To start at the end and thereby offer you a better idea of where I’m coming from (and a little bit because it mirrors the series opening), I will say that I am not someone who hated the final moments of The Sopranos. Heck, I watched it, said “huh, interesting,” and didn’t fathom that anyone had experienced it in a substantially different fashion until later.
That is, perhaps, the genius of David Chase’s The Sopranos in a nutshell – it is so much to so many people and it all depends on who you are when you watch and where you’re coming from. In fact, your response may change greatly over time… or not.
HBO has just released, for the first time, the entire series on Blu-ray, and binge-watching the entire 86 episode run over the course of a few weeks as opposed seeing the six seasons from 1999 to 2007 is a different experience. Or, maybe I’m different. Or both.
It is easy to say that The Sopranos changed television forever, that it altered the way we look at the small screen. It is also not wrong. That is what makes tackling the show in a single review difficult. Go and run a search for books about The Sopranos at Amazon. There are dozens of non-fiction books analyzing the show (sometimes alongside other series, sometimes not).
But, let’s take a step back. On the face of it, The Sopranos is about this guy, Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini), who is trying to figure out his place in the world, to learn where he belongs. The series is a mash-up of family drama and crime drama as Tony, a member of the Jersey mafia, has both. Well, maybe he has all three if you consider his family and his “family.”
There is a great deal of overlap here as Tony’s genetic family is also a part of his work family, and no small amount of tension is derived from those overlaps. Over the 86 episodes, Tony fights with his uncle, Junior (Dominic Chianese), and his nephew, Christopher (Michael Imperioli), over matters both mob related and not. Tony also has problems with his wife, Carmela (Edie Falco), and kids, AJ (Robert Iler) and Meadow (Jamie-Lynn Sigler).
On the face of it, the series sounds like just your regular old drama; we have all seen shows where folks have trouble separating work from family and have difficulties in both areas. That isn’t what makes “The Sopranos” different.
So then, what is?
To say that is exceptionally well acted is true, but doesn’t offer enough either. To say that it has an extraordinarily deep stock of characters with intertwined stories is equally true and just as insufficient. It is also brilliantly written and beautifully constructed.
It feels a cheat to go through and list the folks who give great performances—outside of those mentioned above, there’s also Lorraine Bracco, Steven Van Zandt, Tony Sirico, Drea de Matteo, Steve Schirripa, John Ventimiglia, Vincent Pastore, Nancy Marchand, Aida Turturro, and Steve Buscemi—but hugely important. Every time Vincent Curatola appears as Johnny “Sack” Sacramoni (and he’s in fewer than half the episodes), it is a joy watching him as a NY mafia guy living in Jersey. Joe Pantoliano’s Ralph Cifaretto has this obsession with the movie Gladiator, and seeing that appear episode after episode is sure to make you laugh.
But then, Ralph also has a dark side which will terrify you. Johnny Sack can be cold-blooded in a way that might make you question those you most trust.
And Tony. Tony… Tony is a dark grey. Tony loves his family and would do anything to protect them. Then again, he would do anything to protect them, and not just his family, but his “family,” too.
I don’t want to say that these are real, three dimensional characters, because even if they’re fully realized, I don’t want them to be real. I assume that there are people in this world who have the same sorts of anger problems as folks on the show, whose marriage vows mean both everything and nothing, who would do what the people on this show (men and women) do. But, these are not people with which you probably want to spend an afternoon.
Watching them go and do what they do however is an absolutely mesmerizing experience. It is great, smart, writing.
It is actually so good that in the middle of running through the series, you’re going to want to stop and go back and watch an episode from a previous season because they just referenced it but in a totally different way. Is that what she meant when she said that? Wait, did those two guys talk about that in that way? Holy cow, is that the same guy? Almost invariably, the answer is yes.
That isn’t to say that the show necessarily plotted everything out years in advance. Rather, they may have known where they wanted some stuff to go, but were also able to tie in other, new, elements with smart references.
I am not going to try to breakdown every little instance of genius here. Nor will I suggest that every single moment is brilliant. There are moments that don’t work, but they are few and far between. Trying to go through it all here and now would be a disservice to the series. And, it would be a disservice to the full books that have been written examining it all.
What you need to know is this –The Sopranos wasn’t the first show of its kind, but due to its success, it changed television. It helped usher in a world where characters are deeper, stories are more complex, and where if you miss an episode or two you could well be in trouble.
As for this particular release, the 86 episodes are spread across 27 discs (a 28th disc has bonus features). There is a different case for every season (the last season, which aired in two parts, is separated into two), and a far smaller one for the bonus features.
Watching season one on Blu-ray, you’re going to be disappointed. There are shots where colors don’t match from one moment to the next, parts where there is far too much grain, scenes where the detail is definitely sub-optimal. It looks, for the most part, good, but not great. Things are significantly better with season two and probably by the third season you’ll have nary a complaint. The surround audio is good throughout. It is a clear presentation with good use of bass and the surrounds, particularly when at a club or during a more action-oriented sequence. It is also well-mixed, with audio given the priority over music or effects – unlike what you sometimes see with bigger movies.
Where things again come up slightly short is with the bonus features. The set comes with an iTunes copy; 25 audio commentary tracks (they’re hit and miss); and then five hours of bonus features, three hours of which (roughly) are new. These last items are interviews with Chase and other members of the crew as well as cast, critics, and more. They are fascinating, offer anecdotes, and put the series into a larger context. They do, however, leave you wanting more.
That is, of course, the reaction many had to the series finale which, somehow, may be the point. I have to leave that to wiser minds than my own.
What I know for certain is that not only is The Sopranos great television, after you watch 86 episodes in a few short weeks you’re going to find yourself looking at the world in a slightly different fashion. You’re also going to be singing “Woke up this Morning” a lot.
It is all so worth it.