The Sopranos has been seen by many many people at this point and so the fact that this review may include some mild spoilers should surprise no one.
The Sopranos was the first massively successful American cable drama that aspired to levels of sophistication (and violence) only seen in movies. It was not the first sophisticated American TV drama and it wasn’t the first drama to bring movie-style violence to television. But it was the first one of these shows to be successful at this – the first runaway hit of these types of shows – and it established HBO’s “It’s not TV…” brand like nothing else before it. So it is unquestionably the most influential dramatic show of its era, but the question remains, is it any good?
The first season’s digital video has dated horribly – making you wonder what decade it was made in – though that improves with the second season. The content dates it somewhat too, given that, only a few years later, HBO would debut a number of other shows with far greater levels of realism and sophistication, making The Sopranos appear to pale by comparison.
But I think that’s unfair to the show – those later masterpieces wouldn’t have been green-lit without the success of The Sopranos and they benefited from watching the first few seasons of The Sopranos and learning valuable lessons about serialized drama: what works, what doesn’t work – hell, what’s even possible.
At the heart of the show is perhaps the greatest performance in TV history (to date anyway), especially given Gandolfini’s personality in real life. And he is ably supported by Falco, who is pretty near as great. Some of the other, Italian, actors are shockingly weak (early on, anyway) but, on the whole, it’s the great acting that keeps you involved even when the show gets a little hard to believe, as it often does given how frequently they all get away with various criminal activities pretty near all the time. (Though, again, given previous TV standards, the show still manages a great deal of realism relative to the stuff that came before.)
But even though there is that lack of realism at times with the level of violence, there’s a ridiculous amount of realism in the show’s rather incredible sense of place, a sense of place achieved by perhaps no other TV drama prior to its existence – though there have been a few comedies that might have created some kind of illusion of place slightly similar. (And equaled in its sense of place by only a few shows that I have seen.)
And, at times, it’s incredibly funny.
One problem with the show – and a problem with many “new” TV shows, such as Battlestar Galatica – is that it still didn’t move beyond the self-contained episode, where pretty much everything that happens in the episode has no bearing on anything else in the show. The best example of this is the episode when Christopher relapses and tries to kill Tony. Later on, it’s like it never, ever happened. Ever. And that’s absurd and below the otherwise excellent standards of the show.
One thing I have no reservations about is the series’ “dream episodes,” the one when Tony decides Pussy is a rat and particularly “The Test Dream.” I never thought someone would handle dreams on TV better than Twin Peaks but this show does it exceptionally well – Tony’s dreams are like mine, only with mobsters, therapists and Annette Benning. And even when the dreams are a lot less surreal – like when Tony is shot – they are still imbued with a great deal more weight and meaning than most dreams in movies. Really, I think the show set the standard for dreams in contemporary TV and film. It’s just brilliant at these moments.
Another thing they handle rather brilliantly is Christopher’s Hollywood aspirations. They pull in some rather big fish and those fish play up their own selves very well. And it’s something that they do over the course of a number of seasons, seemingly holding it back to use whenever they need a little extra awkwardness and humiliation (for Christopher). It’s a neat change of pace.
And it avoids cliches a lot of the time in how it’s filmed. An example is the death of Phil’s brother, where it seems like Sil is getting wine in the face or something and we have no idea what is going on. That’s just one of numerous examples where they handle something differently than they could have and it just makes the show more interesting.
One final thing: that second last episode was probably unbelievably tense when it aired. Unfortunately, like the entire planet, I already new the ending so it wasn’t as tense for me. But even knowing the ending, it was still a nice change of pace for the show. It really felt like, for a moment, No One Is Safe. And, if I haven’t made this known to you already, I am on the “The ending is fantastic” side of the fence.
On the whole, the show is an incredible achievement. There was nothing like it ever before and it’s still relatively unparalleled in some aspects – as a portrait of an individual family I can only think of Six Feet Under as its equal as as a portrait of the mob I can’t think of its equal, at least in TV.