Monday, December 13, 2010

1. The Sopranos (Made In America)

"Cunnilingus and psychiatry brought us to this!"
-A typically agita-stricken Tony Soprano sums up the series;
"I Dream Of Jeanne Cusamano" (Season 1, Episode 13)

Run time: January 10, 1999 - June 10, 2007
Created by: David Chase
Broadcast via: HBO

It is impossible for me to go about compiling this list without acknowledging the show that no doubt started it all. Which is not to say that The Sopranos was the literal genesis to all this greatness I’m about to gush over, but to deny its unmistakable stamp on mainstream pop culture and the television medium in general would be a disservice to a great list, not to mention purveyors of good TV who crave a substantive show yet somehow still haven’t discovered this gem.

The appeal of The Sopranos is almost universal. Sure, the haters persist (as they always do), but for people legitimately interested in a slice of cinematic heaven, The Sopranos has a lot to offer. It’s a little bit daunting, at 86 episodes across six (and a half) seasons, but this saga has grown leaps and bounds beyond The Godfather and Star Wars in chronicling a tale of two families tied together by one looming father figure. David Chase had been asked to write a TV mafia series for years before he realized that if he incorporated elements from his own life (chiefly, his experiences with seeing a therapist, along with his often contentious relationship with his mother) he would have a recipe for something new and challenging and exciting. So he wrote a script, and the first scene sent the boss of the New Jersey mob family into therapy to deal with a sudden rash of panic attacks. And the rest became history.

Never has a series hinged itself so successfully on just one character (or actor). It is a feat bordering on miracle that James Gandolfini, a mere mortal (if not also a highly gifted actor, but human nonetheless), was able to play Anthony Soprano so perfectly. Never has a character been more flawed, more depressing or more compulsive, while also retaining enough complex and redeeming qualities to keep audiences and characters alike genuinely riveted by his every action. Essentially, The Sopranos was a psychological character study of one man who happened to embody some of the best and worst aspects about America, specifically an America no longer sure of itself and where it’s headed.

But despite it being mostly about Tony Soprano, it is The Sopranos, plural. That it’s about his two families (one legitimate, one criminal) says a lot about both the logistics of the setting (lots of characters sprawled all over the Garden State and beyond) but also of the way that Tony –and every other character – is a person of two faces. Early in the series is a brilliant quote by Nathaniel Hawthorne (“No man can wear one face to himself and another to the multitude without finally getting bewildered as t which may be true.”), and it seems to sum up the personal struggle of every character to grace the screen in our sordid family affair. The trials and tribulations of the Sopranos (both sets of them), big and small, violently or emotionally arresting, utterly saddening or horrifically hysterical; all of it made for remarkable viewing.

In addition to all of this, The Sopranos is also the earliest show on this list that treated audiences the way novelists treat their fans; by peeling the story in layers, taking time to do so. Each episode, though often (mostly) self-contained, unfolds like a piece rather than a whole. It takes an entire season to get everything out of everything. This can prove frustrating for some, but it’s best to remember that thing they say about the journey over the destination. Relying on information from past episodes allowed for the storytelling to swell and expand, emotionally and eventfully. Years would pass between seasons, and the characters (and New Jersey) would age and act accordingly. You truly see these characters grow (and wilt) in ways never really done before. This type of television has been executed with continued excellence in many other fine series now, but prime time never aspired to slavish soap opera-like devotion to ongoing plot until after The Sopranos popularized it for late night. Oh sure, there was Beverly Hills 90210 beforehand, and even Friends got to some pretty tangled-in-back-story places, but The Sopranos really took it to another level.

It’s not that other shows wouldn’t be where they were without The Sopranos (even though that is true), but rather about the fact that it was first and therefore more universally appealing and groundbreaking. All the other premier series have their niches, but The Sopranos is kind of like The Beatles, in that they basically started it all (even if they certainly weren’t without their backgrounds and influences) by breaking the mold and somehow fitting for just about anybody. Debuting in January of 1999, there was nothing like The Sopranos on TV (or even in the multiplexes). Sure, HBO had Tales From The Crypt and Dream On and Real Sex and Oz. But this was something else. It became a pretty big hit from the get go, and though fans and critics alike have argued to death over how long The Sopranos stayed relevant and maintained “the best” status, the fact that it had millions of people tuning in and talking about it (and still does) has allowed for it to become one of the most influential pieces of art of all time. And certainly one of the most important works of film form and fiction as the twentieth century was gearing up to become the third millennium. When creating his list of Top 100 Shows for Time magazine, critic James Poniewozik stated, “To get a sense of how The Sopranos changed TV, get a pen and make a list of the 20 best TV drama before 1999. That list will very likely include Magnum P.I.” I couldn’t have said it better myself.

Of course, this was all well and good in the late ‘90s, but since 9/11 changed everything, it also changed the way some people saw The Sopranos. Some people say it lost the plot in its later seasons, but these are usually those “can’t see forest for the trees” types who fuss about how their vision for how it could have gone would have been much better. The longer a series goes on, the more risk it exposes itself to regarding perceived deviation from genius. I personally thought it got better as it went along, especially in its final two seasons. It no doubt got darker after the Twin Towers fell between seasons three and four (they were even chopped from the opening credit sequence), but the signs were there from the beginning that this show was not going to be sunshine and rainbows. Things got grimmer and more startling as they went along, gripping the audience into the mind of a man who was partly paranoid and almost always racked with “a certain bleak attitude” (his own words) about his life and loved ones. But this was akin to Alice tumbling down the rabbit hole. Which is to say, below par for the course. As mentioned before, The Sopranos (and yes, Through The Looking Glass) upped the game in some big, big ways.

David Plotz, writing about final season of The Wire for Slate, contrasted the two shows’ endings by summarizing his view of the infamous last scene: “The Sopranos, in what is in my view the greatest final scene in the history of the moving image, left us with pure ambiguity, the fate of its main character unwritten.” That’s a pretty bold statement, but I’m inclined to agree (although some viewers quite justly believe that the character’s fate is indeed sealed). For everything that went into building up this science of storytelling, that art of the character and world of Tony Soprano, the final moments of the series speak volumes more than the characters’ meager dialogue and Steve Perry’s seemingly innocent crooning by themselves could ever accomplish independently - fused together, they are now a classic scene worth repeat viewings and the levels of intense discussion and debate that continue today. I mention all of this not to be a spoiler dispenser, but to let those uninitiated know from the get go what they are getting into. The Sopranos is not the type of show that wraps up its themes and messages in neat little packages labeled “closure.” But it does give us a world fraught by possibilities both good and bad, and it gives its audience credit through and through to do whatever they want with the material we are given. The ending, like the rest of the show, remains open to interpretation, and is filled with great acting, nuanced storytelling and memorable music that helps it transcend the mundane mendacity of ordinary television.

I’ve really just begun to scratch the surface of what makes The Sopranos such an enduring piece of iconography, but I can’t go on much longer because I fear that I will tread ground that has already been exhaustively covered. Suffice it to say that, despite all the genius that has followed it, despite the shows that perhaps surpassed it even, The Sopranos was one of the first series to raise the quality of writing and production, and have its creators’ reach met by an audience’s grasp. Like Hollywood in the late ‘60s and throughout the ‘70s, The Sopranos changed the landscape in a way that will leave feature artists reeling and dreaming about how they’ll be able to take advantage of the storytelling opportunities now present to them. If David Chase never gets to make anything else in his life, he’s still made of the greatest pieces of cinema ever assembled.

No score can be perfect, but again, The Sopranos sorta set the bar. A minute-and-a-half opening credit sequence consists of mostly georgraphic shots capturing Tony Soprano’s view from his SUV as he rides through New Jersey to his suburban palace. Set to Alabama 3's “Woke Up This Morning,” the opening minutes enter us into Sopranoland perfectly, getting us into the modern Mafioso mood. Each episode ended with a different and usually perfect song, culling from a wide variety of genres and always sending us off gracefully until we’re ready for the next installment. Which makes the series finale’s ending silence all the more mystifying.

Amazingly, the best character on the show isn’t technically a Soprano. Yes, it was James Gandolfini as Tony Soprano that dominated the series (and its soul), but every season is a three-way battle for acting awesomeness between Gandolfini, Edie Falco (who plays his wife Carmella) and Imperioli (cast as Tony’s sorta-nephew and protégé “Christophuh”). Though these three lead actors were never short of top form in every scene they ever had, a certain spot in my heart aches extra affectionately for what Imperioli was able to accomplish with his crazed character. He embodied the tragic and truthful vision of the pains of living within a world of crime and compromise, a guy trying so hard to be a good person even when he can’t seem to stop failing.

BEST SEASON: 5 (of 6 total)
While most would be inclined to say any of the first three seasons, I argue that five is the best overall. The creators had truly found their footing and though the forth season stumbled a bit in its “figuring out where to go” narrative, the fifth season was where boiling tensions reached their finest simmer. It was the odd-season out, as Tony and Carmella were separated and everyone else seemed split in their own way. But it also paved the path for the inevitable war between the families, and also gave audiences several new actors and characters, the best of the bunch being Steve Buscemi as Tony’s until-recently incarcerated cousin who comes back into the family and defies all expectations.

BEST EPISODE: “Pine Barrens” (Season 3, Episode 10)
To pick a definitive best episode of The Sopranos is practically impossible. Having said that, the first thing that came to my mind was “Pine Barrens,” because it perfectly balances the season-long arc of Tony’s failing relationships with a self-contained story of a money collection from a rowdy Russian gone wrong. It's a decidedly un-Sopranos episode in many ways, but it's also a quintessential Sopranos all the same: self-contained, and yet not; each scene full of tension and bravado acting; featuring a moment of shocking and violent comedy juxtaposed with a moment of dynamic human drama. Not to mention that to this day, for all the discussions that get thrown around about the show, “What happened to the Russian?” is still one of the most frequently asked questions amongst fans.

BEST MOMENT: Tony vs. Ralph Cifaretto, Final Round ("Whoever Did This," Season 4, Episode 9)
It all seems like a fairly standard mid-season episode of The Sopranos for the first half-hour. But then a fight from out of nowhere (though the tensions had been rising since season three) between Tony and Ralphie changes not only the course of the episode, but the rest of the season (and even bleeds into future ones). In the aftermath, Tony calls a smack-addled Christopher to help him clean up the mess. The episode lingers with them throughout the process for the remaining twenty minutes, a stretch of moments that are by turns disturbing, moving and funny (sometimes within the same scene).

BEST DREAM: "The Test Dream" ("The Test Dream," Season 5, Episode 11)
One of the things that The Sopranos is best renowned for are its vivid and psychologically symbolic dream sequences, amongst the best ever filmed. They were mostly Tony's dreams, since the show is a character study and he is our most important figure. And his dreams were fantastic bouts of filmmaking. The pilot began with Tony merely describing a weird dream he had, but they featured onscreen soon enough, and got increasingly complex and involved within each season's plot. Season two culminated in a series of dreams that led Tony to taking care of one of his biggest problems; season four's dreams got increasingly paranoid as Tony couldn't figure out how to feel about any of what was happening around him. Though many fans' favorite is the Kevin Finnerty dream that stretched across two episodes of the sixth season, I prefer this twenty-one minute vision of surreal storytelling that takes us through Tony's warped mind, giving us skewed yet revealing glimpses of not only what we had seen across five seasons, but moments from Tony's past that paved the way for what he became when we started following his exploits.

-James Poniewozik's list of Top 10 Sopranos episodes. [Spoilers included.]
-Guardian's much-loved The Wire Re-up discusses The Wire vs. The Sopranos. Guess who wins?
-Discussions abound at I particularly like these essays about the finale.
-An interesting essay from Pop Theology.
-This hardcore breakdown of the series finale's ending may be the most insightful on the web.


  1. I'm enjoying your overviews of quality shows. For me, the best Sopranos episode isn't "Pine Barrens." It's the first one I ever saw: the fifth episode "College," where Tony spots that Nathaniel Hawthorne saying. "College" is the definitive "two Tonys" episode, and it even outdoes the pilot in exemplifying why The Sopranos is different from the rest of the gangster genre. "Pine Barrens" is an interesting standalone with great direction by Steve Buscemi, but I don't consider it the high point of the series (frankly, Breaking Bad did the two-characters-trapped-together premise better in "4 Days Out" and "Fly"). If you're determining series bests by how well they can function for newbie viewers as mission statements of the themes of their respective shows, I don't think "Pine Barrens" is the best way to introduce The Sopranos to newbies (mostly due to the fact that Tony is a secondary character in "Pine Barrens"). On the other hand, if someone wants to know "What's the big deal about The Sopranos?," "College" answers that question really well.

    Someone should do a post about episodes like "College" that were third or fourth or fifth in the broadcast order of their respective series and demonstrated such storytelling confidence so early in the run: eps like The Wire's "Old Cases," which you've listed as a series best, Homicide's "Three Men and Adena," Lost's "Walkabout" and Galactica's "33."

  2. Great points, Jimmy. I do think “College” is an excellent example of the best The Sopranos has to offer. Again, there’s that sums-it-all-up Hawthorne quote, plus the wonderful examination of Carmella’s relationship with Tony and herself in his absence (there’s even the impetus for much of Meadow’s development throughout the episode), and of course, the Freddy Peters detour that Tony takes. “College” is the not the first episode I saw (I was lucky enough to catch the pilot when it first aired) but I would still say that “College” is a better example of how different it is not just from the rest of the gangster genre, but really different from anything else cinematically, regardless of genre.

    Thematically speaking, you’re probably right; I’m a bit off the mark here as well, as “College” does do a better job of showing the contrasting (and comparative) qualities of the Two Tonys. But I do believe that “Pine Barrens” is as engaging and absorbing for the way it displays what the big deal is about The Sopranos as any of best of them (even if some of those points are rather subtle in this one). In it, the viewer does still see the two sides of Tony Soprano, and all of the situations featured in the episode are created by his decisions. Because of that, I would say he is not a secondary character. He does seem less prominent when viewed against the Chris and Paulie fiasco, but they are stuck where they are because of Tony. He decided to send Paulie off instead of taking responsibility himself (not that this excuses Paulie’s screwing of the proverbial pooch, or would have made for as good a story), and he is the one who is carrying on the affair with a dangerous woman. These are the two biggest threads of the episode, though I’d say his influence carries over into the Jackie Jr. and Meadow strand significantly as well).

    Another reason I consider “Pine Barrens” Bestish (not necessarily The Best by the way, but I could really only do one – if it were Top 5, I’d probably rank “Isabella,” “From Where To Eternity,” “Rat Pack” and “Members Only“ up there as equals with “PB”) is because, besides never having a dull moment, it also reminds us of what truly started this whole show (and possibly ended it): Tony’s mother. Even though Nancy Marchand died after the end of the second season, her character still cast a very long shadow across the later seasons, and especially the third. She was such an integral part of who Tony was. In “Pine Barrens,” in that final scene between Tony and Dr. Melfi, where he is forced to consider that Gloria may remind him of Livia… And there’s that excellent closing music (the aria “Sposa son disprezzata”), the same one used in the opening of the following episode “Amour Fou” (another one that I think may be worthy of best episode status)… It’s all pure, sublime Sopranos.

    I will admit that qualifying “Pine Barrens” as the best episode is a bit of cop out, since vox populi has constantly declared it the money episode even though it did very little to advance the much of the plot of The Sopranos. But it did a very good job of digging (if not advancing) into the themes that make the show great, and doing it in a superbly Sopranos fashion. Every time I try to explain to newbs just what makes The Sopranos so great, without giving anything away, I end up describing something that sounds very much like “Pine Barrens.”

    I don’t mean to sound too defensive, by the way. I just like discourse.

    I also like your idea about strong, early episodes. You’re right on the money with each episode you mentioned (“Walkabout” especially!), and they are the type of episode that gives great credit to a team that knew how to share a vision pretty much from the beginning.

  3. The way that events as life-changing as Livia's death--or as seemingly minor as a joke about Johnny Sack's overweight wife or Tony sticking Christopher and Paulie with a task they're not up to--are shown to have such repercussions is an interesting aspect of the series and is something I had forgotten about "Pine Barrens" (I had also forgotten that the events of "Pine Barrens" are referenced in one of my favorite comedic sequences in the entire series, Christopher's intervention). No argument from me against your insightful discussion of the merits of "Pine Barrens." We're all going to have different favorite episodes based on our tastes.

    I'm curious to see which shows you'll be breaking down next. I'd like to see your takes on Freaks and Geeks, The Larry Sanders Show and The Prisoner. I'm not sure what you think of The Rockford Files, but I wrote at length about Rockford on my blog after I discovered it on DVD. On Rockford, David Chase displayed a knack for crafting gangster characters who were more than just cardboard villains and were enjoyably neurotic precursors to Tony and Christopher. Rockford isn't exactly sophisticated-looking TV (Terriers was like "What if you took Rockford and brought it up to date with moral ambiguity, lengthy arcs and a look that doesn't scream ''70s Universal Television assembly line'?"), but it's always a joy to revisit because of James Garner's sense of humor and the timeless and above-average scripts.

  4. I’m mostly interested in focusing on shows on this new millennium, where the switch in television’s quality became clear. However, the shows you’ve mentioned are highly influential models for where the format could go (perhaps I’ll start a new list spanning shows pre-2000). Freaks & Geeks in particular I have a lot of fondness for (not only is it episode-to-episode perfection, but it’s still my favorite Judd Apatow comedy, even more so than The 40-Year-Old Virgin), but The Larry Sanders Show and The Prisoner both are quite impressive for how much they were able to do, especially during a time when nothing else was being done like it.

    Full disclosure time: I have yet to see an entire episode of The Rockford Files (odd, considering I love James Garner’s voice and sense of humor as well). I’ve caught pieces of reruns multiple times growing up, but haven’t seen it since becoming a more critically minded cinema consumer. I know I need to get on it (I like the Terriers description, it shows that the potential for a Sopranos-like show was there), especially since Mr. Chase had quite a hand in it. Are there any particular episodes that I should start with first? My understanding is that Rockford is not quite as serialized as say, Sopranos, but perhaps I should just make the time to get acquainted with the entire series run. Are the made-for-TV-movies that followed worth my time?

  5. Rockford's on Hulu and Instant Netflix. I recommend "Profit and Loss," "So Help Me God," any of the ones Chase wrote and any of the ones where Rockford's in grifter mode. Like so much of non-serialized pre-'00s TV, there are a lot of episodes that are filler, particularly in the first season, so I wouldn't suggest starting from the beginning ( I haven't seen the '90s Rockford TV-movies yet, although Universal finally released all of them on DVD recently. Chase wrote and directed the Rockford TV-movie that involved the Russian mob, of course.

    I forgot that you're focusing on the new millennium. I tweeted about the lengthy interview with W. Earl Brown that The A.V. Club posted last week. Was that article why you chose Deadwood for your latest post? The most interesting parts of the Brown Q&A were his recollections of how the writing process went on Deadwood and how his character's classic fight scene with The Captain was created. If someone ever expresses a snooty disdain for TV, I would cite the Dan/Captain fight scene as an example of how much TV is superior to cinema these days.

  6. I had actually forgotten to link that article to my Deadwood piece, but the timing is just one of those happy accident things. I had been re-reading Milch's Stories From The Black Hills recently and it just seemed like the time was right. Dority was always one of my favorite characters (just as Mr. Brown has remained one of my favorite "character actors" of the last couple decades), never a mere "thug in the shadows," and the fact that Brown was welcomed not only as an actor but a writer (similar to Ricky Jay) suggests that Milch is one magnanimously collaborative show runner. The way W. Earl talks about Deadwood like it may be the best thing that will ever happen to him (career-wise)... well, it's heart-breaking and inspiring at the time same.

    And yes, the fight between Dan and Captain Turner remains one of the greatest fist fights ever filmed - and is a damn fine example of the tension created through serialized television (the kind that can exceed what is possible in one 90-to-130 minute movie).

    Thanks for the link to your Rockford assessment (and the pointers for good starting episodes). I enjoyed your shout outs to its "spiritual grandchild" Veronica Mars as well as that reminder of the oh-so-cool (and signature) Rockford Reverse 180. This show is going to be well worth unearthing, I can tell.