Tuesday, June 9, 2009
Now that I've finished going through The Wire, I decided to move to the show that made HBO the gold standard of televised drama and the other great crime drama of the last 20 years, The Sopranos. When David Chase first got his series greenlit, HBO had had its share of critical successes: Fraggle Rock, Mr. Show, Oz, The Larry Sanders Show (which will finally get its second season released later this year -- let's hope they speed up the other 4). But the intrigue and backstabbing of the DiMeo crime family and the psychological issues of Tony Soprano made it the network for quality T.V. I did watch the first season a while back, but I figured it was best to go back to the beginning.
The Sopranos wastes no time establishing itself as an engaging drama with its dense pilot. A tangle of family and Family connections, the pilot manages to introduce a great many characters with names that end in vowels and set up some character arcs without ever losing track of a coherent narrative. In the center of this web of characters is Tony (James Gandolfini), a capo in the DiMeo Family and the head of his household. We meet him in his first therapy session with Dr. Jennifer Melfi (Lorraine Bracco) following an anxiety attack that rendered him unconscious. He maintains that he's in waste management, but makes continuous references how dangerous coming to therapy could be for him. Melfi seems to suspect his real profession, but says nothing.
The most interesting aspect of the pilot, above the sea of interesting characters, is Tony's reaction to a duck that takes up residence at the Soprano home and winds up with some chicks. Tony treats them like beloved family pets, to much eye-rolling from son A.J. (Robert Iler), daughter Meadow (Jamie-Lynn Sigler) and wife Carmela (Edie Falco). When the chicks grow and learn to fly, the flock heads farther south, devastating Tony. After some discussions in therapy, Melfi concludes that the ducks leaving triggered Tony's anxiety attack, as he projected all of the feelings he was afraid to show his family onto the birds. It's the sort of thing that makes these characters interesting from the start.
The rest of the season takes the bits and pieces that make the pilot so great -- the attention to detail, the dark humor, the violence, the characters -- and expands upon them. The second episode, "46 Long," is one of the best pieces of black comedy put on television: Tony's nephew Christopher takes to robbing trucks with his friend Brendan in order to feed their smack habit, not realizing that the company that own the trucks pays protection money to Tony's uncle Junior, the de facto head of the DiMeo Family. Meanwhile, we get to see the dark but hysterical scheming of Tony's mother Livia: an Italian Lady MacBeth who wields Catholic guilt the way a samurai handles a katana. She never has a kind word for anyone, and anyone she treats with a modicum of affection -- chiefly her grandchildren, family friends and anyone but Tony and Carmela, really -- she finds a way to slip in complaints about somebody. When Tony places her in a retirement facility due to her increasing dementia, she begins to subtly goad Uncle Junior into whacking her son.
Tony's relationship with Livia forms the backbone of the season's conflict, coupled with Tony's attempts to conceal his sessions from the Family. Melfi constantly tells her patient that his mother is a negative influence and even a danger to his health, Tony lashes out and defends his mother despite his hatred of her, because he cannot bear to be a bad son. There's a nice moment halfway through the season when Melfi mentions Tony to her ex-husband (though she doesn't give out his name), and he responds, "An Italian in therapy? Let me guess: mother issues?" When A.J. makes an innocuous comment about having to see the school counselor, he inadvertently spills the beans to his grandma. Livia naturally assumes that her son is only in therapy to blame everything on her and doubles her efforts to persuade Junior.
As with The Wire, The Sopranos works with slowly-unfurling arcs, to the point that episodes don't matter so much as the overall impact. Nevertheless, some episodes stand out on their own even as they move the characters forward. "Boca" reveals the mentality of the gangsters that spills over into their personal lives: when the successful coach of the high school girls' soccer team accepts an offer to coach in Rhode Island, the mafioso dads first bribe, then intimidate the coach into staying. All they care about is seeing their daughters win a state championship, even though all the girls want him gone. At last, Meadow reveals a secret: the coach had sex with one of the students. Watching these men turn in an instant from incessant praise of this man and a desire for him to stay in town to outraged bloodlust in an instant is fascinating. It shows how the Mafia has turned them all essentially into spoiled children: they do not care for context, the whole story nor reason. Anything they want -- money, women, retribution -- must be had immediately. There's also an amusing subplot about Junior's skill at cunnilingus and his desire to keep it a secret lest he look less masculine. When his partner can't keep her mouth shut, we get perhaps the only pie-to-the-face moment in the history of entertainment that conveys drama and sadness instead of comedy.
The best episode of the season by a fair margin is the lauded "College." When Tony takes Meadow on some college tours, he discovers that a former gangster-turned-informant happens to be in the same area. The entire episode is a microcosm of Tony's life and his attempt to balance family and Family. Tony plays his cat-and-mouse game with the man, who knows that Tony's onto him, while trying to conceal his intentions from his daughter, even though she knows all about his double life. There's just a hint of tragedy when Meadow plainly asks "Dad, are you in the Mafia?" and Tony, who lives in a world of deceit and backstabbing, cannot convincingly lie to her.
David Chase clearly draws on Mafia classics like The Godfather films and GoodFellas, and even goes so far to reference them through the characters constantly -- Silvio Dante (Steven Van Zandt, who ensures that this New Jersey-based drama in some way involves its favorite son, Bruce Springsteen) does bad Pacino impersonations, and the characters clearly look to the fictional characters as role models, even though those characters tended to end up broken or dead). But he carves out his own unique territory, one that takes the incredible character examination of those films and extrapolates them over the course of a 13-hour season. It's easy to see how the show caused such a stir from the outset: the first season of The Sopranos is an absolute triumph and contains some of the best writing and acting to ever grace a program.