#2: “The Sopranos.” [TV Aughtrospective]

This masterful series might be the most important television show of all time: it is largely responsible for the explosion of great cable programming that includes seven of our top ten choices and marked the aughts as a magnificent television decade. It pioneered the concept of a great, award-winning drama series airing on a pay cable channel, and paved the way for dozens of terrific HBO and Showtime series that came afterward. It used the freedom of HBO to blow down the barriers traditionally restricting televised dramas, resulting in a cinematic masterpiece that holds its own against the many great films of its genre.

For all its importance to television history, however, its most vital quality is that it is tremendously well written, directed, acted and edited. For that reason, we declare “The Sopranos” the second-best television show of the aughts.

Like many of the programs on our list, “The Sopranos” grew a complex narrative out of a very simple concept: “A mobster in therapy having problems with his mother.” Creator David Chase spent years slaving away in the dungeon of television writing, but shows like “Twin Peaks” inspired him to start thinking bigger when it came to developing TV shows. He created the concept of “The Sopranos” based on his own experiences and his love of crime films, and penned a pilot script that was gritty, witty, and unlike anything on television at the time. The genius of the show is that it blended Mafia fantasy with mundane suburban reality.

While every network passed on the show without much thought, HBO president Chris Albrecht immediately saw huge promise in “The Sopranos.” He described his reaction to the pilot script to Vanity Fair:

“I said to myself, This show is about a guy who’s turning 40. He’s inherited a business from his dad. He’s trying to bring it into the modern age. He’s got all the responsibilities that go along with that. He’s got an overbearing mom that he’s still trying to get out from under. Although he loves his wife, he’s had an affair. He’s got two teenage kids, and he’s dealing with the realities of what that is. He’s anxious; he’s depressed; he starts to see a therapist because he’s searching for the meaning of his own life. I thought: The only difference between him and everybody I know is he’s the don of New Jersey. So, to me, the Mafia part was sort of the tickle for why you watched. The reason you stayed was because of the resonance and the relatability of all that other stuff.”

The show centers around stout, irascible, charismatic Jersey mob player Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini) and his appealing, resourceful, and complicated wife Carmela (Edie Falco). When the series opens, he is an underboss to his good friend, Jackie Aprile, who is dying of cancer — Jackie’s wife Rosalie (Sharon Angela) and son Jackie Jr. (Jason Cerbone) provide a counterpoint to the Soprano family narrative. Tony and Carmela live a largely ordinary suburban life in New Jersey; everyday crises include getting their daughter Meadow (Jamie-Lynn Sigler) into college and keeping their son Anthony Jr. (Robert Iler) out of trouble…but Tony often deals with family crises in a manner informed by his “professional” life.

Meanwhile, Tony has to contend with his manipulative mother Livia (Nancy Marchand) and his late father’s jealous brother Junior (Dominic Chianese). Carmela’s nephew Christopher (Michael Imperioli) is Tony’s best hope for a protege, but often falls prey to impulsiveness; Christopher’s girlfriend Adriana (Drea De Matteo) is one of the series’ best characters. Tony’s sister Janice (Aida Turturro) only brings him further headaches when she appears on the scene and gets involved in tempestuous romances with his “co-workers.”

Tony’s fellow mafiosi are an assortment of terrific creations. There’s his second-in-command Silvio Dante (Springsteen guitarist Steven Van Zandt), a loyal and efficient lieutenant who runs the “Bada Bing!” strip club and does a great Michael Corleone impression. Tony’s longtime friend Sal “Big Pussy” Bonpensiero (Vincent Pastore) is a lovable fat man whose storyline quickly turns tragic. Paulie “Walnuts” Gualtieri (Tony Sirico) is a small-time gangster whose dreams of becoming something greater are held in check by his limited intelligence. Beyond these mainstays, Tony’s crew also features some fine characters over the years, including the menacing Richie Aprile (David Proval), the brash Ralphie Cifaretto (Joey Pants), the unfortunate Bobby Baccalliari (Steve Schirripa), and the closeted Vito Spatafore (Joseph Gannascoli).

Of course, the series also features Tony’s therapy sessions with Dr. Jennifer Melfi (Lorraine Bracco). Although the act of seeing a therapist to talk through your personal and professional problems is sacrilege in organized crime society, Tony defies tradition in order to cope with panic attacks that beset him throughout the series. Dr. Melfi is a sounding board for the struggles that Tony cannot voice to either of his families, but while she helps him cope with stress and trauma, she sometimes enables him to justify his murderous and criminal actions. While Tony battles his demons in Dr. Melfi’s office, we also see Dr. Melfi battling the stress of treating a sociopathic client.

The series also featured more great actors and characters than we can begin to recap here: the one-legged mistress, the constipated mobster who dies on the toilet, the New Englander who insists on getting a police report when Vito hits his car…we could go on for paragraph after paragraph, but let’s suffice it to say that even Geoffrey Chaucer would envy David Chase and company’s talent for creating a compelling ensemble.

The true focus of “The Sopranos” is not the murderous action of Mafia life, but the disintegration of the marriage between Tony and Carmela. As the SF Chronicle’s Tim Goodman aptly put it, “It cleverly fooled people into thinking that they were watching a violent story about the mob when they were really watching a married couple come undone as they dealt with each other and their extended families.”

(By the way, how awesome is that painting? Surprisingly enough, it’s the work of our favorite Sopranos actor, Paterson, New Jersey’s own Federico Castellucio.)

In order to wrap our arms around the scope of “The Sopranos,” we’ll touch on each of the six seasons, unveiling as few spoilers as possible – but let’s face it, if you’ve been alive on this Earth for the past decade, you probably know the basics.

The first season essentially sets up the series. The actors are still ironing out their accents, the wardrobe and film budgets are scant, but all the elements that made “The Sopranos” a great show are in evidence from the jumpoff. Throughout the season, Tony struggles with Uncle Junior for control of the crime family while dealing with his mother’s undermining ways. The ironic juxtaposition between Mafia life and suburban mundanity is never more clear than in the superb episode where Tony takes Meadow to visit small New England colleges, discovers that a Mafia snitch is living in witness protection in the Maine woods, and murders him in between tours of Colby and Bowdoin.

Season Two is a quantum leap forward. With “The Sopranos” an unqualified hit, HBO expanded the budget, the actors and producers got comfortable, and the show accelerated into perhaps its finest season. Tony has to contend with a federal racketeering trial for Uncle Junior, an attempted murder of Christopher, and the aggressive encroachment of Richie Aprile. A business trip to Italy yields some of the series’ most amazing visual moments and adds the badass Furio Giunta (Castellucio) to the crew. Through a variety of clues and one astonishing dream sequence, Tony discovers that one of his best friends is betraying him to the FBI and has to act on it.

By the third season, the show was a huge success — this began the era of extremely lengthy delays between seasons, drawn-out pay package negotiations for the stars, and overheated press before, during, and after each season. Despite these minor negatives, the show continued at an extraordinarily high level. The newest thorn in Tony’s side was Ralphie, who raked in money for the family when he wasn’t brutally murdering a stripper or demanding a promotion. Meanwhile, Tony takes up with luxury car saleswoman Gloria Trillo (Anabella Sciorra) who he meets at Dr. Melfi’s office; she only reinforces the issues he’s there to deal with. This season featured arguably the best episode in the history of the series, the amazing “Pine Barrens,” in which Paulie Walnuts and Christopher head to the woods of South Jersey to dump a body and end up lost, freezing, starving, and squabbling.

Interestingly, “Pine Barrens” was a useful tool to separate the two groups of “Sopranos” fans in the by-now-massive fan base: the people who thought it was boring and stupid really didn’t understand what the show was about at all, and would later be infuriated by the amazing dream sequences and audacious conclusion.

By Season Four, Tony found himself increasingly involved with New York’s Lupertazzi crime family, leading the show into interesting sidelines like Johnny “Sack” Sacramoni’s desire to revenge a fat joke made at his wife’s expense. Carmela and Tony’ s relationship continues to disintegrate, as he embarks on numerous infidelities and she begins an extended flirtation with Furio, and by season’s end they are officially separated. Tony and Ralph invest in a horse named Pie-O-My that Tony grows to love; this storyline leads to yet another astonishingly brutal murder. Adriana gets busted and begins informing to the FBI, while Christopher is drawn into an increasingly dire heroin addiction.

By season five, which viewers had to wait approximately eight years to watch, the seams of “The Sopranos” were beginning to show. New characters like Steve Buscemi’s Tony Blundetto joined the cast, but often failed to have the same impact as the brilliant creations of the early years. Nevertheless, as the season moved on, it delivered some of the series’ most memorable moments. Carmela and Tony reconcile yet again — throughout the series, he is forced to make up his shortcomings to her with bigger and bigger gifts, and this pattern culminates with her “spec house” project. Adriana’s betrayal of “the family” is discovered, with heartbreaking results. Tony gets Meadow’s college boyfriend Finn a job at one of the family’s construction sites, and Finn finds something out about Vito Spatafore that he really didn’t want to know:

Another agonizing wait was in store before Season Six could begin, and HBO then split the season into two parts, just to milk the show for all it was worth. However, David Chase and his underlings delivered some of the series’ best episodes, along with some of the worst. The season opened with a bravura set of episodes in which Tony is shot and near death: he experiences a lengthy dream sequence in which he is living a totally different life. While he returns to health, several other characters are not so lucky. Vito is outed and flees to New Hampshire for an overly-long storyline that is compelling nonetheless. Phil Leotardo takes control of the New York crew and battles Tony for supremacy. Dr. Melfi drops Tony as a client.

The ending of the show is one of the most written-about in history, and not coincidentally, it’s one of the best. An abrupt smash cut to black as the Sopranos sat down for dinner in a restaurant made people think their cable had gone out — when they realized it hadn’t, emotions ranged from baffled to enraged to delighted. We feel that David Chase’s decision to end the show without a clear resolution, opting instead for a suggestive cliffhanger that still left room for multiple interpretations, was one of the greatest moments in television history. End of discussion.

You don’t have to look far to find someone who declares “The Sopranos” God’s gift to television. Salon’s Rebecca Traister paid respect:

The fact that praise is often repeated does not make it untrue. “The Sopranos” was quite simply a fine piece of narrative, an opera on the turnpike that was simultaneously lush and spare in its depiction of American life. Tony and his buddies were many things that marked them as “other”: Italian, murderers, fat. But in all their extraordinariness they were just ordinary Americans.

From the moment it hit the airwaves, “The Sopranos” was in the pantheon, but as it aged it deepened and grew, not only matching great filmed epics line for line and shot for shot but blooming into a work of literature. It examined the evolution of the American dream with as much precision, if less economy, than Fitzgerald, and took apart the experience of American masculinity with the sometimes heavy-handed symbolism of Melville…

As a uniquely American story, “The Sopranos” had all the big themes: class, ethnicity, sexuality, mothers and daughters, fathers and sons. It ruminated both on the thickness of blood and on the unsettling ways it can thin with time; it examined the intricate steel on which marriages are built, the high costs of loyalty and even steeper price of betrayal.

So why didn’t we call this the best show of the decade? We wouldn’t fight you to the death if you disagree, but there were some minor quibbles we couldn’t ignore. First, there’s the delays that often sapped our enthusiasm for the show, but enough bitching about those. The culture that grew up around the series — actors peddling cookbooks and pasta sauce and desperately trading on their fleeting “Sopranos” fame — was lame in the extreme. While the story of Tony and Carmela only gained in emotional heft in the later seasons, the subplots and supporting characters of the fifth and sixth seasons often lacked greatness when compared to those in the earlier years. Finally, the Soprano children were not very compelling and only got more airtime as they got older: especially the dull Anthony Jr., who we couldn’t care less about.

Regardless, this series remains one of the signature works of American entertainment and one of the paramount creative masterpieces of the aughts. The story of “The Sopranos” was gripping, moving, funny, frightening, shocking, and unforgettable. If you haven’t seen it, get thee to a Netflix account immediately — prepare to be mindblown.

TV Aughtrospective:
Introduction and Runners-Up
#10: “Six Feet Under.”
#9: “It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia.”
#8: “The Daily Show.”
#7: “South Park.”
#6: “Mad Men.”
#5: “Arrested Development.”
#4: “American Idol.”
#3: “Lost.”
#2: “The Sopranos.”
#1: “The Wire.”

About Alpine McGregor
Just like you, man. I got the shotgun, you got the briefcase. All in the game, though, right?

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