Don't let the fact that Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini) is a capo in his New Jersey based crime family fool you. After a series of panic attacks land him in therapy, the married father of two is quick to tell Dr. Jennifer Melfi (Lorraine Bracco), “I got a semester and a half of college... I understand Freud as a concept.”
Understandably nervous about sharing “this thing of ours” with someone outside the circle, irregardless of the fact that Melfi hails from an area near the same “part of the boot” that Tony's ancestors did, it takes him awhile to readjust his storytelling in a way that won't incriminate himself or send her straight to the authorities.
Describing life as a mid-level employee working in waste management without telling her directly that humans are the people they waste most often and they take in goods instead of pick up garbage more than your average employee, Tony wonders when the old cowboy spirit of Gary Cooper's “strong silent type” vanished. Now everyone needs to share their feelings, he muses and later even goes as far as to tell his teenage daughter that in the outside world it's the '90s but in their house it's the 1950s.
Yet with this much dialogue, he doesn't necessarily realize that the more he talks, the more he becomes the opposite of the Cooper archetype as the new breed of male who needs to process his life as he approaches middle age, whether it's in therapy or with a diary. However, Tony Soprano is a talker and mob guys only write their memoirs after they've ratted out their dons to guarantee six figure “tell all” book deals, describing their lives one “hit” after another.
And as a talker, it was imperative for this HBO series that the ideal man would be cast for the lead and this is what they found in James Gandolfini who is so able to tap right into his character that-- as is the case with very few in his profession-- you can see him process actual thoughts, listen, and hold a gaze, blink, or refrain as though we are watching Tony instead of Gandolfini in any given situation.
Matching him in the Emmy and Golden Globe winning six season series is a wonderful supporting cast that comprises his two main families. Namely, there is the one that bears his name that he shares with his wife Carmela (Edie Falco) and the other makeshift family that taps into the '90s trend of friends who become “like family.”
However, in Tony's case the crime syndicate bound by blood, a strict militaristic code of levels from soldier to those with "stripes” to boss is the family that actually demands the most loyalty. Nonetheless, they overlap quite a bit, adding another level of complexity to the “family” when he serves the man who comes over for dinner often, Junior Soprano (Dominic Chianese) who is also his boss and is the mentor to his nephew Christopher Moltisanti (Michael Imperioli).
Intriguingly even though Falco and Bracco were the women consistently singled out over the years, in this recent opportunity to go back and view the season that started it all in high definition, I realized just how underrated another female cast member was in the form of Tony's diabolical mother, played by Nancy Marchand.
While creator and head writer David Chase (I'll Fly Away, Northern Exposure) allegedly based some of the dynamic between mother and son on his own situation, the Shakespearean influence of Marchand's epic Macbeth style character is one that deserves to be studied. Able to fill us with pathos to loathing, sometimes at the same time, the tangled web which Marchand weaves is deliciously evil as we find out that she may be pulling more strings than we ever imagined possible after Tony finally forces her into an expensive “retirement community” against her will.
Not wanting to be one of those women she's “seen sitting in a wheelchair, babbling like idiots” in a nursing home, Marchand plays psychological chess with her son via Junior Soprano, enabling her to-- in essence-- control both of Tony's families.
It's a brilliant piece of acting that she pulls off beautifully, augmented no doubt by the uniformly excellent writing that's able to somehow move beyond the crass wiseguy speak to metaphors about politics and philosophy all the while dropping revelatory hints about the characters' eventual fates as early as even the first episode in.
Yet despite the fact that it was simply the most precise and multi-layered, intellectual writing on television during its run before alumni Matthew Weiner (who was hired on the basis of his Mad Men pilot script) eventually created Mad Men once The Sopranos ended, Chase does rely on the Northern Exposure Achilles heel of dream sequences far too often.
While it does fit the Freudian approach that Tony understands as “a concept” and shares with Melfi, the series is its most powerful when the writers are able to startle us by breaking up an intense exchange with a character revealing anecdote that even to this day, more than ten years after it aired, still feels fresh and genuine.
The writing and ensemble cast are what kept us coming back in spite of the gratuitous nudity and violence that particularly took a turn towards the unwatchable in the third season's most notorious shocker of an episode. Yet here in the first season, the crisp writing is there from the start and sets this show apart.
Additionally, similar to the way that HBO's other smash Sex and the City pilot episode feels different from the rest of the series, The Sopranos managed to come into its own after a very strong but far too punctuated introduction, bogged down from the overuse of music culled directly from Get Shorty (also starring Gandolfini) and GoodFellas (featuring over two dozen stars including Imperioli and Bracco).
While homages are everywhere and mob guys are as obsessed with mob movies as we are, according to Chase's series, eventually one of the hallmarks of The Sopranos would become its offbeat, ingenious musical selections the eschewed traditional wiseguy sources. In fact, the sound is what first grabs your attention in the Blu-ray transfer, hitting all five speakers and the boom of the subwoofer in a way that immerses you into the goings on, as though you were in the back of the butcher's shop debating whether or not one of Tony's best friends is a rat or if you're in a club with Christopher and Adrianna (Drea De Matteo).
And because of its rich dark tones, in a traditional cinema setting on the Blu-ray player, the background occasionally blends in with the clothing so you may need to tweak the color and contrast a little to best appreciate the full 1080 pixel clarity which adds a visceral urgency to the image that made this reviewer hold out her hands a few times to nearly push a character away from another.
Amusingly, in the early part of the season, Tony is dubious about Christopher and Brendan's swag of DVD players as he says nothing can beat his laserdisc. However, when it comes to transfers, HBO has always followed their “it's not TV” tagline, giving you a rich cinematic experience that goes beyond the DVD into a level that even Tony Soprano would approve, next time he ejects Gary Cooper for a healthy slice of Freud with a little Cosa Nostra on the side.
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FTC Disclosure: Per standard professional practice, I received a review copy of this title in order to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique.