Image B- Sound A- Extras B-
"Pilot," "46 Long," "Denial, Anger, Acceptance," "Meadowlands," "College," "Pax Soprana," "Down Neck," "The Legend of Tennessee Moltisanti," "Boca," "A Hit Is a Hit," "Nobody Knows Anything," "Isabella," "I Dream of Jeannie Cusamano"
by Bryant Frazer By the end of its run in 2007, HBO's mob drama "The Sopranos" had become a cultural institution. Critics essayed strenuously on the series' thematic concerns, genuflecting and kissing the ring of Don David Chase, the creator and showrunner whose fingerprints are all over every scene of every episode. The show's run started in the days before DVRs splintered the television audience temporally, so viewers cleared their Sunday night schedules to take in "The Sopranos" even as they broke off into factions.
There were, for instance, the highbrows, who appreciated the series' subversion of genre conventions and lauded its carefully-controlled formalism. There were the lowbrows, who watched for the Jersey-boy one-liners and blood-spattering bursts of underworld violence, and who took to Internet forums and chat rooms to complain bitterly when Chase withheld that much-desired hit of mayhem. There were Italian-Americans who argued that it perpetuated harmful stereotypes. There were Italian-Americans who thought it was a hoot, with Chase offering sophisticated reflexive commentary on the mythology of his own Italian heritage. Some found the violence and misogyny repellent. Others considered those elements crucial, functioning as an acid stripping the good-timey veneer and glamour from these wisecracking sociopaths. There were, reportedly, real-life wise guys who found the show highly diverting and made an effort to let the creative team know when they got something wrong.
"The Sopranos"' complexity, and the often-revealing diversity of reactions to it, came as a surprise considering the fairly high-concept pitch: a New Jersey mob boss felled by panic attacks related to deep-seated mother issues seeks help from a shrink. It sounds like a logline for, I don't know, some shitty comedy starring Robert De Niro and Billy Crystal. And revisiting these earliest episodes is a bit surprising, too. The show evolved into an expansive, sometimes awfully indulgent tapestry of character studies, prizing subtlety and emotional verisimilitude over momentum; entire episodes might consist of nothing but talk talk talk, using the excuse of a wedding or a funeral to move a few chess pieces around the narrative board, setting up story threads that would return weeks or even months later. But the first season is a forward-moving shark, a serial drama that pushes ahead so restlessly that home video feels like an ideal viewing environment. You finish one of these episodes and you feel like you have to start watching the next one right away.
It helps that the pilot episode is such a compelling statement of purpose. It opens with Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini) in a psychiatrist's waiting room, staring up--a bit quizzically, it seems--at a statue of a woman. The artistic nude contrasts with Tony's professional life: He operates out of the Bada Bing!, a New Jersey strip club where naked women provide a profitably vulgar front for a (slightly) more sophisticated criminal operation. Yet the sculpture's dominance--Tony is looking up at her; she towers over him--suggests the strong influences of the women in his life. Tony has to contend with not just his wife in their suburban home but also his Russian mistress (Siberia Federico in the pilot, Oksana Babiy thereafter), the chalk-voiced Dr. Melfi (Lorraine Bracco), and the sexy but almost-virginal dental student he imagines living in the Cusamanos' house next door. What's up with the dream girl? She symbolizes his mother as a fantasy ideal.
There, nearly, is the key to his undoing. This mob captain, leader of men, womanizer, and occasional brutish murderer, is a psychological wreck in large part due to his mother's corrosive presence in his life. Played by Nancy Marchand with a self-piteous demeanour that would be nails on a chalkboard to anyone on the receiving end (and based to a not-insignificant degree on Chase's own mother), Livia Soprano is more than a deleterious influence on Tony's psychology. She's scandalized to learn that her own son is in therapy--a dirty word to a woman of a certain age, and an especially vulgar one when it comes to mobsters who worry about having their confidence betrayed--and she shares her disgust with her brother Corrado, Tony's Uncle Junior (Dominic Chianese, always behind enormous old-man glasses that work as a kind of mask distorting his lucidity and intentions), who's been placed in a purely figurehead position as the family boss while his nephew calls the shots behind the scenes.
Bending Corrado's ear, Mamma Soprano actually manages to put in motion an attempted hit on her son's life. In a bit of narrative gamesmanship that might have made Hitchcock himself proud, it's Melfi's psychoanalytical detective work in session with Tony that first points to the idea his mother could have turned on him. That revelation leads to season one's horrifying and bitterly funny climax, as Tony, gripping a pillow with murderous intent, races alongside a hospital gurney ferrying his newly stroke-ridden mother into intensive care, shoving orderlies out of the frame and bending down to press his face up against hers, his angry grimace somehow matched and amplified by the narrow, inscrutable rictus twisting her own face. It's an ambiguous but tremendously satisfying scene that Chase holds until the final minutes of the final episode, his first-season storyline having coalesced in a gripping and distressing conclusion.
In later seasons, "The Sopranos" would too often threaten to disappear up Chase's asshole as he ruminated, sometimes vigorously, sometimes ponderously, on the mysteries of American family life. But the first season has none of that leisure, expertly modulating stretches of comedy and drama en route to those crucial moments that leave you gasping. More often than not, they're driven by Gandolfini, who finds resources that allow him to play, well, not exactly a sensitive gangster, but a deeply conflicted one. Tony may be a monster, but at least within the funhouse world of professional criminal activity, he's not completely amoral. He manages to provide for his family, and wants to give his kids an education and thus an escape hatch. He recognizes his position in the organization as more an accident of paternity than an expression of his own drive, smarts, or charisma. In a humanizing touch, Chase has him muse at one point over his contentment to follow in the footsteps of his father, declaring that if he had been any sort of rebel, he might have ended up selling patio furniture along Route 22. That image of Tony Soprano as salesman will return, hauntingly, later in the series--perhaps as his fantasy of the quiet life that could have been.
And Tony values friendship and loyalty--nothing is worse, in Tony's mind, than a snitch. In episode 1.11, the riveting "Nobody Knows Anything," Tony has reason to suspect that one of his men, Vincent Pastore's Big Pussy (so named due to his past career as a cat burglar), has turned FBI informant. When Paulie (Tony Sirico), ever the good soldier, volunteers to take Pussy down should his investigation confirm he's a rat, there's an unusual gravity to Tony's instructions. He jabs a finger at Paulie, insisting he can do what's necessary only if he confirms Pussy's betrayal with his own eyes. Gandolfini's delivery of his lines burns like a cigarette on skin, obscuring the almost literary inflection of his scripted dialogue, which employs repetition as skilfully as Faulkner or Mamet to drive home Tony's anger and ferocious reluctance to accept the idea of betrayal: "I want you to see it. I want you to see that fucking wire strapped on his body. I want you to see it. You hear me? I want you to see it. Otherwise all bets are off. You understand? This is our friend we're talking about here. You say it. You understand?"
Tony's hatred of the rat was well established in "College" (1.5), probably the best episode of this season and possibly the zenith of the whole series. Tony is taking a road trip with daughter Meadow (Jamie-Lynn Sigler) to scout out schools for her undergraduate education when he spots, at a gas station, a former associate turned informant who's in the Witness Protection Program. The hour climaxes with Tony catching the snitch from behind, twisting a cord around his neck in an eruption of ugly, sadistic rage. In the B story, Tony's wife Carmela (Edie Falco) is back at home sharing a batch of baked ziti and a bottle of wine with her priest (Paul Schulze), an earnest fella who may or may not be willing to indulge her romantic overtures on a rainy night. The tension between these two storylines highlights not just Tony's simultaneous presence and absence in the life of his "real" family, but also Carmela's unavoidable awareness of the terrible moral compromise she has made. In the pilot, she snapped at Tony that the difference between the two of them is that he is going to Hell, though it was never clear whether she considered that her confidence may be unearned. In "College," as she flirts with the notion of adultery as part and parcel with confession and cleansing, the show quietly suggests how disturbed she might truly be. ("This is too fucked up for me even to think about," Tony declares later.) Then again, it's interesting that Carmela's feelings of guilt don't seem to stem from ideas about the very real pain and suffering her husband may be causing. Her guilt is Catholic guilt, centred on the idea of punishment from an omniscient God. It's with an especially smug righteousness that she presumes the man she is spending her life with is doomed to suffer an eternity of mean-streets fire and brimstone while she skates into that great, gated neighbourhood in the clouds.
To be fair, it's hard to be a woman on "The Sopranos". The criminal underground depicted here is a patriarchy in extremis where women are systematically marginalized--at best, they're kept in suburban homes where their function is that of docile, credulous companions; at worst, they're ushered to the margins of society, to be exploited or discarded entirely. Strong characters like Carmela and Melfi are still defined in terms of their maintained relationship with Tony--they accept him even though they know better. While Melfi kept a more professional distance from Tony in later seasons, in these early episodes she's almost a co-conspirator, laughing at Tony's euphemism for a shakedown ("We had coffee") and helping him work through the pressing question of who's trying to kill him. Tony comes to respect her and also wants to fuck her, highlighting his sometimes-infantile emotional state. HBO executives objected to the scene in "College" where Tony murders the informant, fearing that the audience would have trouble sympathizing with a cold-blooded killer. Tony's exploits in Maine, however, amount to weak sauce compared to the explosion of vicious, almost sexual menace with which he lashes out at Melfi in the season finale, his body pressing over her, his face shoved in her face: "You fucking bitch." The sheer physical power of his sizable frame is terrifying and intimidating.
This tough guy reacts to his own confusion with bursts of bellowing and fang-baring. Following Tony Soprano through the story arc described by these thirteen evocative, multi-faceted narratives offers some idea of what it might be like to live with that kind of man. One moment he's a sly, chortling father of two, the next he's a font of anger and insecurity, spewing spittle and venom in the face of whoever's unfortunate enough to be in sight. He doesn't hate women, necessarily, but he's distrustful of them and deeply bewildered by them. Tony Soprano is a larger-than-life character, and he would only grow in stature over the course of the series, as Gandolfini's confidence in the role grew ever more impressive. As conceived by Chase, he's full of complaints about his modern life, bitching about the absence of Gary Cooper he-man types from the contemporary scene and proclaiming his desire to turn back the clock at the kitchen table. Chase knows this is bullshit. Tony is, at heart, a tremendously selfish man, and nowhere can Chase's distaste for his sense of entitlement be felt more surely than in this first season of the program.
At one point in the pilot episode, Melfi cuts straight to the chase (no pun intended), asking him, "Do you have any qualms about how you actually make a living?" His response is full of cliché and steely misery. "I find I have to be the sad clown," he replies. "Laughing on the outside, crying on the inside." That long-running sick joke--about the dark void of self-regard where Tony Soprano's moral centre should be--sustained "The Sopranos" for six long and mostly excellent seasons, but the barbs were never more pointed and the jabs never more perfectly executed than they were in its inaugural lap. One of the most expansive, indulgent dramas in memory has its most perfect expression in this tightly-constrained package, which exposes among its characters all manner of lies, hypocrisy, and self-delusion. More than a landmark television series, it's downright epochal: a funny, mean, tightly-plotted satire of what it meant to be an American at the end of the 20th century.
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THE BLU-RAY DISC
I want to report that HBO's "The Sopranos: The Complete First Season" reaches an apotheosis of presentation on Blu-ray Disc, but I really think there was more to get out of this material in terms of picture quality. It's hard to tell exactly what happened in the telecine suite--if I had to guess, I'd say that these are HDTV masters created expressly for broadcast, the original 35mm image occasionally manipulated in ways meant to compensate for the necessarily degraded condition of viewing over a highly-compressed cable-TV connection. The best-looking thing in this five-BD set is the opening-title sequence, shot, according to Chase in a yak-track accompanying the pilot episode, on smaller-gauge 16mm stock. It is extraordinarily filmlike, with a healthy amount of grain perfectly rendered on screen and no apparent electronic processing. Within the episodes themselves, things get a little spotty. Some shots have a harsh, flat, processed look. Halos are in evidence on high-contrast edges in many bright exteriors, or in interiors set against bright backgrounds (e.g., windows), and a few of the darkest shots have a weird, hyper-grainy appearance as though they were subjected to a combination of noise-reduction and picture-sharpening. Finally, faces occasionally have that waxy quality that sent Robert A. Harris on an Internet rant about Fox's noise-reduction strategy on the Patton Blu-ray. Don't get me wrong: owners of the season's 2000 DVD release will find this a more-than-welcome upgrade. But I'd like to see it looking better still, more filmlike across the board. The episodes are encoded in AVC MPEG-4 at a uniformly generous bitrate--compression artifacts don't seem to be a problem here. There's less to say about the terrific DTS HD MA 5.1 audio, which boasts a reasonably aggressive surround mix for a TV series, steering lots of environmental effects (such as thunder, rain, or song cues) to the rear speakers. Clean, clear TV sound from top to bottom? I have no complaints.
Supplements (in standard-definition 4x3 MPEG-2) are directly ported over from the original DVD set. They include a lengthy interview (78 mins.), essential viewing for "Sopranos" fans, in which director/film historian Peter Bogdanovich gets the notoriously reticent Chase to talk about the show in some detail. Once or twice, I imagined seeing a tiny flicker in Chase's eyes as he thought to himself, "Crap, I've said too much." It's mostly shoptalk about the workaday process of running a TV show, but there's good stuff concerning Chase's relationship with his own mother and father, and he lets slip a couple of bigger-picture thoughts on his stories and characters. (It would have been nice to see this at a higher bitrate--perhaps by kicking this fifth disc up to a BD-50 instead of the relatively capacity-starved BD-25--since it looks especially crappy, although there are obviously limitations in the source material, too.) The aforementioned audio commentary featuring Bogdanovich and Chase adorns only the pilot. Rife with dead air, it's largely redundant besides, given the greater level of detail those two go into in the video interview. "Family Life" (4 mins.) is an unremarkable featurette that promotes the show as a wacky mob comedy using generically jazzy library music. (All I liked was the narration, which had an old-school, Hollywood-huckster flavour.) "Meet Tony Soprano" (4 mins.) is more of the same; both pieces feature on-set interviews with Gandolfini and his co-stars, if that's your thing. Surprisingly and generously, each of these extras comes with English/Spanish/French/German/Dutch subtitles. Originally published: December 23, 2009.