The Sopranos: The Complete First Season-The Sopranos
, writer-producer-director David Chase's extraordinary television series, is nominally an urban gangster drama, but its true impact strikes closer to home: Like 1999's other screen touchstone, American Beauty
, the HBO series chronicles a dysfunctional, suburban American family in bold relief. And for protagonist Tony Soprano, there's the added complexity posed by heading twin families, his collegial mob clan and his own, nouveau riche brood.
The series' brilliant first season is built around what Tony learns when, whipsawed between those two worlds, he finds himself plunged into depression and seeks psychotherapy--a gesture at odds with his midlevel capo's machismo, yet instantly recognizable as a modern emotional test. With analysis built into the very spine of the show's elaborate episodic structure, creator Chase and his formidable corps of directors, writers, and actors weave an unpredictable series of parallel and intersecting plot arcs that twist from tragedy to farce to social realism. While creating for a smaller screen, they enjoy a far larger canvas than a single movie would afford, and the results, like the very best episodic television, attain a richness and scope far closer to a novel than movies normally get.
Unlike Francis Coppola's operatic dramatization of Mario Puzo's Godfather epic, The Sopranos sustains a poignant, even mundane intimacy in its focus on Tony, brought to vivid life by James Gandolfini's mercurial performance. Alternately seductive, exasperated, fearful, and murderous, Gandolfini is utterly convincing even when executing brutal shifts between domestic comedy and dramatic violence. Both he and the superb team of Italian-American actors recruited as his loyal (and, sometimes, not-so-loyal) henchmen and their various "associates" make this mob as credible as the evocative Bronx and New Jersey locations where the episodes were filmed.
The first season's other life force is Livia Soprano, Tony's monstrous, meddlesome mother. As Livia, the late Nancy Marchand eclipses her long career of patrician performances to create an indelibly earthy, calculating matriarch who shakes up both families; Livia also serves as foil and rival to Tony's loyal, usually level-headed wife, Carmela (Edie Falco). Lorraine Bracco makes Tony's therapist, Dr. Melfi, a convincing confidante, by turns "professional," perceptive, and sexy; the duo's therapeutic relationship is also depicted with uncommon accuracy. Such grace notes only enrich what's not merely an aesthetic high point for commercial television, but an absorbing film masterwork that deepens with subsequent screenings. --Sam Sutherland
The Sopranos: The Complete Second Season-In its second season, The Sopranos sustains the edgy intelligence and unpredictable, genre-warping narrative momentum that made this modern mob saga the most critically acclaimed series of the late 1990s. Creator-producer David Chase repeatedly defies formula to let the narrative turn as a direct consequence of the characters' behavior, letting everyone in this rogue's gallery of Mafiosi, friends, and family evolve and deepen.
That gamble is most apparent in the rupture of the relationship that formed the spine of the first season, the tangled ties between capo Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini) and monstrous matriarch Livia (Nancy Marchand), whose betrayal makes Tony's estrangement a logical response. Filling that vacuum, however, is prodigal sister Janice (Aida Turturro), whose New Age flakiness never successfully conceals her underlying calculation and opportunism. Soprano's relationship with therapist Jennifer Melfi (Lorraine Bracco) also frays during early episodes, as she struggles with escalating doubts about her mobbed-up patient. At home, Tony contends with wife Carmela's ruthless ambitions on behalf of college-bound Meadow, as well as son Anthony Jr.'s sullen adolescent flirtation with existentialism--the sort of touch that the show handles with a smart mix of sympathy and amusement.
Without spoiling the surprise of the season's climactic last episode, it's worth noting that only on The Sopranos could we expect a scene that sets up a mob hit with a perversely funny touch of magic realism--a talking fish, lying on a fishmonger's iced display, speaking with the voice of the victim. It's a touch at once morbid and goofy, and consistent with the show's undimmed brilliance. --Sam Sutherland
The Sopranos: The Complete Third Season-"So," Tony Soprano asks analyst Dr. Melfi in the wake of not-so-dearly-departed Livia's death, "we're probably done here, right?" Sorry, Tone, not by a long shot. Unresolved mother issues are the least of the Family man's troubles in the brutal and controversial third season of The Sopranos. Ranked by TV Guide among the top five greatest series ever, The Sopranos justified its eleven-month hiatus with some of its best, and most hotly debated, episodes that continue the saga of the New Jersey mob boss juggling the pressures of his often intersecting personal and professional lives. The third season garnered 22 Emmy nominations, earning Lead Actor and Actress honors for James Gandolfini and Edie Falco for their now-signature roles as Tony and his increasingly conflicted wife, Carmela.
The Sopranos continued to upend convention and defy audience expectations with a deliberately paced, calm-before-the-storm season opener that revolves around the FBI's attempts to bug the Soprano household, and a season finale that (for some) frustratingly leaves several plot lines unresolved. The second episode, "Proshai, Livushka," confronts the death of the venerable Nancy Marchand, who capped her career with perhaps her greatest role as malignant matriarch Livia. A jarring scene between Tony and Livia that uses pre-existing footage is a distraction, but Carmela's unsparing smackdown of Livia at the wake redeems the episode. "Employee of the Month," in which Dr. Melfi is raped and considers whether to exact revenge by telling Tony of her attack, earned Emmys for its writers, and is perhaps Emmy nominee Lorraine Bracco's finest hour. The darkly comic "Pine Barrens"--another memorable episode, directed by Steve Buscemi--strands Paulie (Tony Sirico) and Christopher (Michael Imperioli) in the forest with a runaway corpse. Other story arcs concern the rise of the seriously unstable Ralph Cifaretto (Joe Pantoliano) and Tony's affair with "full-blown loop-de-loo" Gloria (Emmy nominee Annabella Sciorra). Plus, there is Tony's estrangement from daughter Meadow (Jamie Lynn Sigler), his wayward delinquent son Anthony, Jr. (Robert Iler), Carmela's crisis of conscience, bad seed Jackie Jr., and the FBI--which, as the season ends, assigns an undercover agent to befriend an unwitting figure in the Soprano family's orbit. Stay tuned for season four. --Donald Liebenson
The Sopranos: The Complete Fourth Season-Carmela to Tony: "Everything comes to an end." True enough, Mrs. Sope, but on The Sopranos, the end comes sooner for some than others. Though for some the widely debated fourth season contained too much yakking instead of whacking, and an emphasis on domestic family over business Family, what critic James Agee once said of the Marx Brothers applies to The Sopranos: "The worst thing they might ever make would be better worth seeing than most other things I can think of." And in most respects, The Sopranos remains television's gold standard. The fourth season garnered 13 Emmy nominations, and subsequent best actor and actress wins for James Gandolfini and Edie Falco as Tony and Carmela, whose estrangement provides the season with its most powerful drama, as well as a win for Joe Pantoliano's psychopath Ralph. The season finale, "Whitecaps," was a long-time-coming episode, in which Carmela at last stands up to "toxic" Tony, and "Whoever Did This" was the season's--and one of the series'--most shocking episodes.
Other narrative threads include Christopher's (Emmy nominee Michael Imperioli) descent into heroin addiction, Uncle Junior's (Dominic Chianese) trial, an unrequited and potentially fatal attraction between Carmela and Tony's driver Furio, and a rude joke about Johnny Sack's wife that has potentially fatal implications. Other indelible moments include Christopher's girlfriend Adriana's projectile reaction to discovering that her new best friend is an undercover FBI agent in the episode "No Show," Janice giving Ralph a shove out of their relationship in "Christopher," and the classic "Quasimodo/Nostradamus" exchange in the season-opener, which garnered HBO's highest ratings to date. Freed from the understandably high expectations for the fourth season, heightened by the 16-month hiatus, these episodes can be better appreciated on their own considerable merits. They are pivotal chapters in television's most novel saga. --Donald Liebenson
The Sopranos: The Complete Fifth Season-Facing an indeterminate sentence of weeks/months/years until new episodes, fans of The Sopranos are advised to take the fifth; season, that is. At this point, superlatives don't do The Sopranos justice, but justice was at last served to this benchmark series.
James Gandolfini as Tony Soprano in a not-so-nice mood
For the first time, The Sopranos
rubbed out The West Wing
to take home its first Emmy® for Outstanding Dramatic Series. Michael Imperioli and Drea de Matteo also earned Best Supporting Actor and Actress honors for some of their finest hours as Christopher and Adriana. From the moment a wayward bear lumbers into the Sopranos' yard in the season opener, it is clear that The Sopranos
is in anything but a "stagmire." The series benefits from an infusion of new blood, the so-called "Class of 2004," imprisoned "family" members freshly released from jail. Most notable among these is Tony's cousin, Tony Blundetto (Steve Buscemi, who directed the pivotal season three episode "Pine Barrens"! ), who initially wants to go straight, but proves himself to be something of a "free agent," setting up a climactic stand-off between Tony and New York boss Johnny Sack.
Carmela and Tony
These 13 mostly riveting episodes unfold with a page-turning intensity with many rich subplots. Estranged couple Tony and Carmela (the incomparable James Gandolfini and Edie Falco) work toward a reconciliation (greased by Tony's purchase of a $600,000 piece of property for Carmela to develop). The Feds lean harder on an increasingly stressed-out and distraught Adriana to "snitch" with inevitable results. This season's hot-button episode is "The Test Dream," in which Tony is visited by some of the series' dear, and not-so-dearly, departed in a harrowing nightmare. With this set, fans can enjoy marathon viewings of an especially satisfying season, but considering the long wait ahead for season six, best to take Tony's advice to his son, who, at one point, gulps down a champagne toast. "Slow down," Tony says. "You're supposed to savor it." --Donald Liebenson
The Sopranos: Season 6, Part 1-The Sopranos, Season 6, Part 1 is the most contentious release yet in the acclaimed series' history. While many fans think it jumped the shark at the exact moment Vito said "I love you, Johnny Cakes" , this season also contains some of the series finest moments and plumbs new depths of character, while continuing to add to the body count. Things get started with a bang, literally, that unexpectedly sends Tony (James Gandolfini) to the hospital and into a coma where he experiences an alternate reality while in limbo. At one point he awakes and asks "Who am I? Where am I going?" encapsulating this season's central theme in a moment of desperation wrapped in a fever dream. But it's not all existentialism. With Tony and Uncle Junior both of the picture, the capos in the Soprano crew try to take advantage of the situation and begin jockeying for position while a reluctant Silvio (Steve Van Zandt), acting in Tony’s place, struggles to keep everyone in check. Things aren’t going much better for Tony’s family, as A.J. (Robert Iler) confesses to Carmela (Edie Falco) that he flunked out of school, and while at Tony’s bedside, swears revenge for his injury. The stress of the situation finally gets to Carmela, who takes up Dr. Melfi’s (Lorraine Bracco) offer to help and finds herself in the strange position of confiding in her husband’s therapist, revealing for once that she feels some guilt over making the kids complicit in how Tony makes his living—plus there’s the issue of whether she really loves him. Christopher (Michael Imperioli) continues to provide much of the comic relief for the series, culminating in one of this season’s best episodes when he flies out to L.A. in a bumbling attempt to get Ben Kingsley to sign on for his fledgling movie (Saw meets The Godfather), and ends up mugging Lauren Bacall for her goodie basket at an awards ceremony. Sowing further discord in the ranks, Vito (Joseph Gannoscoli) finally gets outed as homosexual, and is forced to flee for his life up to New Hampshire where he meets "Johnny Cakes." Finally, even with New York boss Johnny "Sack" Sacramoni (Vince Curatola) in prison, Phil Leotardo (Frank Vincent) makes plays against Tony and eventually sets in motion a hit against someone on Tony’s crew, and now a larger war with Johnny Sack's crew seems to be looming. Series creator David Chase seems to be saying with this season that character is destiny. If so, then Season Six, Part 1 is taking the necessary time to flesh out who these people really are, and is leaving the destiny part up for Part 2. The fact that the series’ writers have been able to maintain such a strong show with so many interweaving storylines for so long is a feat not to be taken lightly. That said, this season of The Sopranos does deserve some of the criticism it's received: the Vito storyline would have been better served by resolving it in fewer episodes, and the season ending is the most unsatisfying one yet, leaving many fans wanting more. But the bottom line is that this season deserves more praise than criticism, proving that even at its weakest, The Sopranos is still the strongest show on TV.--Daniel Vancini
The Sopranos: Season 6, Part 2-Completing the run of one of the most acclaimed television shows in broadcast history, season 6, part II of The Sopranos will be remembered mostly not for what happened during the season, but for what didn't happen at the very end. Creator David Chase pulled off a series ending that was as controversial as it was surprising and unforgettable, leaving countless fans to look away from the show and to blogs and articles for answers to the biggest mystery since "who shot J.R.?": what happened to Tony Soprano? But before we get to that point, there are nine episodes to digest, and they are some of the best in the run of the show since season 3. As Tony's (James Gandolfini) paranoia and suspicions grow, his family makes choices that are threatening to bring big changes to his personal life, and his other "family" is crashing headlong towards an inevitable showdown with Johnny Sack (Vincent Curatola) and the New York crew. Episode 1, "Soprano Home Movies," starts off peacefully enough with Tony and Carmela (Edie Falco) enjoying a relaxing summer weekend at Bobby and Janice's (Steve Schirripa and Aida Turturro) bucolic lake house, and by the end of the episode Tony has effectively taken Bobby's soul, proving Tony's ruthlessness and ending any doubt about his will to maintain dominance over his family. In "Kennedy and Heidi," one of the season's signature episodes, Christopher's (Michael Imperioli) drug use continues to spiral out of control, forcing Tony to take matters into his own hands and resolve things with his nephew once and for all.
Inevitably it's all leading up to that big finale, and it's deftly handled over the last two episodes, "The Blue Comet" and "Made in America" (an episode replete with subtle references to The Godfather). Things finally start to get resolved with Phil's crew, Dr. Melfi (Lorraine Bracco), Uncle Junior (Dominic Chianese), A.J. (Robert Iler), and Meadow (Jamie-Lynn Sigler), and as for Tony… Cut to black. To quote from another hit HBO show of the same era, "everything ends," even The Sopranos, and while the way Chase chose to end The Sopranos may not be to the liking of fans hoping for a definitive resolution, give the man credit for not stooping to clichés or tired old scenarios for the sake of a closing. As A.J. says in the final scene, quoting his father, "Try to remember the times that were good." Good advice. --Daniel Vancini