By Michael Reed on 9/13/12

Continuing our look at classic television shows in the “Golden Age”, we leave Westeros, Madison Avenue, and Scranton and head to North Jersey…

The Sopranos


Air Date 1/10/99

The Good

Early on in The Sopranos, Tony Soprano willingly wades into his backyard pool, still wearing his bathrobe, and happily plays with a visiting family of ducks.  For rabid fans of the show, it’s remarkable just how truly happy Tony is with those ducks, as he does not experience that kind of unrestrained joy in the future.

The Sopranos is regarded by many as the first truly great cable drama, and certainly as the trailblazer for The Wire, Deadwood, Mad Men, Breaking Bad, and others that have followed1. The pilot episode is a clinical and excellent 60 minutes by David Chase, the series creator and showrunner2. Over its eight year run, The Sopranos kept a nation on the edge of its premium cable worthy seat, and helped create one of the most arrogant slogans of all time: “It’s Not Television-It’s HBO”34. Of course, it’s easy to see in the pilot what the show would NOT be; it was not just the Godfather or Goodfellas for television. There is not the grand settings of the Corleone’s palatial family estate, or the incredible speed and pacing of Henry Hill’s voyeuristic story. The Soprano family has an upscale house with a pool, but it’s purposefully middle class and screams suburban consumerism. Furthermore, absent a few noted sequences, the pacing of the pilot is relaxed and showcases the mob lifestyle as highly unglamorous. The typical mob storylines are there to keep us interested, but the show’s repetition of certain themes even in the first episode indicate an interpretation beyond whackings and cannoli. With the benefit of hindsight, Chase actually lays out his story in the first minutes of the show. Tony Soprano, mob boss and father, goes to see a psychiatrist because he fainted. After some prodding from Dr. Melfi, Tony eventually opens up to an unshakeable sentiment:

“It’s good to be in something from the ground floor. I came too late for that and I know. But lately, I’m getting the feeling that I came in at the end. The best is over.”

This is The Sopranos’ shorthand thesis-the best of times have passed, and it’s all downhill from here. Dark stuff. The philosophy works on several levels. As Tony mentions to Dr. Melfi, the “best” times of organized crime are over. Law enforcement is catching up to them, thanks to increased federal funding and RICO5. More and more mobsters are flipping and testifying for the government in order to avoid jail. The “family business” used to be recession proof, but not anymore, says Uncle Junior. Over the course of the series, The Sopranos’ argument grows bigger than Tony’s expanding waistline. Things aren’t just “trending downward” for Tony Soprano; Chase indicts society as a whole for what he sees as a collapse of values. Meadow, Tony’s eldest child, is given tiny snippets of Chase’s endgame critique in the pilot, as she obsesses over a Christmas break trip to Aspen with her friends. Tony’s reaction throughout the episode to his daughter’s ambitious social calendar, which creates a predictable conflict between Meadow and her mother, Tony’s wife, Carmela, is one of practiced apathy and avoidance. It’s not until the end of the episode that Tony tries to address Meadow’s behavior, and even then he lapses into a monologue about his family’s ancestors and what they accomplished. It’s not insignificant that the topic for this misplaced attempt at parenting is a church that according to Tony was literally built from scratch by his family many years ago. To Tony, those beloved ancestors came in on the ground floor, and now here he is, mediating a fight between his wife and 16-year-old daughter over a skiing trip.

One of the many rules of story telling that The Sopranos breaks is how little the characters change. A good story normally features dynamic characters that are constantly evolving as a result of their experiences, whether it be an uplifting transformation from unbearably selfish mercenary to cocky lovable war hero (Han Solo) or a far darker evolution from an idealistic war veteran to murderous crime lord (Michael Corleone). Over its six-season run, The Sopranos doesn’t simply just break these rules; it flaunts them with even less subtlety than a night at the Bada Bing. Much like Larry David’s hysterical social assassins in Seinfeld, Tony and the gang are so ingrained in their ways that the characters arcs are merely about the possibility of change; these characters never actually take the leap and change. Chase thoroughly enjoyed this technique, as his characters would finally seem to recognize the many errors’ of their ways, only to willingly go back to their familiar status quo in often horrifying fashion.

The first episode therefore isn’t so much a roadmap of what’s to come but a manifesto of Chase’s characters going forward. Tony is having panic attacks, undoubtedly due in part to his everyday experiences of running a criminal organization. Carmela knows how Tony makes his living, and tells him point blank he will go to Hell for it, and her knowledge torments her, and she throws herself into her Catholic faith as a result, hoping to eternally insulate her soul.  Tony’s nephew, Christopher, feels underappreciated by Tony, dreams of getting out of Jersey and writing a script for Hollywood, and drugs are an ever-present factor in his life. Uncle Junior wants more respect from his nephew Tony in the family business and is considering whacking Tony despite his affection for his nephew6.

On a normal show, these character introductions would serve to hook us in-what will it take for Tony’s panic attacks to go away?  Will Carmela’s faith force her to leave Tony and potentially bring an end to his mafia dealings?  Will Christopher leave to go to Hollywood?   The Sopranos world subverts these expectations, as the drama is ultimately in just how close, or not close, the characters get to these life-altering paths, before they return to what they know and who they have been. Much like the endless supply of gabagool in the Soprano fridge, the rot on these characters’ souls isn’t going away.

The show’s philosophical stasis doesn’t just explicitly refer to the characters’ arcs, but even occurs on a more literal level with their dialogue. The pilot establishes several repeated lines that would surface again and again, hammering home Chase’s philosophy of how stuck his characters truly are. One example of this occurs when we first meet Tony’s mother. She has no interest in going to a nursing home, despite living alone and avoiding driving places, to which Tony would respond in one of the show’s most memorable lines “It’s not a nursing home, it’s a RETIRMENT COMMUNITY!”  This line was a guaranteed laugh in future episodes and seasons, yet fittingly none of the characters in the show took it to be humorous, reminding the audience just how little has changed for the characters and how depressing that can be.

One of the more memorable repeated motifs of the series is Tony’s nostalgic inquiry of “Whatever happened to Gary Cooper?”  For Tony, Gary Cooper is everything that’s great about the past and exactly what is wrong with today’s world:

Nowadays everybody’s got to go to shrinks and counselors, and go on Sally Jesse Raphael and talk about their problems. Whatever happened to Gary Cooper, the strong, silent type? That was an American. He wasn’t in touch with his feelings. He just did what he had to do. See, what they didn’t know is once they got Gary Cooper in touch with his feelings, that they wouldn’t be able to shut him up. And then it’s dysfunction this and dysfunction that and dysfunction va fa culo!”

According to our protagonist, “The strong, silent type” is who people should be looking up to and trying to emulate; the spill your feelings talk shows and the look at me attitude of people is the exact opposite of that, and Tony sees this me-firstism everywhere he looks, especially in the younger generation, most pointedly in his own kids and his mob protégé Christopher7. It’s also no accident that Tony equates Gary Cooper with national identity; Chase is exposing systematic breaks not just in Tony’s world but also in American society as a whole.

Tony’s desire to return to the time of the Gary Coopers of the world gets at the fundamental crux of The Sopranos; the characters idolize and yearn to escape to the past while the show itself crushes this fantasy, proving just how desperate the characters are to escape reality. In the pilot, Tony wholeheartedly lionizes his father to Dr. Melfi, holding him up as a Gary Cooper-type, proudly mentioning his toughness and independence. While we the viewer can’t help but notice Tony’s happiness when talking about his father, we also know that his father was most likely involved in the mafia and in future episodes learn just how absent he was in Tony’s life. Even Tony recognizes the hypocrisy of the nostalgia for the past, but in typical Sopranos fashion, he stops at the water’s edge of self awareness, as he notes his mother’s hypocrisy in distorting her memory of Tony’s father, but not his own8.

The Sopranos’ complex and hypocritical relationship with the past is further illustrated in a Meta exchange between Carmela and the local Priest.  In a blatant nod to the George Washington of mob stories, The Godfather, Carmela says Tony’s favorite Godfather is the second one, specifically the part where Vito goes back to Sicily. Once again, Tony is romanticizing the past, this time savoring the past in a fictional world. Of course, viewers of The Sopranos surely know what happens in Vito’s trip back to Sicily; it might be gorgeous, but Vito murders an old man in cold blood.

Further complicating The Sopranos’ relationship with nostalgia is the show’s dominant character trait: an inability to change. Towards the end of the episode, Uncle Junior and Tony’s mother Lydia are in the car alone, and the conversation almost instantly turns to Junior and Lydia complaining about Tony, and Junior extends the critique to Tony’s generation as a whole. The conversation is deliberately similar to the one Tony has with Dr. Melfi about Christopher earlier in the episode. Uncle Junior is making the same point about Tony’s generation, that they are too brash and lacking respect for those that came before them, that Tony made earlier in the episode about Christopher. The elliptical complaints reinforce just how hard change truly is in this environment, while simultaneously debunking the romantic nostalgia for the past.

While Tony might be lying to himself when he longs for the past, there is no denying that David Chase’s masterpiece argues that the world Tony, Carmela, Christopher and the others inhabit is broken. The characters’ incapacity for change and self-improvement is impossible to ignore, as is the ultimately dark fate for the entire set of characters9. Whether it was broken a long time ago, as the pilot episode’s rejection of nostalgia suggests, or recently broken is up for debate, but is ultimately beside the point. David Chase’s opus aims higher than that. The greatest mob story and one of the greatest movies of all time, The Godfather, was not just about mobsters. As Francis Ford Coppola has repeatedly stated, the movie was a metaphor for capitalism and a dark inversion of the American Dream. It’s not surprising then that in framing his critique of America, Chase’s characters explicitly and repeatedly refer to the sacred Godfather texts, both in the pilot and the rest of the series. It’s a way to only pay tribute but also to affirm to the audience that there is a larger argument being presented about national decline.  The term “American Century” to refer to the 20th century was not around in the 1950s or 1960s, and it probably wasn’t even around in the 1990s. It most likely has originated in this century, undoubtedly in part because of the beginnings of the 21st century have generated feelings antithetical to American Exceptionalism. When Tony muses about how he knows he came in at the end of something, Chase isn’t just asking us to realize that Tony’s mafia lifestyle is coming to end; the greatness of America itself is at an end. Considering this horrifyingly dark outlook, trying to escape to the past or seeking solace in cute animals, as Tony does with the ducks in the backyard, is not so strange after all. But by the end of the episode, the ducks fly away.

The Bad

To be blunt, there isn’t much wrong here. Stylistically, there are several scenes in the episode that are set to music that is out of the character with the show’s unrelentingly unromantic outlook of mafia life. Tony and Christopher chasing and eventually brutally beating the in debt businessman across the office park is set to jaunty tunes, as is Christopher’s whacking of a rival “waste management” employee. The Sopranos’ use of music is almost always excellent, but its sequences of violence were almost always silent, making it nearly impossible for the viewer to ignore the horrifying acts of the characters. The soundtrack for the violence echoes a Goodfellas reboot that the rest of the episode and most certainly the rest of the show is not.

From a continuity standpoint, the hostess at a restaurant is played by the same actress that would go on to play Adriana, Christopher’s girlfriend and fiancée.  I highly doubt she’s supposed to be the same character in the pilot, because in this episode her brief dialogue is a typical generic accent. Adriana’s dialect would have an unmistakable flair (“Chris-ta-fur”).

It’s worth noting that the oft-mentioned flaw of The Sopranos, poor acting from supporting characters, is largely absent in this episode. Some of the future problematic characters (Silvio, Paulie, AJ) do appear, but they are largely on the sidelines. The greatness of the performances of James Gandolfini (Tony), Edie Falco (Carmela), Michael Imperioli (Christopher), and Lorraine Bracco (Dr. Melfi) are dominant throughout the series but are especially given focus in the pilot.

  1. I thought about including Downton Abbey, but it’s on PBS, not cable, and that show’s second season had that Newsroom feel where I started to hate all the characters. So sorray, Mistaah Baytes!
  2. Did the term “showrunner” even exist twenty years ago?  Larry David kind of started this, as when reporters were allowed behind the scenes at Seinfeld each came away with the impression it was David’s hand that drove the show. So the next time Matthew Weiner says something arrogant, which will be tomorrow, just remember it’s Larry David’s fault and think of how David feels about this-“***K you Weiner! You are a disgrace to bald people everywhere!”
  3. This zeal would carry over into understanding the show’s ambiguous finale. If this ending happened today, the Internet would collapse on itself, Inception style.
  4. This slogan would be a landmark day for lazy fraternity rush chairmen everywhere, who suddenly realized that if they just had a t-shirt that screamed “We are better than you” with even the slightest allusion to popular culture that Bros could just be Bros who get more Bros. The college club lacrosse industry however laughed at this development, who had been using “It’s Not a Sport-IT’S LAX” for 15 years.
  5. Melfi at first thinks RICO is Tony’s brother, a good example of The Sopranos black comedy.
  6. Later episodes reveal that Junior was a better father than Tony’s actual father was.
  7. Tony complains to Dr. Melfi that Christopher’s splurging on a new Lexus is a perfect example of what is wrong with the younger generation as a whole. In 2012, if Tony said something to Christopher about his fiscal irresponsiblity, Christopher would just tweet “boss is a such a hata always comin at me #IMMABEME”.
  8. Tony bitterly complains to Melfi that since his dad died, his mother goes on and on about how wonderful he was, yet when he was alive, Tony says his mother wore his dad down endlessly until the day he died. I desperately want to watch a show where the Lannisters and The Sopranos undergo group therapy simultaneously. Tony would definitely want to hang out with Cersei more and Tyrion would come up with all kinds of awesome insults for AJ, who really sucks.
  9. By realizing where every character is at the end of the series, the BBQ in this episode, which features every major character in series except Dr. Melfi, illustrates just how impossible it is to happily escape David Chase’s world. So it’s like Entourage, except the exact opposite.