Well, the aforementioned change in the family dynamic, for starters. By splitting up Tony and Carmela, David Chase and his first-rate team of writers have found a way not only to keep the characters fresh (and allowing Edie Falco to shine in her best work to date; is there a better actress working in television?), but have upped the stakes in the relationships of all the main characters. It's not just Tony and Carmela that are affected—it's their children, their families, and their friends that feel the strain and pressure of a House Divided. It's that same division that begins to manifest itself in every other aspect of the show—watch every relationship in the season carefully, and you'll see that they're all threatening to buckle.
The stakes are raised from a business standpoint, too. Gone are the days of "one season, one villain" (Richie and Ralphie, from seasons three and four, respectively). Sure, there's the immediate threat of Johnny Sack, but Season Five finds the Soprano Family facing enemies from both outside and within—they're under attack on all fronts. Upping the stakes. That's what Season Five does so well. Characters are forced to make difficult and potentially destructive decisions regarding people they love. To watch those decisions pay off in the final two heartbreaking episodes, "Long Term Parking" and "All Due Respect," is to understand that a few of the show's main characters will likely never be the same. The events of the fifth season have forever altered their fates.
HBO's release of The Sopranos: The Complete Fifth Season is on par with their previous efforts of the series—no better, no worse. The 13 episodes (spread out over four discs) are presented in an anamorphic widescreen transfer in an aspect ratio of 1.78:1, and the discs do an excellent job of reproducing what is the best-looking show on television. No other series has cinematography this deep and lush (seemingly inspired by the work of the great Conrad Hall, it puts most theatrical films to shame), and the DVDs present it in fine form: blacks are rich, detail is sharp, and the image is defect-free. Viewers have a choice between a Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track and the traditional stereo mix, but (if you've got the home theater capabilities) the 5.1 option is a no-brainer; dialogue is always clear and audible front and center, with the side and rear channels put to good use with the show's dense sound design. Just watch out for the occasional gunshot.
As is usually the case, the only extras included on the set (other than the Season recaps and the "Previously On/Next On" options, which I've always thought to be a nice touch) are five audio commentaries over different episodes. Rodrigo Garcia (Things You Can Tell Just By Looking At Her) speaks over "All the Happy Families," offering little by way of actual production information, but making up for it in the insight he gives into the show. Steve Buscemi, who's directed a few episodes for the series (including Season Three's finest hour, the classic "Pine Barrens") and has a starring role, comments on "In Camelot"—the only misfire in Season Five, involving two plotlines (one in which Tony befriends his late father's mistress, the other with Christopher and a former rehab friend, played by Diner's Tim Daly) that could have been removed entirely without the season suffering in the least. Buscemi is there to speak as a director, not as a star—having asked to be written out of most of the episode. His talk is a better hands-on approach to what goes into making the show, coupled with some more direct observations on the show from a first-hand perspective.
His might be the best of all the commentaries, if not for Mike Figgis's (Leaving Las Vegas) track for "Cold Cuts"; though I take issue with a few of the directorial flourishes Figgis utilizes (my feeling being that the episodes are all of A Piece, and that no one should stand out from the others in this respect), he does attempt to explain his choices and acquits himself rather nicely. His is also the best-rounded of all the commentaries, offering both insight and behind-the-scenes detail without really suffering the gaps of silence the rest fall victim to. (Also of note: both Figgis and Garcia point out that they each went back and watched all four previous seasons of the show in preparation for their directorial gigs.) The final two tracks, both wholly disappointing, come from Peter Bogdanovich (director of The Last Picture Show, who also appears from time to time as Dr. Melfi's shrink), whose track for "Sentimental Education" consists of little more than describing the shots as they occur, and series star Drea de Matteo, who (fittingly) speaks over "Long Term Parking." She's got a good sense of humor about her, but her track contains a lot of dead spots; when she does pipe up, what she has to say is of little value.
What else is there to be said? My feelings on the matter are clear. If you're a fan of The Sopranos, there's no question that you'll be picking up this set (this despite HBO's typically sky-high retail price; they've got us by the balls, and they know it). If you've never seen the show or are looking to get into it, don't start with Season Five. Go back and start from the beginning. Trust me—you'll be glad you did.
Now, some rumors have begun to surface that David Chase is considering extending The Sopranos's run to a seventh season. Let's hope there's some truth to it, as I know that many of us aren't quite ready to say goodbye yet. And while I know if it is true, we'll be waiting another two or three years before those shows hit the air, I'm okay with that. This is the one show that's worth the wait.
Whaaaat, guilty? Fuhgeddaboutit.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary by Director Rodrigo Garcia on "All the Happy Families."
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