Saturday, January 6, 2018

The Sopranos (Season 1)

The Sopranos; crime drama series, USA, 1999; D: John Patterson, Alan Taylor, Allen Coulter, Dan Attias, S: James Gandolfini, Edie Falco, Lorraine Bracco, Michael Imperioli, Dominic Chianese, Jamie-Lynn Sigler, Robert Iler, Nancy Marchand, Jerry Adler

New Jersey. Tony Soprano is a mobster who is under great stress lately: his marriage with Carmela is on thin ice; he tries to hide his criminal job from his teenage kids, Meadow and Anthony; his senile mother, Livia, refuses to be sent to a retirement home; the main boss, Jackie, dies from cancer, leaving the new mob hierarchy under question. After suffering several panic attacks, Tony decides to go see a psychiatrist, Dr. Jennifer Melfi. He confesses his problems to her, but leaves out the fact that he is in the mafia. Back at home, Tony decides that the new boss should be his uncle, Junior. However, after several quarrels with him, and upon finding out he is seeing a psychiatrist, fearing Tony might have revealed mafia secrets, Junior decides to assassinate Tony. In turn, Tony prepares for a counter-attack with his men, Paulie and Christopher, but this is interrupted when the FBI arrests Junior and his gang.

"The Sopranos" is one of the most hyped, awarded and critically acclaimed TV series of its time, yet it is—at least in its 1st season—still a little bit overrated. The concept of a mafia member trying to juggle with the criminal activity and his family life has already been explored several times before, and thus the only two new ingredients added to this formula are the subplot where the leading character, Tony, goes to a see a psychiatrist (which was later on copied in the comedy film "Analyze This") and the interesting insight that a mafia boss, Junior, would be too ashamed to admit that he gives a woman oral sex, yet the rest of the storyline does not hold up that well. "The Sopranos" became the "new kids on the block", signalling a new era in which HBO decided to give cable TV cinematic proportions, allowing for nudity and violence, but also mature themes, seemingly without any censorship, which would pay out royally some 10-15 years later, when mainstream movies became stories for kids, and TV shows stories for grown ups. However, grown up or dark themes cannot carry a whole story alone, and there are thus shortcomings and omissions in the first season of "The Sopranos". It takes on too many unnecessary subplots and side characters, dwelling too long with empty walks instead of getting to the point faster. Maybe there are conclusions in later seasons, but this one still seems a notch bellow all the hype. The only three truly excellent episodes are 1.5 and the finale in 1.11 and 1.12. Episode 1.5 works marvelously precisely because it does not rely on later episodes or directors to "complete the picture", but sets up a clear point and a pay-off from start to finish by following Tony who brings his daughter, Meadows, on a trip to browse a college, only to find a "snitch" in a town and try to assassinate him without his daughter noticing anything.

An occasionally inspired dialogue graces the screen ("Have you heard of the Chinese Godfather? They made him an offer he could not understand!"; in episode 1.2, Martin Scorsese shows up at a party, and one of the fans shouts: "Kundun! I liked it..."; "Octavian became Augustus..." in episode 1.6; when Junior tells Mikey that Tony is seeing a psychiatrist, they have this exchange: "I knew it it!" - "No you didn't! I just told you!"; when a greedy gangster music producer listens to a bad musician performing in front of an audience in episode 1.10, he just comments: "I like any music that turns shit into green.") and they are welcomed. Likewise, some surreal images here and there give the season spice, such the pilot episode in which Tony, in his bathrobe, enters the swimming pool to feed ducks in it, or Christopher's dream sequence without a sound, except for his dialogue with Emile whom he killed, in episode 1.8. The actors are all great, especially James Gandolfini who delivered the role of a lifetime as a character who is both scary and likeable, depending on the situation, as well as Jamie-Lynn Sigler as his teenage daughter who sees through his ploys. Producer David Chase also seems to give a commentary on oligarchy, arguing how nobody can make a few steps in this world without going through a web of various interests of several groups, who all clash and try to dominate each other, building a system where fear and violence are the only forms of meritocracy, a one in which the upper class controls the lower class (the weak and the innocent). The 1st season of "The Sopranos" is something of a case study of the problem of some modern TV shows—there is a great climax in the finale, but the viewers have to sit through 10 hours of overlong, laborious set-up to finally get there, which is not for everyone, instead of either cutting the unnecessary details or making these early episode interesting already from the start.


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