As it always is with the passing of another decade, reflecting on what the last ten years has brought us is a natural reaction. Music, film and, TV are all artistic imprints on a decade that show how much we’ve grown from the previous era, and I think when it comes to the ‘00s, it was TV that grew up more than any other medium. Sure, there were movies and albums that will undoubtedly be deemed “classic” given to us in the last ten years, but it seemed with TV there was a monumental shift. Series on television actually tried very successfully to compete with movies in terms of storytelling and production value and made significant contributions to culture like never before. It would be tough to pin down when this shift started, but one of the big contributors to this movement actually began it’s ran in 1999 and became one of the biggest cultural touchstones of the previous era; David Chase’s TV series masterwork, The Sopranos.
Sure, the gangster saga played a lot of the same cards that Scorsese’s Goodfellas did a decade earlier, but the wonder of The Sopranos was that it took full advantage of its long format. TV, along with the freedom that came with being on HBO, allowed Chase to explore the gangster lifestyle in full, covering both its glamour and its horrors, delving deep into the mind and the everyday lives of its men and women. What is so shocking though, is just how consistently entertaining he made the show, beginning with this very first season, centering us on a character to both love and hate in equal measure. As a lightning rod into this world, Chase’s examination of the life of James Gandolfini’s Tony Soprano gave us one of the greatest and most complex TV characters of all time, guiding us through this show till its eventual controversial ending.
It’s this first season where all the groundwork is laid though. Sure, the level of violence is higher and a little more sensationalized in this initial outing, but what really gets you to stay around is the exploration of the characters themselves. Because Tony has a therapist, we’re given a deep psychological look at his behavior and the stresses that come with the job. The minutia of daily life with these characters is given as much attention as any of the time spent looking at the various instances of infidelity, gambling, and murder because it’s the people and their relationships that really make this show interesting. The Sopranos effortlessly bleeds both halves of these men’s live together so you see the causality as to why they are the way they are.
Sure, gang warfare is interesting and exciting, but so is how these men deal with a neighbor who molests children, or how parents deal with a son with A.D.D. It’s the ebb and flow of their lives that come under the microscope and keep you coming back, but the show’s writers smartly keep all that under the veneer of making a hardcore gangland series. Where movies such as The Godfather kept your eye on business and operatic storytelling, The Sopranos takes the time to stop and tell stories of sexual inadequacy or childhood sibling rivalries.
Tony especially is unable to separate his two lives. One is constantly conflicting with the other; especially when it comes to his mother Livia, played about as well as this role could possibly be played by Nancy Marchand. Evil has never been pictured with such passive aggressive assurance as it has in the hands of Marchand, who makes a character all too well known by any person who has ever had an overbearing mother. Honestly, as much as you hate Livia at times, she’s so fascinating that you can’t help but be riveted with every moment she’s onscreen, but also can’t stand the sight of her because of what a destructive force she is. Her Machiavellian schemes trying to control her son personify all of his problems into this one person, who ratchets up tension whenever she appears.
This isn’t to say that the series is all dour though. The show is filled with moments of celebration and family, though often tinged with the pressure of “family business”. Still, we’re often given moments of great levity, the dialogue sharp, whether the jokes are sophomoric or not. Just another reason to keep coming back to this show, it’s often the little moments with characters that end up being some of the most memorable instances, rather than the epic storylines. Thankfully, the series has a cast that is able to keep your faith.
The Sopranos has a rich tapestry of characters, from Tony’s hilariously insane and ever faithful Silvio Dante and Paulie “Walnuts” Gualtieri (Steven Van Zandt and Tony Sirico) to the various women who make up the rest of Tony’s life, such as his wife Carmela (Edie Falco) and his therapist Dr. Melfi (Lorraine Bracco). Each is given enough screen time to really get a sense of who they are, none really ever falling under the veil of caricature. Falco and Bracco especially do good work, having to do a lot of dramatic heavy lifting when the boys are off fighting and gambling. Each has a crisis of faith during this season (one spiritual, the other professional) and make for some of the best moments of the season, crafting characters that will probably define their careers.
The bottom line is, is that this first season of The Sopranos is just simply great storytelling. Hardly ever going where you think it will, the show keeps you guessing and takes dramatic turns that no show of its time would think to do, and few shows would dare to do now. Able to stand toe to toe with juggernauts such as The Wire, Deadwood, Lost, and Mad Men as not only the best shows of this past decade, but of any decade, The Sopranos’ incredible first season gives us a TV series ready to take chances and strides that would become a benchmark for all other TV dramas. It’s not hyperbole to say that if there’s a shortlist for one of the best seasons of any show ever produced, for its long look at trust, morality, spirituality, love, fate, and violence, the first season of The Sopranos would definitely be up there.
I saw the original run of these episodes on TV, I’ve seen them on DVD, and I’ve seen them broadcast in HD in syndication. There is absolutely no comparison to those and the print on this Blu-ray, though, as the transfer on this set is absolutely gorgeous. This looks like a brand new show, and is a big step up, even to the HD broadcasts. The colors are vibrant, and artifacts on the print itself are minuscule. With audio to match just how good these Blu-rays look, this is the only way to really watch this first year of The Sopranos and I look forward to subsequent sets. The print on this is worthy of a show of this distinction.
Commentary by Creator David Chase – The pilot episode of the series gets a commentary track, and Chase goes into great detail about the production of the episode and his inspiration for the series. The commentary is super informative, but Chase doesn’t exactly let passion come across during the track either.
Interview with David Chase – Chase is usually pretty squeamish about during interviews, but this talk with Director Peter Bogdanovich goes 77 minutes is really fascinating. The two of them cover about every aspect of the show you can think of, from casting the series to how Chase got the idea for the opening credits. For fans of the show this is a must.
Family Life – A holdover from the original DVD, this small featurette looks like a “making of” spot that ran on HBO, but still works as an introduction to the series.
Meet Tony Soprano – This goes a little over three minutes, and goes over what to expect from Tony as a character.
The Sopranos: The Complete First Season is a milestone in TV that is up there with any other major series in the history of the small screen. As an indicator of what was to come, The Sopranos changed how a lot of us watched television and what we would come to expect from the medium as a whole. Sure, the show has dated moments (mentions of Laserdisc players for example) but so many of the themes from the show are timeless and the performances from Gandolfini and others are spectacular. This Blu-ray is a definite improvement over every other release of this show so far, and I can’t wait to see what’s in store for subsequent seasons.
HBO presents The Sopranos: The Complete First Season. Created by: David Chase. Starring: James Gandolfini, Edie Falco, Jamie-Lynn Sigler, Michael Imperioli, Lorraine Bracco, Tony Sirico, Robert Iler, and Steve Van Zandt. Running time: 780 minutes. Released on Blu-ray: November 24, 2009. Available at Amazon.com.
Tags: Goodfellas, HBO, James Gandolfini, The Sopranos