Monday, April 18, 2011

The Sopranos, season 1, proper.

The Sopranos, Season One, 1999.
Created by David Chase.
Starring: James Gandolfini, Lorraine Braco, Edie Falco, Michael Imperioli, Dominic Chianese, Tony Sirico, Steve Van Zandt, Nancy Marchand, Jamie-Lynn Sigler, Robert Iler.

I don't want to be unnecessarily dramatic here, but this series is hands down one of the best in the history of television. So much so that there really will not ever be anything else like it, Mafia-related or otherwise. If you haven't already, you really owe it to yourself to see it, even if you hate mob stories or violence, because there is more than meets the eye to Tony Soprano. He just might be more like you than you realize.

EVENTSThe Sopranos obviously has firm roots in Gangster culture, but before we get to that, let's be clear on a few other things first. The experience here is only partly focused on The Mafia; you know, the Italian-American based crime families of New York and New Jersey who make living from robbery, extortion, illegal gambling, illegal loans, bribery, and who solve problems with fists, feet, and fishes (as in putting their enemies to sleep with them). But that's only one side of the story.

Tony Soprano (Gandolfini), Captain of North Jersey, is having trouble with panic attacks and begins therapy with Dr. Jennifer Melfi (Braco). Along the way his wife develops an unnaturally close relationship with the priest, his daughter procures methamphetamine to cram for college testing, his son gets suspended from school and might have ADHD. And his mother Livia I-wish-the-Lord-would-take-me Soprano? Madon! It's not his job that's messing with him, it's his family life! (Anyone out there relate?) This series is very different from its mob-centered predecessors in that we see this angle, we're let in on a (powerful) gangster's less glamorous moments: Eating cereal. Driving his daughter to college visits. Meeting with a school psychologist. Placing his unwilling mother into a retirement community.

There's a wonderful scene early on where Tony is cleaning out his mother's house after she's moved out. He's putting framed photographs from a shelf into a box and pauses to study two of his mother holding him as a baby and seated next to him as an older child, smiling. Throughout the show it is affirmed and reaffirmed over and over that this woman is unpleasant, conniving, and mean-spirited, but there is no denying the fact that despite it all, Livia matters very much to Tony and he still loves her. It's emotional.

STYLE: Of course, it's not all melodrama, and there are some seriously wonderful bits of production happening here. The pilot episode gets the best of these moments, but the rest of the series ain't slacking either. Tony chases down a man who owes him money to the happy tune "Love You Like I Do," much in the vain of a Scorcese film. Gangster humor, "Whaddya cryin' for? Huh? HMO! You're covered! You prick!" When Chris (Imperioli) meets Czech rival Emil at Satriale's after hours to discuss sanitation strategies and things don't go well, a different black and white portrait (Martin, Bogart, Cagney) is cut in between the sound of each bullet spent together with Bo Diddley's "I'm a Man." Nice.

There's also a really great accompaniment to two separate scenes, just a synth and a drum machine, probably, but it's very effective stylization. The first moment happens at Tony's first session with Melfi; he narrates his feelings of having "come in at the end" (of the mob's golden age) as we see him walk down his enormous driveway to fetch his morning paper. Later the same music plays as he relocates his arsenal of cash and guns from a ceiling panel to the closet of his mother's retirement home. It's a small thing, but one of the many things that makes this series stand out.

NODS: We've heard for years, "it's not TV, it's HBO," and in this case, it's true. The Sopranos was one of the first major television shows that actually felt cinematic, like the world's longest film we could enjoy one Sunday night at a time. Profanity, nudity, violence all basically uncensored, and no commercial breaks, but probably best of all are the little homages paid to its ancestors---not other television shows but cinema: The Godfather Trilogy.

"You broke my heart!"
Silvio (Van Zandt) is called upon to quote Godfather (part three) on demand; Chris inaccurately quotes the first Godfather as he attempts to hurl Emil's body into a dumpster ("Louis Brazzi sleeps with the fishes!") Father Phil is well studied on Coppola's cinematographer, Gordon Lewis. When Tony's daughter Meadow's soccer coach takes a job at another school, stating "They made me an offer I couldn't refuse," Paulie (Sirico) says, "You haven't heard ours yet." Probably most memorable of all is the segment of the season one finale, where in the true spirit of Michael Corleone Tony touches his mother's cheek as she rolls by in a gurney and tells her, "I know it was you." (!!!)

There are production nods too, really skillful shots that together with the music, again, feel more like a film than a television show. The night shot of Silvio walking away from Vesuvio just before it ignites, the time and dedication given to Tony's constant scrutinizing Melfi's artwork, and the way power is portrayed, especially evident in Episode 12, "Isabella,"--- Paulie and Silvio's walk down the hospital corridor, the crew gathered around Tony's bar as they plot against Tony's Uncle Junior (Chianese), and the deadpan limo ride with Anthony Jr. and his date ("Can we have some of that whiskey?") There are goose-bump moments like these in almost every episode.

Bravo, Mr. Chase. Bravo. And that second clip made me frickin' bawl my eyes out over here.