'The Sopranos' Rewind: Season 1, Episode 1: 'The Sopranos'
Welcome to the first installment of our summer trip through "The Sopranos" season 1. When I revisited early seasons of "The Wire," as well as the whole run of "Deadwood," I did separate versions of each review for newcomers and veterans, but over time realized that the newcomers weren't commenting much, if at all, and that it therefore made sense to simply do one review. Any significant spoilers for episodes beyond the one being reviewed will be contained in a separate section at the end of the review; so long as you avoid that, and the comments, you should be fine.
Thoughts on the first episode — which is also known as "The Sopranos" — coming up just as soon as I finish unscrewing my belly button...
"It's good to be in something from the ground floor. I came too late for that, I know. But lately, I'm getting the feeling that I came in at the end. The best is over." -Tony
As Dr. Melfi notes, Tony's fear that he came in at the end — not just of his particular job field, but of the American experiment itself — was a common one at the time, and it's no less common today. The world is a mess, the economy is a mess, and our political system is a catastrophe at this point. So what was timely and universal in 1999 still is as we revisit the show today.
"The Sopranos" itself, though, is the start of something. It's the drama that launched a thousand imitators — some great in their own right ("The Shield," "Mad Men," "Breaking Bad"), some less so ("Low Winter Sun") — and kickstarted this new Golden Age of TV drama in which we currently live.
And what's amazing is not only how current this pilot feels 16 years later (fashions and technology aside), but how fully-formed it is. The series wouldn't become a word-of-mouth phenomenon for another few episodes, which we can discuss when we get to "College," but this episode isn't a version of "The Sopranos" with training wheels on it. Give or take some minor character or set design details (some of which I get into in the spoiler section), "The Sopranos" the episode is "The Sopranos" the series .
David Chase fought to direct the pilot (in part because he was hoping HBO would lose interest and he could expand it into a feature film that would get him out of the TV business forever), and his eye is apparent from the very first shot of the series proper: Tony Soprano, glimpsed through the legs of a sculpture of a woman in Dr. Melfi's waiting room. The series would not be shy about exploring familiar conceits of psychiatry, and given Tony's many complicated feelings about his mother (not to mention his wife and daughter), it's the perfect image to open on, and the hour is filled with some of the most memorable images of the series: Tony in his bathrobe reading The Star-Ledger at the end of his driveway, the backyard grill flaring up after Tony's collapse, the cuts to the different pictures on the pork store wall as Christopher murders Emil Kolar, or even Tony lying in the MRI as Carmela tells him he's going to Hell when he dies. Chase would tweak certain elements as the series moved along, but it's an assured hour of TV that in no way looks like it was made by a man with only a handful of directing credits before this(*).
(*) But where Chase's protege Matt Weiner would ultimately direct a number of "Mad Men" episodes, Chase's only other directing job of this series was the very last episode.
The starting point for the show was Chase's combative relationship with his own mother, so it's not surprising that the two most instantly vivid characters are Tony himself and Livia. Chase and Nancy Marchand do such an efficient job of creating Livia that you know exactly who she is almost before she's opened the door and we've seen her for the first time. Just the paranoid way she responds to Tony's knock is enough, and the rest of their encounter — rejecting the gift of the CD player (and Tony's attempt to dance with her), moaning about her late husband (of whom Tony will later tell Melfi, "my mother wore him down to a little nub") being a saint, and otherwise trying to play the martyr — tells you exactly how toxic things are between mother and son. Chase added the mob angle to make the idea more commercial, and the show certainly wouldn't have been the phenomenon it became if Tony was (as one of Chase's friends suggested) a screenwriter, but there's more than enough meat in the way these two don't get along to have filled some brilliant but obscure drama that inspired fewer imitators, but awed whispers from those who watched it.
The pilot neatly toggles back and forth between Tony's family and Family, frequently making clear how blurred the lines are between them. When Uncle Junior objects to Tony's attempt to keep him from killing Little Pussy Malanga(*) at Artie Bucco's restaurant, he tells his nephew, indignant, "How many fucking hours did I spend playing catch with you?" The one should have nothing to do with the other, but Junior feels entitled to unconditioned fealty from Tony, even though, as Tony tells Melfi, "When I was young, he told my girl cousins I would never be a varsity athlete, and frankly, that was a tremendous blow to my esteem." It's a small, interconnected world where past slights are remembered, and exploited, forever, and one where all the members of it seem blinded to its true cost. When Tony expresses misgivings to Dr. Melfi about the current state of the mob, it's not about any of the larger morality, but simply the inconvenience of so many wiseguys turning rat when arrested rather than sticking with the code of silence and doing their time.
(*) Not to be confused with Big Pussy Bonpensiero from Tony's crew. The only sad thing about Little Pussy's death here is that the series couldn't do more Who's On First?-style humor about the two men.
It's a big world with a lot of players, but Chase keeps the focus on lower-case family throughout. Of all the members of Tony's crew, the only one who gets a lot to do in the pilot is the one he's related to, the cocky, petulant Christopher, and his biggest professional conflict involves his uncle. It's a smart way to not only underline some of the themes of the series, but to make Tony more identifiable to the viewer. This is not a good guy, which is clear from our first extended glimpse of him (look at the glee on his face as he beats up Mahaffey), and he's in a business most of us will be lucky if we never encounter in person. But having a complicated relationship with a mother, or uncle, or nephew, or spouse? Those are more universal concerns. Chase had a lot on his mind about the general state of America, and Tony's organization is only the most extreme representation of the larger rot he finds, but so much of what happens in and around that McMansion would be unchanged regardless of its owner's profession.
And for all the people who would complain later on about Tony's dreams, his inner psyche is baked right into the show from the start, as Dr. Melfi helps him connect the dots with a dream he had about his penis falling off with the feelings of intense loss and pain he had when the ducks flew out of the Soprano family pool. Tony very badly wants to connect, yet he's incapable of doing so with so many of his relatives, whether through his fault, theirs, or both. It's a tragedy, even for a person as compromised and awful as Tony, and Chase, James Gandolfini and everyone else making this great show constantly let us see that tragedy, and understand the man at the center of it, even as it didn't blink from all the terrible things he did.
This was a great pilot in 1999, and it still is now. And we're just getting started.
Some other thoughts: