As an aficionado of all things organized crime; history, movies, literary etc. It was considered a near travesty for those close to me that I had not yet watched The Sopranos despite being as well versed in television and the genre as anyone. My favorite movies are The Godfather and The Godfather Part II. I eat up mob culture like a plate of spaghetti put in front of Tony Soprano. So what finally got me to fully invest in all 6 seasons in the fall of 2014? Two things. 1) Was that is was the last of the so called “Mount Rushmore of Television” (Breaking Bad, Mad Men, The Sopranos and The Wire) that I had yet to watch. Up until that point I had watched all the other shows and they were absolutely amazing. 2) It was the show that launched “The Third Golden Age of Television”. It re-wrote the book completely of what good television made you think and feel. If you want a deeper explanation of the 3rd golden age, check this piece I wrote back in September of 2015.
Before we dive in, here is the list so far:
#12 – The Sopranos Season 1 – Score: 30
What initially grabbed everyone who watched Season 1 of Sopranos was the mob culture. Long has the public been enamored with “la cosa nostra”, just look to the massive success on the big screen with The Godfather, Goodfellas and Casino. But never before had a television show decided to tackle the daily life inside the mafia before. I was particularly fascinated in the minutia of Tony Soprano’s day. How he ran his family as a capo of the DeMio Crime Family. The balance that he struck between a father who saw his kids off at breakfast and the intimidating force he became when he needed to settle things for the family business. Tony was our first extended look at the male anti-hero. He was not totally bad person, as he drove his daughter Meadow to go scout colleges. As any father would enjoy that bonding experience as a rite of passage in their relationship. But he wasn’t inherently good either. College was such a landmark episode because it showcased the duality of Tony Soprano and the balancing act he kept up. On their way to Colby College, Tony ends up committing a murder of a former member turned F.B.I. informant that he had spotted at a rural gas station. And Meadow is none the wiser. She did however ask if he was in the mafia. Which was the first time Tony had to explain his real life work to his daughter who was now becoming her own woman and not his still naïve little girl. Was Tony a good man? Was he a bad man? Does it even matter because I’m still rooting for him either way. That type of viewer connection is what paved the way for the Walter White’s and Don Draper’s of the world that would soon follow. Tony was TV’s first true male anti-hero.
And we still haven’t touched on the prospect of a mafia man of power going to therapy sessions. Dr. Melfi is as central a character as any in this series because she is a part of Tony’s life that he has no control over. She asks the tough questions, she gets him to talk about his feelings. Tony may not like it or understand it but she is the one who truly reveals that under the mask of mafia capo, he is just a human being who struggles with his own demons on a daily basis and that struggle is normal, it is expected. The Sopranos give us so much to consume; the modern day mafia way of life, the hedonism of there lifestyle and the social expectations within their own groups of friends. And all it really is, is a mask that everybody is expected to keep up no matter how you really feel on the inside. All these things made us ask questions, serious questions about the TV show we were watching and that is a good thing. Just like Dr. Melfi invokes those serious emotions in Tony Soprano, this show did the same to its viewer.
Acting Performances: 9
The Sopranos won 4 Emmys in 1999. Those that were related to acting were Edie Falco (Carmela Soprano) for Best Lead Actress in a Drama Series and the Outstanding Casting for a Series by Georiganne Walken and Sheila Jaffe (casting executives). Although James Gandolfini (Tony Soprano) didn’t get an Emmy win in 1999, he later grabbed his first of three Emmys in 2000 for his immortal portrayal of Tony Soprano. I have already given enough credit to Tony; the job that Edi Falco did though, was nothing less than stellar. I already explained the duality that Tony had to keep up, Carmela experienced much of the same. A ardent catholic who whose devotion to her faith is only surpassed by her devotion to her family; always seemed to be caught in the middle of her duty as the wife of a mob boss and her morals as a catholic. Her fight beginning in season 1 is one many women behind the powerful man face, the battle of conscience. Her proformances were rewarded many times over by the academy for not just being Tony’s wife, but Carmela Soprano.
But it just wasn’t the lead Sopranos that should deserve mention. We get two recognized Goodfellas characters in the seasoned Lorraine Bracco (Dr. Melfi) and grown up Michael Imperioli (Christopher Moltisanti) as mainstays in Sopranos Season 1. In fact there were many transplants from Goodfellas to The Sopranos. We also got a plethora of mob characters that straddle the line of too cliché but also uniquely individual in Dominic Chianese (Junior Soprano), Vincent Pastor (“Big Pussy”), Steven Van Zandt (Silvio Dante) and Tony Sirico as the comical Paulie “Walnuts”. All these characters rounded out a very full lineup of diverse and memorable Sopranos roles. Considering the sheer amount of talent in the cast, there are few television seasons that can match up. In fact, I’m not sure there is another season that can go toe to toe with the amount of quality acting across the board that Season 1 Sopranos gave us.
Season Plot Arc: 8
In my opinion, Season 1 was probably the best season plot arc from start to finish(although Season 5 came close). Sopranos started out with Tony experiencing panic attacks and in turn was prescribed therapy sessions, to which he was more than hesitant to begin with. This sort of thing simply wasn’t done, not by made men. He also had to deal with the turnover in leadership when the boss of the DeMio crime family, Jackie Aprile, dies. Both Tony and Junior (Tony’s much older uncle) fight for position of Boss. The tension didn’t start there though. Tony’s nephew, Christopher Moltisanti, had become embroiled in a feud with Junior and his crew over the death of Moltisanti’s friend Brendan. If that wasn’t enough, Tony has more than enough to deal with at home as he continues his difficult relationship with his mother, as she needs to be put in a nursing home, which she vehemently opposes. His daughter Meadow finally finds out the truth of his real occupation on there trip to visit colleges. And his son A.J. is beginning to act out. Tony chalks it up to normal teenage mischief but the school is concerned that it may a personality disorder which drives Tony up a wall.
Junior is eventually named acting boss of the family and his feud with Tony has come to a stand still, for now. But Livia (Tony’s mom) finds out that Tony has been seeing a therapist through her conversations with A.J. She confides in Junior about the news as he is the only one who seems to understand her. They are unnerved at the prospect of him talking to an “outsider”. This leads Junior to attempt to consolidate power within the family, which means only one thing, he plans to murder Tony Soprano. All with the blessing of Livia too. Tony meanwhile has slipped into a chronic depression as he starts to feel the affects of the Lithium pills Dr. Melfi has prescribed. Junior contracts two outsiders to do the hit on Tony. The initial attempt on Tony fails as Christopher decides to follow him for protection. He inadvertently stops the attempt accidentally. The hit men try again, only this time Tony sees it coming just in time. In what is probably the best single moment of Sopranos (see Defining Moment below), Tony manages to fight off both men and barely escape with his life as one assailant accidentally shoots the other as Tony dodges the gun shot. He fights off the last assailant as he twist the gun barrel away from himself as he is speeding away in his car. Momentarily invigorated by cheating death, Tony loses sight of the road and crashes into a parked car, ultimately injuring his leg.
Back at the hospital, FBI Agent Harris tries to convince Tony to turn state’s evidence and go into Federal Witness Protection Program. Carmela likes the idea but Tony refuses to entertain it. He chalks it up to a simple car jacking. All the while Tony’s crew suspect something afoul with Junior and his motives.
No big twist, no massive cliffhanger. But shows this outstanding usually don’t need to rely on these common formalities for most TV shows. The finale really just wrapped up everything pretty nicely for everyone involved. Tony eventually is able to confirm what he suspected, both Junior and his mother were behind the assignation attempt by listening to the F.B.I. tapes of both them talking at the retirement home. Tony reveals to Dr. Melfi that she was right about his possible mothers involvement and suggests that she go away for awhile because her life is now in danger. I thought this finale had a chance to be great when Tony organizes the hit of Junior and some of his crew but that mostly falls apart through outside forces. While both Christopher and Paulie are able to whack Mikey Palmice (Junior’s right hand man) for Brendan’s murder, Junior and the rest of his crew end up being arrested by the F.B.I. for charges relating to a telephone calling-card and stock-fraud scams. Instead of death, Junior is offered a deal. He will let Tony be the real boss of the family in all but name, calling the shots behind Junior’s back as he sits jail. Tony even momentarily attempts to kill his mother but that falls through as he learns she suffered a stroke. As she is wheeled by, he tells her he knows what she did, he perceives her as smiling, he has to be restrained and proceeds to storm out.
Through all the turmoil of season 1, Sopranos season 1 ends with Tony and his family taking refuge in Nuovo Vesuvio (a friends restaurant) during a terrible thunderstorm. They dine with Silvio, Paulie and Christopher as Tony asks his family to appreciate the little moments that were good.