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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