Re-Watching the Sopranos – Season 1

I’ve said before that HBO changed the the way I watch TV. The emphasis on strong writing, stellar acting, big production values, and season-long storylines drew me back into television after a long period of having abandoned the idea of it being something worthwhile. Prior to a change in my TV habits, I had given up watching broadcast TV altogether. There seemed better things to see and better things to watch (such as Hitchcock films).

But HBO’s bold, expansive programming changed all that, and these days I prefer long television dramas to movies.

It all started with The Sopranos, a landmark series by any measure. This is a show that took the groundbreaking efforts of Hill Street Blues and blew them into the stratosphere. No one had seen anything like it before. Season-long stories, twisted characters, sex, violence, profanity, and most of all, smarts. This was a show that didn’t merely rely on loads of adult content to differentiate itself from network TV. After all, pushing the boundaries of taste is easy. Turning it into art is something else entirely.

Yet The Sopranos was smart. Witty. And despite all the cussing and murder, it could be subtle and intelligent and thought-provoking. This was a show that, between the murders and sex, dealt with some powerful themes. Whether people can change. Morals and good and evil. The things you can justify to yourself and others to protect your family, yourself, or merely your income.

Behind all the mafia intrigue it was actually a deep character study and a family drama.

Anyway, let me dispense with long introductions. While I DO plan to do a series of posts about re-watching this series — and with each season they are likely to get longer and more detailed — my intention is not to be scholarly or insightful or groundbreaking. After all, I’ve been there before. I just want to post about the Sopranos. If you want in-depth, intelligent essays on The Sopranos, look at this great series on the Onion A/V Club. If you just want to reminisce with a friend, however, stick around.

So, season 1.

I very took few notes because I did not expect to be making these blog posts at the time I started re-watching, so this one will be brief. And just so we’re clear, every blog post will have SPOILERS, so if you haven’t watched the show but plan to, avoid reading. These are not meant to be consumer reviews, they’re just some quick commentary between folks who have seen the show.

thesopranos-season1aHere in season 1, the show starts out strong, just as strong as I remember — which is a surprise because in the years since I last saw it I had gotten the feeling that TV had left The Sopranos behind. But no, it sure didn’t. I’m impressed at how well these early episodes hold up. I’m even less of a fan of the family drama now than I was first time around, in large part because Carmella and the kids aren’t yet as well-developed as they’d be in later seasons, but the mob stuff is impeccable. It’s brisk, brutal, and funny as hell. I go back and forth between lukewarm on the stuff with Dr. Melfi — at times it screams “gimmick!” — and finding it a creative way to really get inside the character of Tony Soprano.

Regardless of some stray misgivings, the first season has some OUTSTANDING episodes. Tops among these is “College,” in which Tony takes Meadow on a college tour and spots a rat from the past, while Carmela is at home drinking wine and getting close with her priest. It was at this point that the show really hit its stride and showed what it could be.

A couple of things I had forgotten prior to this re-watching:

  • How fantastic the humor was in that first season. Guys like Paulie later became caricatures of themselves, but early on he and many others have loads of hilarious moments that also work straight. Even Tony. Lots of humor but not played up for laughs.
  • How UNLIKABLE everyone is. Dr. Melfi and Artie Bucco are the only sympathetic characters. Everyone else from start to finish is an unsympathetic person — but you enjoy watching them anyway.
  • How much I wanted Tony’s mom to die. I’m serious. What an awful woman. I hated her the first time through and hate her worse now. Unlike most of the unsympathetic but charismatic cast, this is a character I just want to see beaten to within an inch of her life.
  • How little mob business there really is. Fully 75% of the show or more is family stuff. And this is the case for the whole series. I guess that’s part of what made it click with people. It was a twist on the same old mafia bullshit, and a twist people could relate to.
  • Paulie was a great character in those earlier seasons. He descended into a parody of himself later on, but for a while he was comedic genius made even better because he was played straight. I love when he tells a joke/insult, then turns to the next person and says, “Did you hear that, I said” and repeats the joke/insult.

thesopranos-season1bThe first season wraps up as if you had just seen a complete story — they didn’t know if they would get a second season, after all — so, given how long the show went on and the trends in television it went on to inspire it’s interesting how few loose strings they left hanging for a possible second season. Big Pussy’s disappearance is really the only major one. Otherwise, the antagonists are either killed, jailed, or suffering from major strokes. If the finale was a little BIGGER in action and finality it could have been a satisfying single-season show.

Most impressive to me is how strong the writing still is. Since I first watched The Sopranos a lot of really fantastic shows have taken my attention. The Wire. Breaking Bad. Deadwood (best show ever). Rome. I started to think The Sopranos paled by comparison.

I was wrong.

Check back next Monday for my assessment of Season 2.

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