When Goodfellas debuted on movie screens in the fall of 1990, it felt like one last glorious burst for the played-out gangster genre. This was confirmed a few months later with the arrival of The Godfather, Part III, which felt more like a funeral dirge. One could therefore be forgiven for regarding the hosannas that have greeted the HBO series The Sopranos with skepticism, especially given television critics’ tendency to overpraise cable programming (apparently mistaking freedom from FCC strictures for edginess). But the recent marathon re-broadcast of the show’s first season confirms that the hype is, for once, justified. It really is that good.
Granted, the ostensible hook of The Sopranos – mob boss sees shrink – sounds gimmicky and too close for comfort to the Billy Crystal/Robert De Niro comedy Analyze This. The pilot episode opens with New Jersey capo Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini) attending his first appointment with psychiatrist Jennifer Melfi (Lorraine Bracco), after suffering a panic attack during a barbecue in his back yard. Tony, who describes himself as a "waste management consultant," has become emotionally attached to the ducks that have taken up residence in his swimming pool. When the ducks fly away during the barbecue, Tony collapses. Melfi surmises that the ducks represent family – the source of Tony’s anxiety. And as if one dysfunctional family isn’t enough to deal with, Tony has two: his biological family and his mob famiglia.
The lines between these two families are increasingly blurred. His Uncle Junior (Dominic Chianese) is his primary rival for control of the New Jersey organization. His nephew Christopher (Michael Imperioli) is an up-and-comer from the MTV generation – he wants it all right now. In one of the best first season episodes, Tony takes his daughter Meadow on a tour of college campuses in Maine. While on the road, Tony spots a former gangster who long ago turned informant and entered the witness protection program. The cat-and-mouse game that ensues – Tony dropping Meadow off for a college interview, then tracking the rat to his home and strangling him to death – perfectly encapsulates Tony’s ongoing juggling act between his roles of suburban father and Mafia Godfather.
This dichotomy also manifests itself in Tony’s relationship with his mother – a relationship that emerges as the dark heart of The Sopranos. As played by Nancy Marchand in one of the all-time great television performances, Livia Soprano is the most terrifying character on a show populated with ruthless, cold-blooded killers – a manipulative monster in the guise of a doddering old lady. Livia initially appears to be a stock Italian mother character, continually bemoaning the death of her husband: "The man was a saint." Tony has a different take, however, telling Dr. Melfi: "Dad ran his own crew. He was tough. And she wore him down to a little nub. He was a squeaking little gerbil when he died."
Realizing his aging mother can no longer live on her own, Tony places her in an assisted living center. ("It’s not a nursing home, it’s a retirement community!") This perceived betrayal sets in motion a series of power plays culminating with Livia essentially ordering a hit on her own son. After the hit goes awry, Livia suffers an all-too-convenient stroke. This results in the series’ most chilling and darkly funny moment to date, as Tony confronts the supposedly vegetative Livia on her hospital gurney and swears he sees her smiling beneath her oxygen mask.
What keeps The Sopranos fresh and invigorating is its firm grounding in time and place. Creator/writer David Chase was right to insist that the episodes be shot on location in New York and New Jersey, rather than on Hollywood soundstages. This verisimilitude is enhanced by the program’s up-to-the-minute cataloging of contemporary American culture: Prozac, Nintendo, Attention Deficit Disorder, DVD players, and corporate coffee franchises. These gangsters don’t live in a vacuum; they’ve all seen The Godfather a hundred times. They’ve got the laser discs, and when they speak of Part III, it’s to ask, "What happened?" Spotting Martin Scorsese heading into an exclusive dance club, Christopher shouts out, "Kundun! I liked it!" As Silvio (Steven Van Zandt) tries on a new suit in front of a mirror, he recites Al Pacino’s famous dialogue: "Every time I think I’m out – they pull me back in!" This all feels absolutely right and real – particularly in light of the recent news that FBI wiretaps captured actual New York mobsters discussing Sopranos storylines.
One review can only scratch the surface of such a rich piece of work. The Sopranos gets everything right, from its uniformly superb cast (particularly Gandolfini, who can convey more with one raised eyebrow than many actors do in their entire careers, and Edie Falco, who renders every cliche about the Mafia wife obsolete with her fierce intelligence and impeccable b.s. detector) to its deft deployment of mob lingo (Tony owns a strip club called Bada Bing!) to its use of music (Bruce Springsteen’s "State Trooper" never sounded so spooky as it does playing over the closing credits of the first season finale).
Whether Chase and his crew will be able to sustain this remarkable level of quality through the second season and beyond remains to be seen. Thus far the show has maintained a precise balance between the overarching story and the mini-arcs that propel each episode. There is a danger that comes with the perceived need to continually raise the stakes and keep the audience invested, however, and it would be a shame to watch the series devolve into a bloodbath-of-the-week format, complete with increasingly unlikely betrayals and shifts of allegiance (see The X-Files for a prime example of spinning storylines out to the point of absurdity). But given the mini-miracle they’ve pulled off so far, only a fool would bet against The Sopranos.